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Expert Spotlight: Statistical evidence from the classroom to the courtroom

Principal Chris Bennett has a PhD in economics and began his career as an Assistant Professor in Economics at Vanderbilt University. Here he discusses his training in econometrics, his expertise in statistical evidence, and his transition from the classroom to the courtroom.

Q. You’re an economist but you’ve published in top journals in statistics. How does that happen? 

A. In graduate school, I focused on econometrics, which is the intersection of statistics and economics. So I have particular expertise developing and applying statistical methods to obtain data and extract information from them. I have applied this expertise to problems in economics and finance—such as how to forecast loan performance or identify the effects of information disclosures on stock prices—but the tools I’ve developed along the way are also useful to experts and practitioners in other fields. This is why some of my research has appeared in general interest statistics journals.  

Q. How has your prior experience and training helped you in economic consulting?

A. As an academic econometrician, I specialized in methods to collect, analyze, and present statistical evidence. I continue to use many of the same methods in my work today—for example, I use statistical sampling to gather data (evidence) and regression and other techniques to analyze them. The difference is that now my work is more likely headed for a courtroom than a classroom or an academic journal.

Q. What is one of the more difficult challenges in your work?

A. It’s one thing to identify a misuse of statistics. It’s an entirely different thing to explain it to judges and juries. While this is often one of the most challenging parts of my work, it’s also among the most rewarding. In a number of cases I have received praise from colleagues and attorneys not only for identifying flaws in proffered statistical evidence but more importantly for illuminating these flaws in ways that judges and juries can understand and appreciate.

Q. How did you land your first testifying opportunity?

A. My first testifying opportunity actually came about somewhat organically. I had been working as a consulting expert on a fairly long-running matter and, over time, the attorneys I was working with began to appreciate the inherent complexity of the work I was doing and my ability to explain it clearly. They believed in me enough to give me my first expert witness opportunity, and I ultimately ended up testifying in court. I’m happy to report that it all went well: the judges accepted our parties’ work as the principal basis for the award, and the same clients retained me again for expert work on a sister case.

Q. Is there any part of your trial or deposition experience that stands out for you?

A. My favorite moment was at a trial before the Copyright Royalty Board when the chief judge interrupted my cross-examination and asked me to help her better understand a questionable statistical analysis that another expert was relying on for the instant matter and also for a separate matter in her courtroom. It was clear in that moment that the judges were grappling with how to weigh this statistical evidence, and it was tremendously rewarding to have the chief judge seek my opinion on the issue.

Q. Lastly, there’s a rumor about you getting a thumbs up “on the record” at an opposing expert’s deposition. What’s that about?

A. I’ve helped a number of attorneys depose other (opposing) expert witnesses by preparing lines of questioning and attending depositions to help evaluate responses and prepare follow-up questions in real time. In one particular case, an academic expert was being deposed, and I passed a question to the deposing attorney, who immediately recognized how piercing it was and gave me a thumbs up as he read it. I was pleased, but it was clear that the expert didn’t like the question or its delivery, responding, “I’d like the record to reflect that the attorney is giving the thumbs up to his consultant.” It’s admittedly a strange way to be memorialized in a legal record, but it makes for an entertaining story, and I still smile when I think back on this. I have also endeavored to get at least one thumbs up at every deposition since, though not necessarily on the record.  

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