by Kristin Todd
Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help you God?
If you are a forensic economist testifying as an expert witness, choose your words wisely. Don’t forget to be well-spoken, intelligent, charismatic and unbiased as you present a hopefully error-free analysis of economic damages. After all, there are only millions of dollars and people’s lives at stake. No pressure.
Dr. Kent Gilbreath, professor of Economics, has taught at Baylor for 34 years; however, his forensic economics class is a new addition. The class was offered for the first time in the 2007 spring semester.
“It started as an experimental class,” Gilbreath said. “Forensic economics is a fairly new academic field.”
The study of forensic economics applies economic theories to litigation involving public interest disputes; such as employment discrimination, and private interest disputes; such as breach of contracts and other torts. Only six universities in the country have offered a class in forensic economics to students, and Baylor now joins this movement.
Robert Ayers, a Katy senior, said the class is anything but routine.
“The semester is filled with case studies from Dr. Gilbreath’s extensive work history, guest speakers, recruiting employers and depositions; it is truly something new and exciting each day of class,” he said.
The class requires more than just the analysis of numbers, and students are encouraged to think outside the box.
“Forensic economics forces its practitioners to find creative solutions to complex problems,” Ayers said.
Gilbreath said the class is designed for pre-law and business consulting students, accounting students that go into litigation support, or students who hold a general interest in the legal and political systems.
That doesn’t mean students in other fields of study can’t benefit from forensic economics. Nicole Anderson, a Pasadena, California junior, experienced the class as a marketing major.
“When I noticed flyers up around the business school advertising the new forensic economics class, I immediately signed up because I knew Dr. Gilbreath would be a wonderful teacher, and the class sounded interesting,” Anderson said. “One aspect of the class I could apply to my major was how you could market yourself as an expert witness and have a successful practice.”
Through the class curriculum, Gilbreath proves there is more to litigation than meets the eye.
“Being an effective witness is an art,” he said.
Gilbreath, who was selected as a Piper Professor of 2007 for superior teaching, draws on his 29 years of courtroom experience to impact his students’ learning. His students receive the opportunity to see forensic economics in action by attending local trials where he serves as an expert witness.
“Dr. Gilbreath gave us the opportunity to watch him testify as an expert witness in both depositions and court cases, which I consider to be invaluable and unique experiences in understanding intricacies involved in a case,” Anderson said.
Attending the trials gives students a glimpse of courtroom proceedings and serves as a sensory experience.
“The students see the issues lawyers face and how to respond effectively to them,” Gilbreath said. “It’s about dealing with uncertainty and grappling with unanticipated issues.”
As a class project, Gilbreath allowed students to create their own cases to understand how to properly prepare an assessment of economic damages as if they were going to present their reports at trial.
“Many cases serve as illustrations I can tell students about first-hand,” he said. “The cases are interesting, but the real essence of the course is assessing damages and calculating them.”
“I told the students to make themselves their own client,” he said. “This involves them in assessing the economic value of their own lives. Students analyzed aspects of lost income, lost household services and loss of benefits as applied to their cases.”
Lloyd Franklin, a Grand Prairie junior, is an accounting major who found the project beneficial.
“Using the techniques we learned from Dr. Gilbreath and the text, we calculated economic damages that resulted from a tort,” he said. “Dr. Gilbreath gave us the freedom to determine our own scenarios. Our reports were complex enough to withstand the scrutiny of another forensic economist, and simple enough to communicate the economic loss to a jury.”
The projects underwent further evaluation as students offered each other constructive criticism when reports were presented in class.
“Constructive criticism of our projects was very helpful as we tried to strengthen our reports,” Franklin said. “Suggestions given to me by Dr. Gilbreath and my classmates helped me recognize that I could make more accurate calculations that were based on better assumptions.”
Franklin, who plans on becoming a certified public accountant, said the class helped him better understand legal matters.
“Our many class discussions about a variety of torts made me realize that, in the real world, we must be aware of the economic damage our actions can cause,” he said.
Gilbreath further explored his subject through collaboration with his nephew, Robert B. Gilbreath, a practicing attorney in Dallas, in a paper entitled “Working Together: Some Practical Advice for Lawyers and Forensic Economists.” The paper was published in Litigation Economics Digest, a journal of the National Association of Forensic Economics.
Overall, the paper examines both the art and the science of forensic economics regarding when to employ an economics expert, effective presentation in the courtroom, jury expectations about economics experts, and other issues relating to the work of economists and attorneys. Gilbreath specifically notes the importance of appointing an economics expert. This appointment “brings closure to the goal of almost every civil action-providing legitimacy or illegitimacy of the damages sought in the case.”
Through the application of his interactive teaching methods combined with real-world trial experiences for students, Gilbreath hopes they gain an understanding of the importance of forensic economics in our justice system.
“I want them to see the academic application not as an abstraction, but as it is actually used in the real world,” he said. “There are few absolute answers in the business and legal worlds, and students must observe the process of compromise in conflict.”
As Gilbreath raises his right hand to testify as an economics expert, he encourages his students to raise their hands as well – in the classroom, that is. Gilbreath uses the Socratic teaching method in his class for encouraging student participation and information retention.
Anderson said she found the method to be conducive to learning the class material.
“Being asked questions not only helped us engage more fully in the class, but also created an environment which was open to learning and encouraged other questions by peers,” she said.
“They learn to understand and articulate their ideas, which is what you have to do in the courtroom,” Gilbreath said. “They also learn from their mistakes without the lessons being too costly.”
And it’s a safe bet that the benefits of Gilbreath’s forensic economics class will far outweigh any costs.
Baylor Business Review, Fall 2007