Persuasion Matters

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Education or Experience: Which Matters Most in An Expert Witness?

Have you ever hired an expert witness simply because he had more credentials than the other? Have you ever had a witness testify that had very little education but a lifetime of sweat equity?  I’m often asked which is more important: education or experience. My answer? It depends on the witness.

In 2009, Rasmussen conducted a phone survey to measure the public’s views on formal education. The results were quite interesting. A whopping 81% of Americans believed that more can be learned outside the classroom than inside, yet only 15% believed that “street smarts” were more important than “book smarts” when it comes to being successful in life.

How does this play out inside the courtroom?

In a recent breach of contract trial, the venire panel was asked to complete a short supplemental written questionnaire that included the following question: “Do you believe a person can develop expertise in a particular area through experience instead of formal education?” For me, the question seemed like a “gimme” as I expected the vast majority of jurors to say yes.  And that’s exactly what happened.  Most jurors find life experience, a solid work ethic, and good old-fashioned hard work to be valuable assets.  But is it enough?

In the case above, I had the pleasure of conducting post-trial interviews after the verdict and the feedback was overwhelmingly in favor of the Defendant’s expert.  Was this positive feedback related to the schools he attended or the letters after his name?  Nope.  The universal theme during juror interviews was this: Plaintiff’s expert simply did not have the depth of hands-on expertise that they had expected.  She was nice, and she brought experience to the table, but it just didn’t reach the level of detail and conviction that jurors needed.  Jury feedback centered on communication styles, the experts’s ability to effectively engage and persuade the jury, and the jury’s belief that one was more knowledgeable than the other.  Formal education, certifications, graduate schools and awards were never mentioned.

In an intellectual property trial, the Plaintiff’s expert blew Defendant’s expert out of the water.  Was she more educated?  No. Was she more experienced?  No.  In fact, on paper, the Defendant’s expert should have wiped the floor clean with this woman. But in the courtroom, she was an amazing communicator. The testimony related to the patents was extremely technical and detailed, but she did not shy away from using the technical terms; she owned the room. To this day I’m convinced that the jury really did not understand much of what she was saying, but they did understand how she said it: her visual aids were easy to understand, her voice was strong, her conviction clear and her passion contagious.  Even if jurors didn’t understand her content, they wanted to.

After interviewing thousands of mock jurors, shadow jurors and actual jurors I can’t tell you that every juror values “street smarts” more than “book smarts.”  Professionalism matters.  Demeanor matters.  Likeability matters.  Trustworthiness matters.  Assuming all other things are equal, if you’ve  got a “book smart” expert who struggles with effective communication battling a “street smart” expert who has an innate gift for storytelling and engaging the jury?  I’d put my money on the latter.

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