Finding Your Niche:  Growing as an Expert Witness

It may be hard to imagine today but sometime in the future you may find yourself with not enough work to keep you busy, especially when interest rates begin to climb. Even if you've reached a certain point in your practice and find that existing clients and word of mouth keep you relatively busy regardless of the market, it always makes good business sense to explore ways to diversify.

Providing appraisal and consulting services as an expert provides an opportunity to learn and grow intellectually as well as to generate handsome fees. Each assignment is different and provides a unique challenge. While this story is geared to appraisers, home inspectors are also finding greater opportunities as expert witnesses and many of these marketing tips apply to both professions. Here's how to get started growing as an expert witness.

Attorney Referrals

Over 90 percent of expert services result from attorneys who seek to hire and designate an “expert” appraiser.  One very effective method of landing this business borrows a technique from real estate agents called “farming.”  First you identify the attorneys who represent the type of clients you want to work for.  Next, you contact these attorneys in a systematic manner to let them know you provide expert services. We prefer to use written materials, personally addressed to each specific attorney.
 
Make a list of attorneys in a chosen area of interest. The easiest place to start is with family law attorneys. Appraisals for divorce actions are very similar to mortgage appraisals. In a typical action the husband and wife each hire their own appraiser. If there is a major difference in value, a third appraiser is hired. A good marketing approach is to tell an attorney that you are an experienced appraiser and have no bias. Ask him/her to present your credentials to the opposing side to see if you can act for both parties. Using only one appraiser provides a significant monetary savings for their clients and serves to expand your referral base by a factor of two.

There are directories that list attorneys by geographic location and by area of practice. You can find attorney directories in your area by searching the Internet under “attorney directories.”  The Internet also lists attorneys by area of specialization.
 
Contacting attorneys with written material has proven to be very effective in developing new business. If you have written any articles, include these as they make excellent “calling cards.”  If you have a website, you can point the attorney there to learn more about you and your company. If you don’t have a website, get one! It is a wonderful way to develop business and it can be created inexpensively.  Attorneys routinely check websites when they are seeking expert appraisers.

Areas of Expertise

Other areas that require specialized expert appraisals include: construction defects, trust and probate, stigma loss, eminent domain, temporary construction easements, water intrusion, mold, airport noise, inverse condemnation, regulatory takings, missed easements (title companies), fire, earthquake, and flood losses, business and intangible assets, good will valuations, ad valorem (tax), soil subsidence, contaminated property, tenant disputes (leasehold and leased fee estates), partitionment (termination of partnerships, marriages, etc.), partial interest appraisals, removal of lateral support, bankruptcy (“Fair” Value), gift appraisals for donations to charities or state parks, etc.

This list covers most of the areas where experts are needed. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into detail about each of these issues.  They are considered in some detail in several courses offered by McKissock Appraisal Schools: The Appraiser as Expert Witness and Real Estate Damages: Assessment and Testimony. (You can receive discounts on all McKissock coursework through the OREP Education Network. To learn more and enjoy the discount, use the link at OREP.org. Once there, click Benefits and then OREP Education Network.)
 
You could make a good start by sending a letter to various attorneys explaining that you provide expert appraisals in (some) of the areas listed above. Attorneys keep such letters for years.  Last year we were retained on a case by an attorney who had a letter we sent seven years ago. The same is true of your website. We average about one case per month in new business from our website alone.

Visit your Local Bar

All attorneys belong to a BAR Association that provides continuing education and social events.  Appraisers wanting expert witness assignments can set up tables with business development materials and talk to attorneys before and after BAR meetings. Developing and presenting courses to attorneys is very effective for generating business. Attorneys, like appraisers, need a minimum number of continuing education credits for license renewal. Presenting courses to them for continuing education (MCLE) shows you in your best light and always results in business. MCLE courses need to be approved by the appropriate BAR association but it is not difficult to obtain. Contact your local BAR Association and they will provide guidelines for course approval.
 
Some possible topics for attorney continuing education are: “Using the Appraiser as Expert Witness,” “Pitfalls to Avoid when Using an Appraiser as Expert Witness,” “How Post Repair Stigma is Calculated,” “When to Depose Appraisers” (after all the other experts, as we rely on their opinions).
 
For large firms, you can present continuing education courses in-house.  A luncheon meeting in which you are the speaker works very well.

Bench Press

It is becoming more common for judges to appoint experts from the bench when there is wide disagreement between the plaintiff and defense experts.  The techniques for developing business discussed in the attorney section also apply to judges. Getting to know judges personally is a good way to gain insight about how to approach them. When judges retire they often become mediators and arbitrators and can be very good sources for business.  The appraiser can also recommend retired judges when performing insurance appraisals for losses due to fire, earthquakes, natural disasters, etc.

Professional Organizations and other Experts

There are national, state and local forensic (i.e. pertaining to the law) organizations which are excellent sources of business. Usually these groups are comprised of experts from all fields. Making friends and forming relationships with experts in other fields can greatly increase your referral business. You can often obtain referrals from other appraisers who have a conflict of interest or are unable to perform a certain assignment for a client.
 
Business appraisers also are excellent sources for referral business. Becoming familiar at your local chapter of the American Society of Appraisers is a smart move. You could consider some joint advertising where you are the real property person, someone else is the business appraiser and others handle specialty appraisals on equipment, machinery and the like.
 
Architects often are the experts who assist attorneys manage cases that consist of numerous homes or large commercial centers.  If forensic architects feel comfortable with you and consider your work professional, they can make some excellent referrals.
 
General contractors are often hired on a case before the attorney thinks of hiring an appraiser.  We have found general contractors to be an excellent source of referral business.

Writing Articles

One of the best sources of business is writing articles for professional journals, especially those which are read by attorneys.  The combination of a well-considered letter accompanied with a brief article is a very powerful means to get attorneys to call you. Not many appraisers write articles and books but it is one of the best calling cards you can have.

Advertising

Effective advertising is a very good source of business.  Forensic consulting groups often publish a directory of experts and then mail them to thousands of attorneys.  Placing an ad highlighting the areas of expertise mentioned above can result in considerable business. There are journals that will include you as an expert for a fee.  The same verbiage used in the forensic consulting publication should be used here also.

On Air Expert

Depending upon where you live and work, local radio and television shows often feature real estate experts. Being on radio and/or television puts you light years ahead of the competition.  This is not for everyone but if you have the voice and/or appearance, being the resident expert for real estate and appraisal issues gives you a great deal of free publicity and name recognition. Having such a background on your CV (Curriculum Vitae i.e. resume) will make attorneys take notice.
 
The author is aware that most of you reading this article are currently swamped with business performing appraisals for refinance and sales. However, it is a good idea to plan for the future and to be thinking about where you would like your business to be in the future.  An expert witness has an incredible variety of assignments that challenge one intellectually and creatively.  Why not expand your horizons?