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What Makes An Expert Witness An Expert? Who Makes a Good Expert Witness?

Authored by attorney Edward E. (Ned) Nicholas, III

Under both Federal and Virginia state court rules, expertise may be gained by “knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education….” So theoretically a person with book knowledge but no practical experience may qualify as an expert. Likewise, a person with field experience but no relevant formal education may qualify as an expert. 

This flexible standard opens up many possibilities. For example, an experienced construction estimator should be able to qualify as an expert on estimating even if the estimator has classroom time in any construction course. Likewise, an experienced commercial painter without a high school diploma should be able to qualify as an expert on commercial painting.

The rules do not require the expert to be disinterested. So a party or an employee of a party may qualify as an expert. Most consider non-party experts to be more credible (even though they are often paid for their testimony), but in a low-dollar dispute a party expert may make sense. The advantage of qualifying as an expert is that the witness may give opinion testimony and even discuss hypotheticals.

The fact that many can qualify as an expert does not mean that any expert will do. In a matter involving a significant sum, selection of the appropriate expert can be critical. An expert with academic achievements and extensive in-the-field experience can trump and ivory tower expert. And an expert who can effectively communicate her opinions can tip the scales in your favor.

The selection process is important but the work really begins after selection. The expert must have time to devote to the assignment. Without a thorough review and analysis of the relevant information even the best expert will disappoint. And if expert reports must be exchanged with the opposing party, the expert must be able to carve out time to prepare a convincing piece of writing.  

These articles are meant to bring awareness to these topics and are not intended to be used as legal advice.


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