Don’t fall for Baron Munchausen

‘Never call yourself an expert,’ the saying goes. Like ‘guru’, it’s a term you should let others apply to you. That makes sense from a credibility point of view and helps you stay grounded. No one likes a braggart, after all.

For expert witnesses, though, there’s a double risk, both for the expert and for the legal firm hiring them. People react to recognition and status in strange ways. Many view being an expert witness as a career pinnacle. Which lawyer hasn’t come across an expert ready to share opinions about most things with great confidence?

An inflated ego encourages pontification on areas outside one’s competence. This condition even has a name, Nobelitis, in tongue-in-cheek recognition of Nobel laureates who embrace wacky ideas, seemingly believing the award grants them general superpowers beyond their domain. Listening to lawyers’ anecdotes about experts straying off topic over the years, we submit that ‘expertitis’ might also be a thing.

      Baron von Münchhausen’s flight on a cannonball, engraving from August von Wille (1828-1887)


On a recent case, one of our own experts recounted a chat he’d had with his opposite number during a break. The other expert had waxed lyrical about his own position and influence on a project he’d been involved in the year before. In fact, that project was in distress and was one we’d been tasked with turning around. During a quick call back to base, our expert mentioned it. The team could barely remember the other expert, let alone anything he’d done to influence the job’s successful outcome. Yet, to the uninitiated, it was confident rhetoric.

This project wasn’t the subject of the dispute, and naturally, the other side’s expert didn’t know ours had been involved—further proof he was exaggerating his own role. But that project was germane to his expertise, so we had our expert tell his legal team about it, who requested we supply some general info on the project in case counsel wanted to question him about it—which they did. The expert wasn’t quite so confident when he was challenged about his role under oath.

There’s a subtle tension here. If all experts are supposed to ‘stay in their lane’, you may miss out on their valid insights. Some genuinely have pertinent experience or an appreciation for the case beyond their own domain. Many of ours have been exposed to project findings from our broad project knowledge base, both from the delivery side and on dispute resolutions.

For the law firm, it’s hard to identify unwarranted confidence. And it’s too late if you don’t find out till game day. We encourage our experts to highlight their areas of concern, verbally and in their reports. But they should be able to back up their opinions. To avoid picking a Baron Munchausen, come to us first and we’ll spare you the courtroom drama.


[Image credit: Baron Munchausen, on Wiki Commons. US public domain expired]