Finding Your Confidence and Credibility: A Young Lawyer’s Take On Dealing With Experts
There is no doubt that our profession is becoming more diverse. I look around the courtroom and our NCAJ meetings and notice more women attorneys and attorneys of color than when I originally started practicing just five years ago. Before going to law school, I spent 10 years in D.C., and five years working at the American Association for Justice doing marketing for the CLE programs. Diversity was always something we were acutely aware of — we wanted to make sure the makeup of our programs accurately reflected our membership. I was fortunate enough to attend law school in Baltimore, where my graduating class was extremely diverse with a female majority. When I joined NCAJ and started practicing as a plaintiff’s trial lawyer, I went out of my way to seek out fellow women attorneys, and I have found great support and friendship in the Women’s Caucus.
But as the practice has gotten more diverse, one area I have noticed that has remained the same is the experts we hire. In my experience, they tend to be older white males who have gone to elite schools and have done very well in their chosen profession. As a result of this, I still to this day find myself getting nervous when I interact with my experts. Just this week, despite my five years of experience and doing dozens of initial calls with experts, I found myself getting nervous before talking to an expert on the phone. My stomach turned in knots, and I worried that he would not find me credible or take me seriously, that he would prefer talking to my boss instead. But this was my case and my client, not my boss’s. I had been the one poring over the medical records, the one who answered the client’s phone calls.
In the past, I have noticed that my nerves have affected my confidence and possibly affected my credibility with experts. Although I recognize that there are elements of bias and years of systemic sexism at work, I have however found some ways to ensure that my insecurities do not affect my credibility with my experts and to overcome the nagging feeling that I do not belong in the room with them. So this week, when I got nervous, I gave myself a little pep talk and made the phone call. I want to share these with you so that you will not make the same mistakes I have made, so that you might have more confidence, and so that you can give yourself a little pep talk and get on with your work.
Be an Expert Yourself
You know that you need to be prepared when you meet with an expert, but what you need to prepare and how you need to convey that can often be hard to figure out, especially for new lawyers. You might think you have done what you need to do to prepare and assume that the expert has understood you, but then you find out the hard way that you were wrong.
A year ago, I found myself frantically texting my boss in the middle of a deposition because I had failed to specifically explain in advance to my expert what I needed from him. I had mentioned my needs when we met before the deposition, but I had not explained them pointedly.
It is not easy to overcome that nagging feeling that you do not belong in a room or that you will come off as silly for asking questions. The more you prepare and practice, the more confident you will be in dealing with experts.
I do not know if he did not listen to me because I was a young female attorney or if he was just the type of expert who believed he knew everything. But I did recognize that I could have done a better job of building my credibility with him so that he would potentially listen more carefully to what I was telling him.
Being prepared for your experts goes beyond the basics of simply knowing your case, knowing the law and knowing how those things combine to affect your client. It is laying the foundation to show the expert you know these things, so that they will trust what you tell them. A good place to start is getting to know your expert’s past work. That will tell you their strengths and weaknesses and the best way to approach them about those. If you have not worked with the expert before, search the NCAJ Listserv archives for their name to see what others have said about them and if there are copies of their previous depositions. We often do this regarding the other side’s experts, but it is also worthwhile to do it with our own.
You want your expert to know from the initial contact that you are an expert on your case and knowledgeable in your area of practice. You do not need to be an expert in your expert’s field, but you do need to know enough about it to ask the right questions and to do your job. For example, if you are reaching out for an issue related to a specific rule, explain the rule to them, what it means and what the rule requires. Ask them questions to make sure they understand the rule and qualify under it. It might seem tedious, especially if you have a copy of their CV or they have already been vetted by someone else. You are doing this not only to make sure they are qualified, but also to demonstrate that you are an expert in this area. You are laying the foundation for them to trust you and your opinion on the Rules of Civil Procedure and Evidence in North Carolina.
When you meet with them after they have completed this review, you can start to get a feel for how they answer questions. Reinforce that you are an expert in this area and, hopefully, the information will begin to register with the expert, and they will understand its importance.
Show the expert that you are an expert on your case. Go through each document, confirm whether they reviewed it and whether it plays a key part in their opinion. If you think something is important, point it out. If they do not think it is important, have them explain why. This is good practice for the expert’s deposition, but also reinforces to them that you know your case, giving you credibility.
Your deposition preparation meeting with your expert is the time to cash in on the credibility you have earned. By this time, you should have enough credibility with them for them to respect and listen to your guidance.
Lean in to What You Do Not Know
While you need to be an expert in your own area, you also need to remember that you hired this person to be an expert in their area. Do not be afraid to speak up and ask about what you do not know. You will have already laid the foundation that you know what you are doing. Not knowing every detail of the expert’s field will not come off as a sign of weakness. When I first started taking expert depositions, I was often afraid to ask follow-up questions on basic matters that I did not know. If an expert used an acronym that I did not recognize, I did not want to look stupid, so I would just move on and Google it later. After reading some of my depositions, I realized that I needed to follow up on concepts that I did not know and not be afraid to look silly. Asking questions will teach you about your case and give you insight into your expert. Your expert needs to be a teacher for the jury. If they cannot explain things to you in a clear way, your expert likely will not be able to explain them to the jury. The best way to figure out if they can do this is to ask questions. It is better to determine early if your expert has trouble explaining your case, instead of in the middle of trial.
By asking your expert questions, you will also be able to see if your expert talks down to you when you ask questions. If they do, they are going to talk down to your jury. This is also better to learn early, instead of in the middle of trial.
If you have done a good job building up your credibility with your expert, they will react positively to your questions and be eager to teach you more about their field of expertise. This is the rapport you want with your expert, so that they will trust you when you give them guidance in preparation for their deposition.
It is not easy to overcome that nagging feeling that you do not belong in a room or that you will come off as silly for asking questions. The more you prepare and practice, the more confident you will be in dealing with experts. While you cannot fix an expert’s bias, you can be confident that you know your case and work toward building their confidence in you. The more you do this, the less you will feel like an imposter and the more you will feel like you belong. You do.
Go get them!