Expert Tips for the Success of Your Expert Business

If you are reading this, you are an expert in your field, the top of your class, all-knowing in all things listed in your Curriculum Vitae. But does knowledge and expertise alone make the expert? The groundwork is laid, and you are ready to embark on your expert journey. But do you really know how to manage your business when it comes to retention agreements, deposition scheduling, document management, proper attorney-expert (and attorney staff-expert) communications? Are you sure you have included all required elements in your expert report, and are positive it will stand up in court? Do you have the properly trained staff to handle the daily volume and manage your billing? So many more questions, but so little space here to cover it all. What I can offer in this space are a few key points and lessons learned from other experts and through my own experience in the management of my expert clients’ caseloads and billing.

Retainer Letters – Let’s start with retainer letters. Of course, this step comes after you have done all of the appropriate conflict checks and confirmed they have cleared. Always set forth in detail your rates and terms of engagement. Be sure to include a signature line for the attorney retaining you, along with a line indicating the party they represent. Make sure to check for all information and a date before you agree to commence work. Set forth the obligations with respect to deposition payment regardless of whether it is by the retaining firm or the opposing firm. Your retainer letter could also state that your offer to serve as an expert is withdrawn if the attorney does not sign and return the retainer letter within a certain number of days. Diary a follow-up system if you have not heard from the potential client because as time slips by, you may get work that conflicts with the retention. Your transmission email stating that the offer to serve is null and void if not returned within a certain timeframe could help avoid the issue of incomplete retainers laying around which could create other problems for you. Experienced attorneys understand that experienced experts expect their deposition fees to be unequivocally articulated and agreed to thirty days prior to going into the deposition.

Seal the Deal – Speed is everything in terms of obtaining expert assignments. The faster the expert returns incoming inquiries, the higher the likelihood of being retained. Commerce moves faster every year and experts are expected to be in sync with the increasing speed of business. Being an expert witness is like any business: you are either rising or declining. There is no such thing as simply handling a case now and then. So be accessible. Respond to incoming inquiries. Respond to incoming requests from your retaining attorneys ASAP. Respond to incoming phone calls ASAP. Your cell phone should be glued to your body because you need to be available for your clients 24/7.

Educate Your Staff – When your potential client, or retained client, contacts someone in your office they should know their role and stay in their lane. I recently spoke to a medical expert’s assistant to inquire as to fees and provide initial information to provide to the attorney for review. The assistant started asking question which were outside of the purpose of our call, and it gave me cause for concern. She wanted to know why the plaintiff was suing our client for an injury that he caused himself (on our client’s premises), whether we have researched the codes applicable to the gate, and other questions which had nothing to do with our retention of a medical expert. She went on to explain that the doctor has even researched codes for safety and other issues in the past to assist the defense. Needless to say, we did not hire this expert based on his assistant’s veering from the purpose of retention which gave us cause for concern for our inevitable future communications throughout the course of the case.

Technology is Key – Either hire a paralegal that can handle all forms of multi-media and ways incoming documents are provided or learn it yourself. Retaining attorneys are quick to decipher whether a potential expert is behind the curve in terms of speed and technology. You do not want to be that person. Be sure you and your team can accept documents in any and every form provided (Sharefile, Dropbox, OneDrive, make sure you have at least two of these subscriptions – preferably the latter two). Meet all deadlines and when the attorney says you only have a few weeks to prepare the report – your response should be “in litigation, this amount of time is a luxury.“ Remember to always ask the client whether or not they want a report and do not assume they do. Anything you write in draft can be discoverable.

Case Management – Maintaining a list of all documents as they are received is key for your case organization and eventually your report (if client requests one). In the beginning of the retention, the expert should obligate the retaining attorney and her staff to keep track of all documents provided and then to prepare the listing of documents reviewed at the time of an expert report. After all, the retaining attorney is in the best position to know and keep track of all such documents. However, be wary of relying on someone else to track your documents. You should also keep your own list (or have your paralegal handle) and before your deposition, compare to the retaining attorney’s list to ensure you have reviewed everything they listed and request anything missing from the list if found.

What is in Your File? – Privileged documents sometimes accidentally leak into your possession. Sometimes inexperienced staff, or maybe overwhelmed staff, will provide you with documents which might fall into the category of privileged and/or confidential. Did you receive a letter from the hiring attorney to their insurance agent client describing their valuation of the case? Did you receive a confidential summary to a mediator? What if you find a letter from the attorney to their personal injury or corporate client? I did that – once – in my early years as a paralegal, but never ever again. The case evaluation letter to our client was one of the items I provided to our expert for review. After all, I thought, it was the best outline of the case and our defenses. Needless to say, that mistake almost got me fired. Be alert and aware of those sensitive documents and correspondence which could become part of your file because every piece of information will need to be produced to the opposing side at the time of the deposition. Although it is not your job to police every document and paper handed to you, it is important to be aware of items which appear to contain attorney-client or confidential information. Everything you say, type, email, write, or speak into voice recordings which turn into typed voicemail is subject to production to the opposing side.

Prepare for Deposition – Deposition preparation takes time. As all experts know, appearing for a deposition is much like being a pre-pinch hitter in the major leagues. The expert has been paid a fair amount of money up until that time and perhaps they have written an extensive report, but the proof of true expertise is their performance during the deposition. Given that, you should require two full days between the deposition preparation and giving your deposition. Many have found it extremely valuable to have a day between the deposition and the preparation day. In other words, arrange for preparation on day one, a day in between, and then give your deposition on day three. Invariably there are issues and concepts that come up during the prep session that are complex enough that you will need time to wrap your mind around the new issues you may not have thought about in connection with the case.

The day in between gives you the time to do that.

Zoom depositions are becoming more common nowadays. Practice with Zoom and get used to using your screens. It may be helpful to simply put the entire screen off to the side or down in the lower corner. You can also have on your screen any documents or notes, obviously within the rules – that you need to use. Two monitors are probably better than one. Dress professionally, have an uncluttered backdrop (or blur your background), invest in an HD camera to connect to your laptop and make sure there are no dogs barking or loud noises in the background.

You have the expertise, education, and knowledge to succeed in this expert witness business. Get out and market yourself through expert witness affiliations and associations. Educate yourself on the applicable state and federal rules. There is a whole expert world out there waiting for you to conquer!

Shelly Zambo, FRP is the Vice Chair of the Florida Bar’s FRP Enrichment Committee and Chair of the Communications Subcommittee. She is the President of SZ Paralegal Services located in Miami and specializes in providing support to expert witnesses through document management, document and deposition summaries, billing, and other related expert witness support. Shelly’s background spans over thirty years as a Litigation Paralegal working in Florida in both State and Federal Courts. Shelly has assisted attorneys in numerous trials in the areas of personal injury, race industry, resorts, cruise industry, insurance carriers, and other areas of defense and plaintiff work. For more information, contact Shelly at 786-521-1338, or Website:



The Anatomy of a Paralegal

Navigating the paralegal waters is not an easy task or for the faint of heart. Just ask any experienced paralegal and they will gladly tell you their story of how they began their career and what it took to get where they are now. It takes grit and determination, willingness to take direction and accept criticism, a lot of patience, much persistence and excellent writing and typing skills. With these traits and skills, anyone can learn the art of “paralegaling” in today’s legal world.

The brain – The brain of a paralegal is a complex one. On one side is the logical mind which takes on a task by looking at what the attorney has asked it to do while the other side steps in and says, “Wait a minute! This request does not make sense with the tools available to find the answer!”

My early years in this business (at the tender age of 19) were challenging, to say the least, as I was not used to being asked to provide in-formation or documents without having been provided very much information (or no information at all). I recall working in my first paralegal job on a personal injury defense case. The partner asked me to provide all relevant documents supporting our defenses to our expert witness and I jumped in and gathered everything I could find that I identified as rel-evant to plaintiff’s claims, and which helped the defense of our case. The expert was loaded up with tons of information and was well prepared for his deposition. Upon the associate attorney’s return to the office the day of the expert’s deposition, he walked into my office, shut the door, and threw a sealed envelope on my desk saying, “I just saved your job today.” Looking at him in shock with my heart in my throat, I asked him, “Why, what did I do?” Fearing the response – but knowing the inevitable was coming – he explained that when they were introducing the expert’s file into evidence, one particular document was handed over to opposing counsel which was a complete case analysis and valuation of the claim which our attorney had written to our insurance adjuster client. The attorneys claimed privilege and pulled the document and placed it into a sealed envelope. All I wanted to do was to make sure the expert knew the whole back story of the case and how we were defending the claims; it made sense to me at the time to send him a comprehensive case analysis. Needless to say, I never made this mistake ever again and I repeat the story of my big mistake to anyone who is new to the business. The lesson here is to never take an instruction at face value and always ask for more direction if you are not sure. I wanted to be paralegal-extraordinaire, and it backfired.

The determination – If a paralegal is asked to do something she or he has never done before, the deter-mination factor sets in quickly. Any response which even resembles “I have never done that, so I do not know how to get that information,” is not acceptable. A paralegal’s role is to be creative in finding ways to obtain the information somehow, some way, and in a timely man-ner. When I was approached by an attorney to assist with obtaining service on a company located in Mexico (on a case which had prior counsel who was unsuccessful in achieving this feat), I sat and stared at my computer trying the think of all the ways someone could serve a company in Mexico that the other attorneys had not already tried. I looked at what they had previously done so I would not repeat their prior attempts, and hit the almighty internet searching for some answers. To start with, I found that international process servers can be a very good source of information, so I asked specific questions and worked my way through the procedures. It was in this endeavor that I found there are two ways to serve a Mexican entity: The Inter-American Convention and the Hague Convention. The Hague Convention is a more formal method and the one that holds up with more clout in court than the latter.

Let’s talk about hiring expert witnesses. Not only does a paralegal need to know the issues well enough to hire the appropriate expert (with the attorney and client’s blessing, of course), but the paralegal needs to BECOME an expert in order to properly handle what that expert needs to review in order to suffi-ciently prepare for the expert report and/or testimony. I never thought I would learn so much about build-ing codes, shoulder replacements, shipping of oxygen generators on a plane, auto race car construction, and so many more topics!

The stamina – Folks, take your vitamins daily and get your physical fitness in because you are going to need it! Whether you work in a litigation or transactional firm, your brain will be utilized to the max and your emotions will need to be constantly in check, or you will not survive the “biz”.

The heart – We feel for our clients and their legal battles. Sometimes it is more than just legal battles. It is facing the severe injuries they must live with as a result of a tragic accident, the loss of family members, and so many other tragic issues that result in litigation. No matter what side you are on, you have to be compassionate without being emotional. Sometimes, you must be tough enough to stand up against difficult personalities on the opposing side, or even personalities of the attorneys in your own firm!

The soul – This job takes all of your heart and soul. It can change your life, make you more aware of issues you never would have paid attention to before you started working in this career, and maybe even lead you to become an advocate for those who do not know how to navigate the “legal world.”

Just remember: always keep an open mind, listen to everything you hear in any meeting with your at-torney, take detailed notes, follow up (and do not wait to be told to follow up), and be diligent until you find answers you need in your case. But most of all, if you remember to keep your feet on the ground and work on every case like it is your first case, you will survive this crazy, amazing and exciting journey as a paralegal.

Shelly Zambo, FRP, is the Vice Chair of the Florida Bar FRP Enrichment Committee and Chair of the Communications Subcommittee. She is the President of SZ Paralegal Services, LLC located in Miami, Florida. Her paralegal career spans over thirty years in Miami for some of the country’s largest law firms. Her background is in civil litigation defense, specializing in personal injury, race car industry/race track matters, resort industry, aviation manufacture defense and complex commercial litigation at the state and federal levels. She is also on the marketing team for Cole, Scott & Kissane, where she has worked (and continues to work) as a paralegal for over twenty years.

This article appeared in the “FRP Times” Issue No. 3- which can be downloaded here:

Isolation Office

Well, it has been over a month now and I think I have fully settled into my daily COVID isolation home office routine. Since my 45 minute drive into the office is unnecessary, I can roll out of bed around 8:00 a.m., put on some makeup (on even days only), drag a brush through my hair (ok, my fingers), grab some coffee, and sit on the porch with my business partner, my dog Charlie. We watch the birds and squirrels play in the palm trees around my pool and my horse and chickens eating breakfast, until it is time to log on at 9:00 a.m. Alright, I will be honest, I do not start working until 9:30, but I am a part-time contract paralegal (did I mention I gave up benefits for this freedom?) and I only get paid for the time I bill out on my cases. That is a very fair trade, if you ask me.

Once I am online, it is game time. I can access my desktop remotely and my office phone transfers to my cell phone through an app. All of the case files are managed through ATO document management system and every document is accessible. It seems like I am right there sitting in my old office again until reality hits, and Charlie barks at the Amazon guy knocking on the door to let me know I have a package. My attention refocuses after this brief interruption and my workup on a file is moving smoothly until a cardinal starts ramming its head into my office window (“office” meaning front bedroom with my desk and printer in the closet with doors removed). Why do cardinals throw themselves into windows? Back to my isolation office story… My day goes by so quickly I almost forget to take a lunch break. With such a wide array of food choices, it is sometimes difficult to make a quick decision but luckily my husband is kind enough to tell me what to make for both of us. Charlie gets a few ball tosses and it is back to work. I send emails to the attorneys throughout the day to make sure they know I still exist.  I realize my productivity seems so much higher without the interruptions I usually get throughout the day (did I mention I am within earshot of my attorney’s office?). The day is finished by 5:00 p.m. and I feel very accomplished.

If I handle this home gig too efficiently, I can’t help but think I may have to relinquish my office to a full-timer after all of this is over. For some reason, that does not sound like such a bad thing.

For now, it is back to reality. We are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. This is just temporary. I will someday have a real-life, face to face lunch hour with my office buddies I miss so much. The downside is that I may not have an office after this is over.