Why Attorneys Should Hire Private Investigators/ Thomas Humphreys, Pursuit Magazine

If you’re a busy attorney, and you’ve never considered hiring a private investigator, you’re throwing away money. Here’s why:

No matter how skilled, experienced, or efficient you are, you can’t possibly get to all the work that crosses your desk. You can’t do the fishing for case-making facts as thoroughly as you would like. And you can’t be an expert in everything.

What if you could outsource some of that time, shoe leather, and expertise, bill for it, and say yes to a wider variety of cases? How smart would you look if you had a savvy private eye in your rolodex, or a PI with a hefty rolodex of her own?

Outsource Work

The May 5, 2011 edition of The Economist ran a two-page story about the legal industry in America. They used Howrey (one of the world’s top 100 law firms) as an example of sea-change facing the profession. Aside from bankruptcy, securities litigation, and regulation issues, the world of 700-member law firms has been hit hard. Gone are the lucrative mergers and acquisitions (M&A), and it seems that clients are seeking, even demanding, alternatives to the ubiquitous billable hour, at an attorney’s standard rate.

One point The Economist makes: Clients are demanding “…that their lawyers pass certain routine work to cheaper contractors.”

Should lead counsel be in the field interviewing witnesses, canvasing neighborhoods, and personally vetting experts? Someone must, but these things take a lot of time and often lead to endless cul-de-sacs of evidentiary dead ends. Why not pay a professional investigator to track down hard-to-find witnesses, canvas the area, and vet experts?

Outsource Expertise

It used to be that an associate could read up on a topic and brief the partner, each being paid handsomely for the private course of study. Now, more often than not, it makes more sense to bring in a qualified expert in certain fields, pay her a flat fee or lower hourly rate, and likely be better informed in the long run.

The Economist makes the case that law firms can guarantee themselves work by becoming “…experts in other industries, not just areas of legal practice.” An alternative to this, The Economist points out, would be outsourcing the expertise.

That’s where professional investigators come in. An attorney can leverage expertise, an investigative firm’s collective experience, to his own benefit. A true professional investigator either maintains expertise in various areas or maintains affiliations with industry specific experts. Either way, an adept lawyer will realize the value of knowing a professional investigator, the consummate information professional, the guy who knows a guy.

First and foremost, attorneys are experts in the law. Some lawyers also craft themselves into industry specific experts: real estate, finance, criminal defense, aviation, medical malpractice, etc. The lawyer/expert is usually a person who takes on one type of case and charges top-of-the market fees for his niche. However, for the majority in the legal profession, criminal defense work can mean anything from a criminal charge for inadvertently carrying a four-inch pocketknife through airport security (a misdemeanor in Tennessee, apparently) to first-degree murder (widely accepted as felonious activity anywhere in the country), and literally anything in between.

Experts in the law, a general defense team should be well equipped to argue legal points; but what about specific issues in obscure cases from various disciplines in which they are not schooled?

Can, or should, counsel review a real estate appraisal report for a fraud case? It seems easy enough, but what about making sure the report follows Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practice? What are the four forces that are required to create value? These are industry-specific issues in which most attorneys do not (nor should they be expected to) have any competency.

Would it be advisable for a lawyer to analyze blood spatter in a crime scene photo? Should an attorney be expected to break down a financial statement and explain in detail whether it is misleading or fraudulent?

Why not hire a professional investigator knowledgeable in that field to bring one up to speed? By delegating work to experts in various fields, counsel makes his firm look savvy, connected, and thorough.

In the end, law firms must decide on a case-by-case basis whether to add a PI to the defense team. If your client left his cheese knife in his backpack after a weekend of hiking and finds himself in the clutches of TSA and airport police, an investigator probably isn’t necessary. If, however, your client has been charged with fraud in conjunction with an eleventy-billion dollar Ponzi scheme, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consider hiring a professional investigator. Client is a local charged with DUI, no real need for a PI. Client’s an international banking mogul charged with attempted rape, you bet a PI is one of your first calls.

This is Part I of a 4-part series on why hiring a private investigator can benefit an attorney’s bottom line. In the next installment, we’ll look at a PI’s highest and best use when subcontracting to law firms.
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