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John has been appointed an expert witness in over 200 cases and testified in 54 trials/hearings in 11 jurisdictions. In research by GAR magazine, he was the most highly nominated individual overall; peers described him as “the godfather of expert witnesses” with “unsurpassed and unsurpassable” expertise. John also sits as an arbitrator and expert to determine disputes in the UK, the Cayman Islands, Sweden, Africa and the UAE, and has acted as sole arbitrator and as chair of a three-person tribunal. He has also testified before juries in criminal and libel cases.
Describe your career to date.
I trained as an auditor and in corporate finance work before setting up a Big Four forensic practice in 1991 with nine people. I was a partner there for 25 years, including 13 as a senior partner and chair of the forensic division. I joined FTI as a senior managing director in September 2018.
I have also had a wide range of other experience, including being a director of a mining company and of the holding company of an airline.
From 2009 to 2015, I was lay vice-chair of the professional practice committee of the Bar Standards Board. I have also been appointed by several other regulators with statutory powers to carry out investigations into alleged financial misconduct.
Industry specialities include oil and gas, mining, telecoms and construction.
What motivated you to pursue a career as an arbitration and quantum of damages expert witness?
My father was a judge so I was brought up with respect for the law. After being made a partner, I was offered the chance to do expert witness work, which was great fun, and we grew a highly successful and reputable business out of it.
I like the pitting of wits; the need for accuracy; and the overseas travel (a lot of work in the Middle East and the Far East at present). Also, the theatre and drama of watching a trial and appearing in court and helping the tribunal arrive at the right answer. I selected international arbitration as it was a growing area, although I still do some High Court work.
What qualities make for an effective expert witness?
It is essential that an expert is truly objective and independent, and understands their duty to the court. Too often one finds charlatans who will say anything – they do neither themselves nor their clients any good. There is no easier way for counsel to attack an expert than to prove he or she is biased. One sees this as an arbitrator.
An expert should not stray out of their expertise; they should avoid dealing with matters which fact witnesses or counsel are better placed to handle. They should be courteous but firm under cross-examination.
An expert should be user-friendly, producing well-written reports on time, being responsive and giving high-quality advice from their experience.
The final quality is hard work. The expert must form their own opinions by studying the papers (not just being told by the team) and must know the detail inside out.
How do you prepare for giving testimony in a trial?
By going over the papers over and over again, and thinking through what questions may be asked. I like to prepare a PowerPoint presentation – which is a good way of helping the court by explaining complex concepts in an understandable way. One can emphasise areas where the opposing expert is obviously wrong. It is best to attend part of the trial before testifying to see how it is going and hear at least some of the fact witnesses.
How has the role of an expert witness changed since you started practising?
There are far more rules now (eg, in Court CPR 35 and PD 35). More is done using IT. And more big cases are dealt with in international arbitration where the style is very different – one also needs to understand the culture of the forum. (American lawyers who paint everything as fraud, or civil law continentals who dislike hostile cross-examination?)
Geography is changing. Thirty years ago there were a lot of cases involving Greek shipowners, then many of us moved to large Russian cases. And now there are more and more Middle and Far Eastern cases, as one sees with the growth of institutions such as DIFC-LCIA and SIAC.
What attracted you to work at FTI Consulting?
A great firm with high-quality staff but without the conflict and auditor-independence issues that make a disputes practice so difficult in a Big Four accounting firm. It’s enormously friendly – I am writing this at a staff awayday in Faro, Portugal! It has a very professional and objective approach to work – a long way from the hired guns one sadly sometimes sees elsewhere.
Where, in your opinion, does the future of the practice area lie?
Continued strong growth, particularly in arbitration. Investor-state arbitrations (of which I have been instructed in some 25 cases), in particular, will continue to grow especially strongly.
What is the best piece of career advice you have ever received?
Give up audits (which are terribly boring) and start a forensic practice.
John Ellison has a world-class reputation in the market with respondents commending the depth of his expertise on sale and purchase disputes and valuations in investor-state disputes. He also has extensive experience acting as arbitrator under various arbitral rules.
John Ellison is a senior managing director at FTI Consulting. He is a member of the economic and financial consulting practice and is based in London.
John has had 25 years’ experience as a partner at KPMG, latterly as a senior partner and for 13 years as chair of its forensic department. He has testified orally and been cross-examined as an expert witness on over 50 occasions in 11 jurisdictions, including the Caribbean, Sweden, France, Austria, UAE, Hong Kong and Singapore. He has been instructed in over 200 cases, including some 25 investor-state disputes.
John also sits as an arbitrator and an independent expert to determine disputes, particularly those arising from valuations or sale and purchase agreements. He has been nominated as an arbitrator under the auspices of the London Court of International Arbitration; the American Arbitration Association; the International Court of Arbitration of the International Chamber of Commerce; the DIFC/LCIA in Dubai; and the Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce.
These have included appointments as chair of a three-person tribunal, and as sole arbitrator.
Independent surveys by WWL: Arbitration and Global Arbitration Review in the past few years have described him as “the most highly nominated individual in the research overall”, adding, “He has testified in more than 30 cases, and also garnered much praise for his work as an arbitrator.” WWL: Arbitration also described him as “the godfather of expert witnesses” noting that its sources “praised his expertise as ‘unsurpassed and unsurpassable’.”
John works across a wide range of industries. With an audit and then corporate finance background (including IPOs and two privatisations), he has testified in many cases, particularly those in the oil and gas, telecoms, and construction sectors. He has also been a non-executive director of a Canadian mining company and of the holding company of an airline. He is a member of Chatham House and the International Institute for Strategic Studies.