on November 17th, 2010

Dear Colleagues

The splatter of body parts and guts in the nightly feast of crime and police shows has made forensics a household name. And the emphasis today has shifted to high tech forensic methods which make the scientist and engineer a key individual in solving some dastardly crime. A few engineering colleagues are involved in forensics and I have always been fascinated by their painstaking and meticulous work (and indeed hourly rates which are similar to that of our wealthier professional cousins – the lawyers).

Why read further ? Well; finding out what forensics is about and how you can possibly add to your skill base (and earning capacity) is always a great thing… scroll down

What is Forensic Engineering ?

Forensic science is the application of a broad spectrum of sciences to answer questions of interest to the legal system (from Wikipedia). Often related to a crime or a civil action. As we all know – legal work is a rapidly growing area throughout the world (a subject I have some doubts about the value of; but that is a topic for another day..). The word ‘forensic’ was historically derived from Roman times, where the guys with the best argument (and oratory and debating skills) would win the case. Today, cases before both the criminal and civil courts are often massively technical and complex in nature. Hence both the accused and accuser retain experts to present the technical sides of their arguments. And this is where engineers and technicians come into the picture.

How does one get into Forensic Engineering The engineers and technicians who are highly successful in forensic work are those who have built up a substantial amount of experience. You have to experience the full gamut of design work (both poor and good), engineering construction, equipment failures and shonky contractors to know what makes the world of engineering tick. And be able to analyse events and equipment and communicate well (both verbally and in writing).

Most engineering professionals seem to stumble into the field of forensics. Often initially retained by a lawyer to assist in a case and this leads to contacts for further work. Many consulting firms are a little twitchy about having their name associated with some high profile crime case (naturally enough, as the PR can be mind numbingly bad); so often don’t encourage their staff to get involved in these areas.

But you won’t see many openings advertising the field of forensic engineering. Although there are firms specialising in the area. Thus to get into the field, you need to find out who hires forensic engineers such as lawyers, in’surance companies and companies specialising in forensic engineering. So you inevitably start on the internet to search for careers in this area.

However, I think by far the best option is to build it into your current career by getting to the attention of lawyers and in’surance companies by approaching them directly. This is by highlighting your skills in this area; building your profile on your web site and then approaching them. It is vital that you are careful with advertising your skills in forensics (e.g.” I will help you – the lawyer – win all cases” is a no-no). Rather emphasise your particular skills in forensics (electrical/mechanical or chemical etc) and your ability to find the facts and truth quickly and effectively.

Obviously lawyers retain forensic engineers for one reason only – to win their case. They do need someone with the knowledge and experience to stand up in court. Without this; the opposing legal side will tear you to shreds. Judges look for someone who has the knowledge, experience and expertise and most importantly communication skills to help her (and sometimes, the jury) to easily arrive at a verdict. Judges prefer expert witnesses who have experience balanced between plaintiff and defendant work. This shows neutrality and objectivity.

And the compensation for this work is excellent. Multiples of your current pay. Sometimes up to $600 / hour (in some US and European cities)

The Importance of Integrity

While your client wants to win the case at all costs; as an engineering professional, you can’t ever compromise your professional integrity. You have to search vigorously and meticulously for the truth. So being a “hired gun” engineer prepared to bias the truth in favour of your client is totally unacceptable. If your lawyer insists on you compromising your integrity, you have to simply walk away. You are representing your profession and are in the field for the long haul. Not some quick buck where you sell your (engineering) soul.

The Nuts and Bolts of Forensic Engineering

This would include providing advice to lawyers, analysing cases (including site visits, preparing expert reports, providing depositions (“expert witness”) and acting as an expert witness in court. Interestingly enough, your reports have to be written in extremely simple English where you demystify the technical jargon and events especially as most juries (in the USA, the average adult reading level of a jury is ninth grade !) and courts will understand.

In your c v, you have to be meticulously accurate about your career experience, membership of societies and degrees/diplomas, as the opposing side will be delighted to show you up in court to question your integrity. It is always great to have other engineering work to show the court so that you are not perceived simply as a “hired gun” working full time on court cases. Your dress style in court has to be conservative and low profile with excellent grooming (!) to appeal to the jury and court so that they will instinctively trust and like you.

Some Examples of Forensic Engineering

Some typical examples of cases where you could get involved:

  • Personal injury (death or injury due to defective equipment, installation or design process)
  • Design error (e.g. inadequate design of an electrical reticulation network for a college
  • Equipment failure (e.g. resulting in electrocution and death / failure of an electrical generator on-site / collapse of a hydraulic power pack)
  • Patent infringement case (e.g. source program comprising CAD docs for a design)
  • Accident reconstruction (e.g. rail collision/crossing light failure)
    Incorrect operation of equipment (e.g. breathalysers affected by wireless interference)
  • Detection of further detailed data (e.g. secret tape with untranscribed statements hidden in background noise)
  • Terrorism and criminal trials (e.g. decoding of video footage and uncovering traces of substances)

The Pros and Cons of Forensic Engineering
The pros are: Challenging and interesting work / lots of variety / flexible hours / work from anywhere / draws on your experience / highly regarded career and naturally well paid.

The cons are: cases drag on for years / lawyers drive their expert witnesses hard with often poor information support / being cross examined by the opposing legal side can be a harrowing and destructive experience.

The good news for engineering professionals is that the requirements of the typical engineering career, education and training are normally of such a high standard that acceptable expert witness and testimony should be easily attainable.

Whilst, the following may be true for lawyers, your duty as an engineering professional is always to show absolute integrity.

A jury consists of twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer. (Robert Frost)

Thank you to Robin C. Peress and Thomas M. Mccauley of the IEEE; James A. Ruggieri of General Machine Corporation, Martin Specter of NAFE for a great series of articles on the subject which I have referred to above.

Yours in engineering learning


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