By Dr. James M. Dahle, WCI Founder
One of the most natural side gigs for a physician is to become a medical expert witness. By virtue of their education, training, and experience practicing in the field, most physicians already have all of the knowledge they need to pick up this lucrative work. It has the potential to pay more than your clinical work with far less hassle, less risk, and no nights, weekends, or holidays! Aside from the compensation, doing medical expert work can assist you with burnout and even make you a better doctor. The work ranges from quick chart reviews and answering a few questions for the attorneys to spending long periods of time in court testifying.
Getting Started as a Medical Expert Witness
Despite the large size of the physician community, the size of the expert witness community is actually quite small. The same docs tend to be called upon to be witnesses again and again. So how do you break into this community? There are really four ways:
- Get someone to recommend you
- Get yourself on “the list”
- Cold call attorneys
- Put up a website
Once you have done a gig or two, getting more business tends to be a word-of-mouth thing. Attorneys ask their colleagues who they have used and then use the same docs. But up until that point, the only way to get business is to have someone else refer you. So if you know any docs in your field doing this work, ask them to offer you up for any gigs they don't have time for or interest in. If you don't know anybody, you can look up cases done by experts in your specialty and contact those docs to express interest.
There are lists of medical witness experts kept by professional organizations and attorneys. Once you find the keeper of the list, you usually simply need to ask to be placed on it. While this will result in some cold calls/emails to solicit your business, isn't that what you are looking for?
Third, you can advertise your services directly to attorneys simply by sending a letter of interest, CV, and a fee schedule. The malpractice attorney community is not that large. You can send them all letters letting them know you are available. You can volunteer for boards such as the professional licensing board in your state. Our board is in charge of all pre-litigation reviews and is always looking for help.
Finally, you can simply put up a website advertising your services and credentials.
Some people feel tacky advertising their services and worry that people will think the medical witness work is more important than their clinical work. But this is the business world. If you want to be successful at it, you need to put in some work. It will be a long time before you have enough work to replace your clinical work, even if you wanted to. You can always start turning down work (or better yet, raising your prices) once you have enough work.
Understand the Rules Medical Expert Witnesses Have to Follow
Some states have very specific rules for who can be an expert witness. For example, you might have to practice in the same specialty in that state for a number of years. There is no sense taking a case when you don't qualify to take it all the way to the courtroom. You can learn more about state-specific rules here.
Get Paid in Advance as An Expert Witness
Unfortunately, most doctors learn this rule the hard way. Thankfully, most only have to learn it once. Don't do a thing until you get paid. Attorneys (or insurance companies, depending on who is paying) are notorious for paying late, needing to be bugged multiple times to pay you at all, or not paying as agreed. Ask for a retainer upfront. Perhaps $2,000 to start. Be clear about whether that retainer will go toward your hourly rate or whether it is simply a “starting bonus.” Make sure to clarify if any of the retainer is refundable or not. If it goes toward your hourly rate, stop working until you get more money. If it doesn't go toward your hourly rate, ask for a certain number of hours to be paid before doing work. All your pay comes upfront. Even if you need to refund some of the money, at least you are in control and they're the ones having to bug you to get their money.
Expert Witness Salary – What to Charge for Expert Witness Fees
You should put together a medical expert witness fee schedule in advance to provide to attorneys or insurance companies inquiring about your work. Your rate should be higher than what you make clinically. You can charge a lower rate for prep time or travel time than time actually spent doing depositions or testifying in court if you want. It would not be unusual for you to make a high three-figure or even a four-figure hourly rate doing this work. See this survey for a ballpark idea of what you can charge, but it's like any business. If you need more business, charge less. If you have too much business, charge more. Hourly rates range from $100 to $2,500, with a median and average of around $500.
How Much Do Medical Expert Witnesses Get Paid?
A fee schedule for Medical Expert Witnesses can be very simple. It might look like this:
Medical Expert Witness Fee Schedule for Dr. Smith
All work must be paid in advance
Retainer: $4,000, non-refundable
Hourly rate is in addition to the retainer. It will be paid in advance in 20 hour increments but will be refundable for any hours not used.
- Preparation work: $400/hour
- Travel time: $300/hour
- Deposition and testifying in court: $600/hour
Expedite fee: Add 20% to hourly rate for any work that must be completed in less than 72 hours
Ask What They Want Done
Some attorneys just want your opinion. They do not need you to do a literature review or create any sort of report. If that is the case, do not write anything down. Anything you write down becomes discoverable in court. So, clarify from the very beginning what they want done.
Review every page of records you are sent, even seemingly irrelevant nursing or medication records. If there are records you would like to see but are not included, ask for them. While this does result in you having more billable hours, in court you will be responsible for knowing everything about the case that there is to know.
Just like if you were being sued, any conversation you have about the case becomes discoverable. Your friend doesn't want to be subpoenaed to testify about what you discussed. Don't be an idiot and post details on social media or discuss them in the doctor's lounge either.
Expert Witnesses Should Expect to Get Grilled in Court
Just like if you were the defendant, the opposing attorney wants to make you look like a schmuck to undermine your credibility. Expect some hard questions such as:
- How long you have been practicing
- How many of these kinds of cases or patients or procedures you have done
- How much of your time is spent on medical expert witness work
- What you are being paid to be there
- Explain why you are an expert
- Whether you do both defense and plaintiff work and if not, why not
If these sorts of questions are uncomfortable for you, you're not going to like this work and you're certainly not going to get any repeat business. So practice answering them before you go in.
You Are in Charge
Remember you don't have to take any case that you don't want to do. Nobody can make you testify against your colleague and if an attorney is pressuring you to give anything other than your honest opinion, you can simply walk away. Remember what the standard of care is:
Would it be reasonable for a physician with similar training and experience in the same situation to do what the defendant did?
If so, the standard of care is met. If not, it wasn't. You will be expected to provide an opinion, one way or the other, about this question. Don't take a case unless you are willing to take it all the way to court and testify under oath about your answer to the standard of care question.
If this sort of opportunity is interesting to you, we recommend a course put together by one of our partners called Expert Witness Start-up School. Here is some more information about it:
If you’re a physician looking to start an expert witness practice to make more money and create financial security, you can do it:
- In weeks (not months or years)
- On YOUR schedule
- With skills you already have
Non-clinical income can be a key strategy to achieve financial freedom when even physicians are receiving pay cuts at best and at worst are becoming unemployed, even in the midst of a pandemic. It’s unbelievable, but financial instability can quickly become reality for many physicians, even within a matter of weeks.
What if you could leverage your skills as a physician to help create additional financial security that you can control? With additional income as a tool, how might you adjust your clinical schedule to best meet your personal and professional goals? How could your job make your ideal life possible?
What do you think? Have you done any expert witness work? Did you like it? What did you charge? Would you recommend it to your colleagues? Comment below!