The “So What” Question and Expert Testimony – How to Effectively Qualify an Expert Witness

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At trial, while some facts in evidence speak for themselves, most of the time, evidence is compelling because of how we, as attorneys, use it.

Take the case where the oldest child has acted in the caretaker role for her younger siblings. That fact, in and of itself, does not necessarily tell us much from the outside.

If I am mother’s attorney, however, I might use that fact to argue:

My client has worked hard to create a close-knit family where her children support one another. She has taught her oldest daughter the skills she needs to develop her own sense of independence and given her the safe space to practice those skills while still being supported at home.

On the other hand, as the agency’s attorney, I may use the same fact to assert:

This child is parentified, taking on the responsibilities that her mother has dumped onto her shoulders.

Same exact fact . . . yet our use of that fact makes all the difference. At a baseline level, our ability to be effective advocates in the courtroom rests on our efforts to answer the “So what?” question that comes with each and every piece of evidence.

The Impact of Expert Witnesses

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Our challenge to answer the “So what?” question is particularly present in our use of expert witnesses. Every day, our media outlets flood our consciousness with “experts” of every kind—political experts, sports experts, fashion experts, social media experts—you get the idea. Many of these experts are almost self-appointed. So what does that mean for the word “expert”? How does someone get to be an “expert” in our legal system? How do we add value to our expert witness testimony so that we satisfy the “So what?”that follows the expert witness qualification?

Despite the sometimes common use of the word “expert” in our day-to-day experience, we still tend to give credence to the opinions of those with that winning title. There are even studies that show that labeling someone an expert makes that person more confident in their position and more dogmatic in their thinking. The label itself has an impact.

The same is true in our legal system. Expert witnesses, unlike lay witnesses, can offer their opinions based on their scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge. Expert testimony is often given greater weight by the finder of fact. Point: Being an expert matters.

You are preparing for a big trial. You identify a witness that you plan to qualify as an expert. Unfortunately, that pestering question still remains: So what? Just like the other facts in your case, you need to know how to use the expert witness’s status to best advocate for your client’s position in the case.

Effective Expert Witness Qualification

Here are some tips to answering the “So what?” question and effectively qualifying an expert witness in a meaningful way:

Tip 1: There are three basic steps to qualifying an expert witness:

  • Introduction – identifying the witness and his or her relationship to the case.
  • Topics for qualification – demonstrating why the witness gets expert status.
  • Tendering the witness – the magic words needed to make the witness an expert.

You can’t skip any of these if you want your witness to gain expert status.

Tip 2: Remember! A witness can be qualified to give expert testimony based on any one of five criteria: Skill, Knowledge, Education, Experience, OR Training. Your witness doesn’t need to satisfy all five. To get the expert status, you just need one. That said, don’t stop showing just how much of an expert your expert really is. Not all experts are created equal. Many of our expert witnesses can satisfy the expert witness qualifications across most, if not all, criteria. Design your qualification questions to bring out information from as many key areas of expertise as possible.

Tip 3: Be strategic in your labels. Tie the witness’s qualifications to a specific area of testimony at issue in your own case. For example, if you are questioning an emergency room physician who also happens to serve on the hospital’s child protection team, perhaps you will qualify that witness as an “expert in the diagnosis of child abuse“, as opposed to an “expert in emergency medicine.” If not all experts are equal, think about how you are answering the “So what?” question and enhancing your expert’s testimony by the label you choose.

Tip 4: Don’t stipulate to a witness’s expertise unless it serves your case. Sure, maybe opposing counsel is offering to stipulate and it would save you a lot of time in your questioning. But do you want the finder of fact to just hear “expert in substance abuse treatment” or do you want her to hear about your witness’s twenty years of experience, significant educational background, and knowledge in the area?

Tip 5: Even if we satisfy one of the expert witness qualifications, the rest of our qualification questions go to the credibility of our witness. Give the finder of fact the ability to weigh expert witnesses against one another by providing ample information as to why your expert knows what she is talking about in this case.

Tip 6: Keep in mind that qualifying an expert witness is just the first step. In order for our witness to give their opinions based on their expertise, FRE 702 (and your local state rules of evidence) requires us to show that:

  • Their testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
  • Their testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
  • The expert has reliability applied the principles and methods to the facts of this case.

This additional information helps you to use your expert witness in the most effective way possible to support your case.

As you prepare for trial, continually ask yourself “So What?” as you think through your evidence. Effective qualification of an expert witness answers this question, allowing for a more persuasive and powerful presentation of your position.


Note: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NACC.

About Betsy Fordyce

Betsy Fordyce, a Child Welfare Law Specialist, joined the NACC as a staff attorney after seven years as a guardian ad litem with the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, where she represented youth in both dependency & neglect and delinquency cases across the Denver metro area. During her time at the Children’s Law Center, Betsy also served as the Director of Appellate Advocacy, filing briefs and participating in oral arguments before Colorado appellate courts, and the Director of Advocacy Initiatives, developing new advocacy programs and potential legislative solutions for older youth in the foster care system. Since 2012, Betsy has taught Child Advocacy Law as an adjunct professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. Betsy earned her B.A. from the University of Notre Dame and her J.D. from Villanova University School of Law. Following graduation, she served as a law clerk for Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey of the Colorado Supreme Court. Betsy is particularly passionate about incorporating principles of positive youth development, youth engagement, and youth voice into the practice of child welfare. In her spare time, Betsy enjoys hiking, reading, exploring new restaurants in town, and of course, cheering loudly for the ND Fighting Irish football team (even during the rough seasons!).

3 Comments
  1. It is interesting for me to look at how eye witness accounts are helpful in a legal system. I think that it is important to be able to look at all testimony of a crime. This helps give a fuller picture of what actually happened.

  2. CPS caseworkers are granted carte blanche expertise status in child welfare hearings when anything passes for evidence in family courts. These unlicensed “professionals” cause more harm than good. Second in line are the GAL attorneys who take these contracts to round out their business and criminal defense caseloads Tell me how any attorney acting in a child’s best interest can do so while ignoring and disrespecting birth parents? Most don’t even speak to the parents, but by God, they know what’s best for children, don’t they?

  3. I agree with Hazel that expert witnesses are very much helpful as they are one of the winning factors of the case. Their expertise and experience in a field makes them valuable to be called expert witness. The testimony they develop is due to his/her familiarity with the subject or special training in the field.

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