How would you like to get paid $300,000 a year to sit around thinking about the value of human life? Believe it or not, that's exactly what forensic economists do -- they help attorneys and insurance companies place an economic value on losses of life, limb or business.
It's not an easy field to break into, and the salary you start at will likely be a tenth of your salary at career-end, but there are some terrific benefits to this niche in economics. Forensic economists tend to work solo, taking as many or as few cases as they like. Many work from home offices. That makes it a flexible job, perfect for parents who want to cut back while children are young, or who just like to be home after school as much as possible.
So how do you find a job as a forensic economist? The old-fashioned way. "You're just going to have to pound the bushes," says Gerald Martin, professor emeritus at California State University at Fresno and author of the bible of forensic economics, Determining Economic Damages.
Since forensic economics is a cottage business where a large firm may hire only six to 10 economists, entry-level positions generally aren't advertised. You could start your search by joining the National Association of Forensic Economics (NAFE), buying its membership directory and contacting firms directly, Martin suggests.
Like many forensic economists, James Rodgers fits his cases in around his full-time teaching job. A professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University, he occasionally recommends students for entry-level jobs paying $30,000 to $40,000 -- but only those who score the best or second-best grade in his forensic economics class.
Those graduates become research assistants who work up the cases, but don't present results in court. Forensic economists typically hold either a master's degree or PhD, so their credentials are as impressive as those of the economists testifying in court for the other side.
Go Public or Go Local
The Big Four accounting firms all have litigation support departments that use forensic economists to a limited degree. Being a CPA is a plus if you apply to a Big Four firm as an economist, but a finance or economics degree will suffice, Martin says.
If you're unwilling to relocate and live in a town with a population of 100,000 or fewer, you can use attorney directories published by the local legal newspaper or bar association to find firms specializing in civil litigation and personal injury. Call the partners and ask who they use for litigation support.
"Contact economists already doing this work, and ask if they know any opportunities to get into this work," Martin advises. "I worked in the central California area and hired an economist. When I retired, I turned over the whole area to her."
Successful forensic economists are personable, consistent and even-tempered in the face of cross-examination on the witness stand. It also helps to be witty. Because jurors are often bored by numbers, being able to get away with a quip in the courtroom to lighten the moment is priceless.
And since forensic economics is a courtroom-based business, purple hair and nose rings are definitely out. Women who want to work in the field must be willing to wear power suits and stockings in the summer, even if they live in Florida.
If you're interested in learning more about the field, try a forensic economics course, suggests Ronald Smolarski, forensic economist and owner of Beacon Rehabilitation Services in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
"Go to the NAFE annual conferences, read the literature, sign up for their listserv and find a mentor," he says. "It's a transferable skill if you know numbers, but you need to learn how to reach results and the formulas used to calculate damages."