January 23, 2003
How Do You Find a Good Investigator You Can Trust?
Keith Rohman and Cathleen Watkins
Deadlines are stacking up, the phones are ringing incessantly, and your calendar is out of control. You’d like to know more about the opposing party, but time is in short supply. A good investigator could probably uncover some useful background information, but how do you find one you can trust?
Some attorneys never use investigators, citing a variety of reasons. They had a bad experience in the past, or they just can’t find a good one. Many attorneys just don't think of investigators as a resource, relying instead on associates or paralegals.
Other lawyers hire investigators for all types of cases, including criminal defense, medical malpractice, employment disputes, insurance bad faith, and jury misconduct. The trick is to find an investigator who understands your needs and can produce for you quickly and cost-effectively.
Typically, investigators fall into two categories – those with backgrounds in law enforcement and the rest. The former group is composed mostly of retired police officers, who have opened investigative practices. The latter group includes people from a collection of disciplines, including law, journalism, social work, and politics.
The question is which type of investigator will work best for your case, in particular, and your practice, in general. Do you need an investigator with good interview skills, or someone who is good at surveillance? Or are you looking for a solid researcher, who can work the databases to locate witnesses, assets, or background information?
Recommendations from colleagues are the best source for investigators. Criminal attorneys, in particular, hire them regularly and can make useful referrals. Good investigators also can be found in legal directories or on the Internet. The California Association of Licensed Investigators, for example, maintains an on-line directory of its members at http://www.cali-pi.org.
The key to hiring a good investigator is to screen him carefully, just as you would experts witnesses or others who will affect your case. In your initial meeting, determine whether the investigator is licensed, his range of experience, hourly rates, and availability. You also want to know how familiar the investigator is with your specific legal area. The best investigators understand the law behind the investigation. While he or she won't be as knowledgeable as a lawyer, the investigator must grasp the basic legal issues of your case.
Beyond this, you want to know if and to what extent the investigator is computer literate. Avoid an investigator who appears technologically outdated; he or she won’t have access to the necessary databases and Internet sources.
Another issue is the investigator's overall level of professionalism. While this may not be a factor in all cases, an investigator can be called upon to testify at trial, making his resumes and presentation skills important. If it's likely that the investigator will go before a jury later, you must consider how the investigator appears, both on paper and in person.
Like any good working relationship, your relationship with an investigator takes time to establish. If possible, give a new investigator a few low-pressure assignments at first. By having a trial run, both you and the investigator can smooth out the kinks before confronting a high-stakes case.
Once you select the investigator, establish well-defined guidelines. First, draft a memo to the investigator outlining the facts of the case and the tasks to be completed. The memo gives the investigator a reference to use later in the field. Also, should the work not be done properly, your instructions will have memorialized. You also may want to supply some relevant background documents on the case, such as accident or police reports, employment records, or the civil complaint. While you may not want him or her spending hours reading the file, a fully-prepped investigator will do a better job.
Once the investigator has read the materials, you should confer about the specific assignment. Both you and the investigator will benefit from exploring a few “what if” scenarios. By anticipating what might happen in the field and developing contingencies, the investigator will be better prepared to deliver a product you can use.
Next, give the investigator realistic budget limits. While the case is unfolding, it is easy for the investigator to get caught up in finding out what happened and rack up a sizeable bill as he or she goes. The investigator needs to understand that he or she has a limited number of hours to spend on a task and that you are closely watching costs.
You and the investigator also need to develop a work plan that makes sense given the case. How often should the investigator check in? When must the job be completed? Is there a possibility the investigator’s reports will be discoverable by the other side, and how will that affect the reporting? Is the investigator free to use discretion about which leads to pursue, or should everything be checked with you first? Some lawyers manage their cases very closely, while others are more laissez-faire and will give an investigator room to maneuver.
Good investigators can be a valuable resource for busy lawyers. The best ones think like attorneys but are generally more street savvy and less expensive. The key is for lawyers to manage an investigator as you would manage any aspect of your case -- with clearly delineated objectives, contingency plans, and a realistic budget.
Keith Rohman is the president of Public Interest Investigations, Inc. (PII) in Los Angeles. Cathleen Watkins is a senior investigator at the company.
copyright: Daily Journal 2003