Panic sets in – the mediation is looming and you aren’t sure that you will be able to defend your client with the current evidence. You decide that some investigation is in order – you need to order surveillance, initiate a background check, and locate a witness in order to have a chance at winning your case.
Sound familiar? I’m sure you’ve all been in situations where you had a need for an investigation to be conducted. But who do you turn to in these situations? In an ideal world, you’d hand your request to your in-house investigator that you’ve worked with for 35 years, but that’s not the reality for many firms. Most small- to medium-sized law firms can’t afford in-house investigators. In fact, many of the larger corporate firms are also choosing to outsource their investigations to private companies.
So how do you find a good private investigator? The question may seem inconsequential the first time you just need a few facts verified on a case, but when the case needs to be done right the first time due to time constraints, you will find that having a solid relationship with a trusted investigator could be the difference between winning and losing. And finding the right investigator isn’t always easy; there are thousands of investigators out there, and many of them will do more harm than good for you.
In my experience, here are some things to keep in mind when choosing an investigator:
Do Your Research
Thanks to the Internet, finding a private investigator is easier than ever. Every company, whether it’s a one-person operation or a large interstate corporation, has an online presence advertising their areas of operation, specialties, coverage areas, and other aspects of their business. However, you should exercise some caution – just because it’s on their website doesn’t mean that it is true. I interact with other companies on a regular basis, and I routinely find a big gap between what a company looks like online and what it is actually true.
A few years ago I worked with a private investigator in another state in order to obtain criminal and civil records from a courthouse in a rural county. The proprietor explained his capabilities as a company and volunteered that he had several investigators working for him, stating that I would get my records within a few days. That turned out to be smoke and mirrors. The man was the only employee of his business, and he did not deliver on his promises, forcing me to scramble to find a last minute solution to meet our client’s expectations.
I’ve experienced similar problems when using out-of-state surveillance investigators, and as a result, I no longer use them. I tell our clients that they are better off using someone that they know, even if it costs more in travel expenses, than using a one-time investigator to conduct a critical, time-sensitive investigation. I learned this the hard way after using “experienced” surveillance investigators out of state and always receiving no film at all, or shaky, unidentifiable film.
How do you avoid these problems when you hire an investigator? Ask a lot of very pointed and detailed questions; if you don’t like how they’re answered or catch a whiff of something that stinks, move on. Utilize your experience and your gut – you know when someone is feeding you lies. Ask for references and have them verify what you’ve been told; if they can’t produce any references, move on.
Look at Experience
Experience matters with investigations, plain and simple. In a lot of states, it doesn’t take much to get a private investigator license, which means that you’re going to find a lot of variation in the amount of experience someone brings to the table.
Imagine a case in which one of your witnesses has skipped town. The first thing any investigator is likely to do, new or seasoned, is check last known addresses, associates, family members, or other obvious hiding spots. But what happens when all of those leads dry up? A new investigator may not have the same bag of tricks as someone with 20 years of experience.
That being said, sometimes a relative lack of experience brings in a new perspective. An investigator who has been doing the same thing for a long time runs the risk of becoming complacent with the same techniques and resources and experiencing tunnel vision. A fresh set of eyes can provide the benefit of seeing a problem from a new perspective.
Ultimately, the best firms utilize both kinds of investigators. My team is made up of men and women with varying levels of experience and a diverse array of backgrounds. Some cases can be solved by ex-cops; others may require the skillset of someone who has at one time or another lived on the streets. One guy might know a desk sergeant, and another might know the supervisor at a shelter. Both tools may be key to solving your case. When we work together to approach problems, it seems like there is no case that we can’t solve. Hopefully you utilize a company with the same characteristics.
Solicit proposals from any number of investigative firms and you’re likely to hear about success rates – how often witnesses are found, how often a claimant was filmed, etc. At first glance, the statistics will always sound impressive. You wouldn’t be hearing them if they weren’t. But statistics can be misleading, so determining if the facts you’re hearing are true may take a bit more work than blind faith.
So how do you determine whether or not the success rates you hear are actually legitimate? Ask about specific scenarios. Don’t shy away from asking to look at past work, including reports and video. Investigators want your business and are willing to say almost anything to convince you of their worth, but if you ask them to back up their statements, you’ll have a clearer picture of their success rates and how they are reached. Ask about a failure; a good investigator has so many successes that he or she shouldn’t be afraid to tell you about a case gone bad. And again, check the references. We have built a business solely on word of mouth and hard work; we have numerous people that will attest to our abilities, as shown on our Testimonials page.
Know Your Bills
Plenty of investigative companies are willing to quote you a lower hourly rate in order to convince you to hand over business. Imagine calling two companies of equal size and experience; the first quotes you a rate of $60 an hour, while the second quotes you a rate of $90. At first glance, the choice would be obvious to any attorney working within a budget. But be wary of the investigators who offer a low hourly number – you often get what you pay for. Which is more valuable – A $1,000 investigation that gets solved or a $500 investigation with mediocre results?
Another thing to be wary of with low-cost firms is that sometimes they recoup money by gouging you on their bills. This is when you started to notice a five-minute phone call being billed as an hour. Imagine again that you are an attorney in San Diego with a local investigator. When a key witness is found living in San Jose, will your investigator drive up to interview him? Will you be on the hook for mileage and time? All of the sudden, your $60 per hour bill is inflated by the extra charges that companies can tack on.
So how do you parse through potential billing inconsistencies before agreeing to work with a company? Again, the best practice is to ask questions. How do they bill? In six minute increments? Ten? Fifteen? What about travel? Will you be billed for all mileage or just from the local county seat? If you familiarize yourself with the billing process, you will have a better idea of the true hourly rate of an investigator. And once that first bill arrives, make sure the numbers add up.
Don’t be Afraid to Walk Away
If your investigator is not meeting your needs, don’t be afraid to look for new companies to handle your cases. It’s not uncommon in the investigative world to work with lawyers who use several different companies.
Hopefully, you will find a private investigator who can meet all of your needs and with whom you can have a solid working relationship for an extended period of time. It may seem difficult to find that person or company at first, but if you do your homework, you will find the right fit.
About the Author
Christopher Miller (California license #17694) is the Owner and President of Western Limited, the premier provider of investigative services on the West Coast. Chris has been a private investigator for 25 years and has personally conducted or managed tens of thousands of investigations in that time period. Chris ensures a comprehensive approach to each case by both utilizing all resources available through Information Technology and pounding the pavement in order to access the needed information. Chris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.