A conversation with... George Lewellen: The Inside scoop on being an expert witness
Lewellen's list of credits is long, starting with serving the country as a Marine during the volatile 1960s. Then he earned a bachelor's degree in accounting from San Jose State University. But 1977 was truly pivotal year in his career path. That was the year he became a licensed CPA, earned his Doctor of Jurisprudence from the San Francisco Law School, and passed the California state bar exam. Since then he has served on the U.S. Tax Court and on the U.S. Trustee Panel of Chapter 11, become a Certified Valuation Analyst, taught accounting at Shasta College in Redding, California, and earned a reputation as a coveted speaker. He also served the local community through various organizations, including two terms as president of the Shasta County Economic Development Corporation.
When he first passed the CPA exam and the bar, he had a choice to make. In California, individuals cannot practice law and accounting at the same time. At that time, the accounting industry was thriving, so he opted to work for a small CPA firm in San Francisco, which happened to be active in litigation support. Lewellen's foundation in law made him an especially valuable asset to Bay Area attorneys who needed a financial expert to shore up their cases. Though he continued public accounting, he discovered that what he loved most was serving as an expert witness, especially the project aspect of the work. "It's intense, but it's fun because when it's over, it's over. There's no need to revisit it."
What is Involved in Being an Expert Witness?
When Lewellen is hired by an attorney, it's his job to understand all of the facts, then point out the weaknesses concerning the financial aspects of the case. That way, he can keep the attorney from being blindsided in cross-examination. By poring over all the facts, he knows that he can deal with anything that comes up when the opposing attorney's expert witness testifies before the jury.
In the courtroom, Lewellen views his role as an instructor of the jury. Few members of the jury understand the numbers that the lawsuit hinges on, for example, a calculation of lost wages in an injury case. He walks them through everything, explaining how judgments are made so that the jury understands the numbers -- such as lost wages – are not pulled out of thin air. Once he has presented all the information in jargon-free language, he finishes with, "And here's my conclusion." Then, he says, he likes to look the jurors in the eyes to determine if he's made a connection.
"Expert witness CPAs need to be advocates for their opinion," he says, "not for the client. You have to be as objective as possible. What we bring to the table is credibility. The jury must be able to see that we are objective in our analyses. If they sense that we are trying to tilt the outcome, we lose credibility."
That's where truly understanding the whole case is key. Not only does it make him better able to support the attorney, but it also showcases the fact that he did his job very well. For a business like his that grows by referral, that's vital.
Tips for Would-be Expert Witnesses
Accountants who would like to become CPA expert witnesses, need to know that it takes time to gain the trust of attorneys. After doing considerable expert witness work in San Francisco, when Lewellen moved his practice north to Redding, California, he had to establish a reputation with local attorneys by taking smaller cases, like pension valuation.
"It isn't that attorneys aren't good at reading financial statements," says Lewellen. Some are better than others, but the stakes are too high even for those with a good grasp of the financial elements. Even when the attorney fully understands the financial details, he or she may need help getting the facts before the jury. Lewellen deals with that by telling the attorney ahead of time, "Ask me this question." That gives him the opportunity to lay out the facts.
In a typical testimony, says Lewellen, the attorney he works with will ask open-ended questions so that there is room to elaborate. On the other hand, the other attorney wants to keep facts that conflict with his or her case from being heard. "The opposing attorney's job isn't to get at the truth, it's to confuse the issues, to make us look bad, and to imply that whatever data we looked at, it was the wrong information." Often the questions of opposing attorneys do not follow a logical path, since that is not the goal, Lewellen explains. Their job is to cause confusion, and when they do, it's up to the expert witness to drag the conversation back to the facts to establish logic. A common question from the opposing attorney is, "Isn't it possible that this might have happened instead?" To that, Lewellen's standard answer is, "Are you asking me if it is probable, or just possible?" That's how, without saying it, he alerts the jury to watch out for trickery.
Lewellen has one last piece of advice for would-be expert witnesses: Don't fear the witness stand. The idea of being bombarded by questions is daunting for most people, he says. But the way around that is to study all the facts, inside and out. That way, a good expert witness provides an invaluable service, eliminating the "trial by ambush" aspect that can happen when the participants are less well prepared. "Once you've done that, the process is actually fun," says Lewellen. "There is nothing to fear. It's a contest you can win with preparation."