Lawyers and law firms utilize private investigation services for a variety of reasons:
- reconstructing accidents and locating/interviewing witnesses
- uncovering hidden assets
- gathering information that can be used to assist in a criminal defense case
- gathering evidence for divorce proceedings
- investigating personal injury claims or workers compensation fraud
Because private investigators are trained in conducting surveillance and have access to restricted proprietary databases that contain the most complete and up-to-date intelligence, solo law practitioners and small firms save time and money outsourcing most investigative matters to independent legal investigators like BLI.
What should attorneys look for when selecting a private investigator? After all, the quality of the information and admissibility of evidence presented can make or break a case, so it’s very important to hire only a qualified and experienced investigator.
Tip #1: Make sure he or she is licensed.
Except for a few States, licensing for private investigators is mandatory. In Alabama, the regulatory agency that can verify that your PI has the proper certifications and licenses is the Alabama Private Investigation Board.
Tip #2. Make sure he or she is insured.
Most states require PIs to carry insurance and maybe even a surety bond. As an attorney (or law firm) you should also require that your PI’s insurance policy covers Errors and Omissions. Ask to see proof; check the expiry date and amount of coverage.
Tip #3: Interview PIs in person.
The ability to use technology for long-distance interviews may be appealing, but you are better off having any candidates visit you in your offices. Appearances count – you want someone professional and articulate. A professional investigator should be mostly listening at your first meeting and then present you with their assessment of whether and how they can help you.
Tip #4: Ask about areas of specialization.
How long has the investigator been operating and what did they do prior to becoming an investigator? Many PIs are former military and law enforcement officers, but that doesn’t make them great investigators by default. What types of cases have they worked on? The skill set required to conduct surveillance in a child custody dispute isn’t necessarily the same as the one needed for an insurance fraud case. Has he or she ever testified in court? Make sure your investigator has a solid background in whatever sort of legal cases you are hiring them to help with.
Tip #5: Make sure he or she knows the legal parameters within which to operate.
If information and/or evidence is to be presented in court, its essential that it be obtained legally. PIs are not allowed to hack into email or tap without a court order; ultimately the details for how information was obtained will come out in discovery – or worse yet, in court. You want a PI that conducts business on the right side of the law.
Tip #6: Understand the fee structure.
Most private investigators charge an hourly rate that can range between $70 – 200. Expenses undertaken during the investigation are charged to you, the client. Be suspicious of rates that seem too low. While some PIs may offer a flat rate for specific types of services, a rate that seems too low may indicate you are dealing with an unlicensed or underexperienced investigator which may end up costing more in the long run.
Tip #7: Get it in writing.
A PI that doesn’t have a standard written contract is another red flag. The written agreement should detail exactly what your investigator will deliver and outline the fee structure and billing terms.
Tip #8: Make clear your expectations around communication.
It’s reasonable to expect an investigator to need a few days to get started on a new case, but once the investigation is underway you’ll want to know how — and how often — progress will be reported. A good PI usually checks in every few days with a verbal report, but it can vary.
Tip #9: Ask what is included in the final report.
Your PI should deliver a report detailing the facts of the investigation. If surveillance was used you should get copies of any audio, photographs or video recordings (all media should be date and timestamped). A good investigator will also provide a written narrative that contains only objective facts, never opinion.
Tip #10: Get references from other lawyers.
It’s hard to get references from clients who may have hired a private investigator for personal reasons. Clients have the right to expect confidentiality. But an attorney or law firm may be able to speak to the quality of the investigators’ services on behalf of their clients without having to reveal any details.