Tired of getting turned down for investigative work at established law firms? Here’s what you’re up against: the mistakes of PIs who came before you.
How to Succeed Where Others Have Failed:
(Get ready to take notes.)
A few weeks back, I met with a mid-sized New York law firm that handles challenging high-exposure personal injury cases for a major national company. They had gone through a number of local investigative firms over the last few years and were interested in sitting down with us.
The firm spent several hours grilling us about our techniques, practices, and experiences. And for more than half of that time, they shared war stories about their experience with other investigative firms—and many of those experiences were not so positive.
After hearing about their frustrations with many of the investigators they’ve hired over the years, I walked away with a better understanding of the reasons law firms often decide not to hire private investigators:
Their 20-Something-Year Old Paralegal Is a Better Investigator Than You
A chief complaint I heard in my meeting with the legal team was that many professional investigators don’t have a clue about social media. When a personal injury case required mining potential witnesses’ social media for critical information, the firm’s 20-something paralegals were doing a better job than the investigators they had hired.
Whether or not you like using Facebook and Twitter, social media has become an integral part of what we do and can be critical in identifying witnesses, confirming relationships, or getting a better understanding of a person’s activities.
So if you’re behind the eight ball and don’t have a clue about social media, what can you do to catch up? You can take Eli Rosenblatt’s course or start following some blogs dedicated to mining social media, like Boolean Black Belt (especially their recent post on Facebook Graph Search).
The most critical thing, however, is that you need to join the party. That’s right. Open a Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn account, and start messing around. Despite what anyone tells you, social media is changing so rapidly that the only way you can really understand how it works right now is to use it frequently.
Lesson: Being up-to-date on the latest and greatest investigative tools and techniques is critical to any professional investigator. Whether you’re learning from your own cases, taking continuing education courses, or sharing tools and skills amongst your colleagues, it’s imperative that investigators stay current. Retro may be the newest fad, but keeping abreast of the latest technology will keep you from becoming a dinosaur.
You Live and Die by Results Alone
Investigators are judged by their results. As they should be. Would you hire someone who continually failed to deliver what was promised, and what you most need? Absolutely not! But that comes with some caveats.
The problem with judging us only by our results is that there are so many variables that affect our work. A critical witness may refuse to cooperate, an important piece of video surveillance gets stuck in a legal vortex, or those cell phone records that are the keys to the entire case can’t be obtained.
That pressure to get results (whether perceived or real) leads to pressure to do some not-so-above-the-board things. I’ve seen it a number of times. Don’t fall into that trap. But you should also not fall into the trap of promising the impossible, or the impossible-to-control. You can leave that to the snake-oil salesmen.
We are all reasonable people. Anyone can see the effort and lengths you are going to. You certainly don’t get a pass for failing to deliver the results, but effort (when combined with a strong track record) can go a long way. I recently told a story about how we failed to find a client’s father, but she gave us glowing marks. Why? By following some of our own tenets of handling client expectations.
Lessons: 1) Communicate early and often; 2) be transparent in your process; 3) don’t promise the impossible; and 4) give a (brutally) honest assessment.
You are Not Reliable
Imagine that you’re an attorney: The trial date is fast approaching. You send an email and leave a voicemail message with an investigator on a critical matter, but he doesn’t get back to you for several days. Or imagine hearing back from the investigator, only to learn that he won’t be able to get to your case for four or five weeks because he is busy.
Those are just two of the stories I heard in my sit-down with the law firm. And I’ve had similar experiences myself. Investigators, apparently, are not the most reliable of groups.
We live in a connected world of instant access and immediacy. We want things now, not a moment later. Unresponsiveness is just not acceptable. Nobody cares that you have a 20-year-old answering machine that you can’t check from the road. Or a flip phone with no access to email. Or that you have been on a stakeout with no Internet connection for 14 hours. Or whatever excuse you have.
Lessons: Respond immediately to requests from clients. Good, bad or indifferent, whatever news you have, give it to them and tell them that you will follow up quickly.
You’re Not Professional
When talking to the law firm, I asked them what investigator they had used. They told me that I probably wouldn’t know him. He doesn’t have a website, works out of a dingy office, and uses an AOL email address.
(Any guesses about how the law firm found me? Through our blog.)
You don’t have to have a blog. You don’t have to have a fancy website. You don’t even need a cool “branded” email address. But you have to admit, these things do make you look a bit more like a professional organization operating in the 21st century.
Bonus tip: If you are going to create a website designed to attract attorneys and law firms, it’s probably a good idea to spell check. I just stumbled onto an investigator’s blog post about why attorneys should consider the “importance of hiring a Private Investigatro (sic)” and how investigators can “conduct interviews with the clients and witnesses in thier (sic) home.” Don’t be that guy.
Lessons: Get your own domain, set up a WordPress site with a simple, clean design template, and sign up for a Google Business email account. In less than an hour, you’ll look like you’ve got a real business.
You’re Following a Series of Bad Experiences with Other PIs
The history of this firm’s experience with other investigators already has me on edge. Not only do I have to prove that I know what I am doing; I have to exceed their wildest hopes and cancel out all those negatives certain other investigators have conditioned them to expect. That means working my tail off to make sure that I cross every “t” and dot every “i.”
I can’t change their preconceptions. In fact, I know a lot about the misconceptions people have about private investigators. And in fairness to our colleagues, the law firm did have a number of good experiences with investigators, with a smattering of bad ones. But the bad ones stood out.
When I asked the partner at the law firm about the two main problems he had with the previous investigator, he said that the investigator lacked “thoroughness and responsiveness.” I now have those attributes posted on a sticky note on my computer.
Lesson: Understand your client’s pain point. If you do nothing else, make sure you do everything in your power to succeed where others have failed.
At the end of the day, we were able to win over the law firm, and we’re currently working on our first case for them. This relationship may not last forever, but it won’t be because of a lack of effort, failed promises, poor communication, inadequate training, or lofty promises.
I promise you that. 😉
Brian Willingham is a New York private investigator, Certified Fraud Examiner, and founder of Diligentia Group. To read more Willingham wisdom, check out his blog and his previous stories for PursuitMag.