What is it Like to Be a Private Investigator?
Learn about a private investigator's background and read her real-life job description.
Private Investigator Interviewee
Over 20 Years in the Field
If you've ever thought about becoming a private investigator, this interview is for you. Learn about private investigations, and get tips from a veteran in the field.
How did you become a private investigator?
I just fell into it. After college I didn't have any marketable skills. I said, "what am I going to do to make money?" I got a paralegal certificate, and did an internship with the public defender's office in Seattle. They get so many cases and don't have enough manpower, so they use interns for the simple cases. I got hired in '85. Later I got a license so I could work on my own as an independent contractor. You need 3 years of experience to get a license, and in some states you also need to take a test.
What do you most enjoy about the job?
I like criminal defense work, it's the most interesting. I get to go out and interview people; I don't like sitting at a desk all day. I like creatively figuring out issues in the case, taking the ball and running with it. It's a good feeling to go to trial knowing your guy is innocent, and you can show why.
What do you do on a given day?
I read the police report from the district attorney's office. The attorney talks to the client, then I talk to the client, then I interview witnesses. There's so much information the police just leave out. They don't interview all the witnesses, they don't always tell the truth, they want to cover themselves. I look for the rest of the story. Maybe the guy is mentally ill, or maybe he didn't do it, or he was under the influence of drugs. There are several defenses; you're fighting for someone's life and liberty. You make sure the prosecutor is doing their job right, and you try to get the best deal for your client.
What's most difficult about being a private investigator?
The worst feeling is knowing that your guy is innocent and having him get convicted—that's hard to deal with. When you believe in your client, based on the evidence, you go to trial and you think you're going to win, and you lose. His family cries. That's really hard.
How do you handle the day-to-day challenges of your job?
I have a lot of cases and I have to prioritize. I write a lot of reports. I do encounter people that don't want to talk to me—they say, "Oh, you represent that guy, we don't like you." I try to persuade them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I'm always nice. Some people will start out hostile, and by the end of the call they're spilling their guts to me. I think women make better investigators because we’re less intimidating.
What misconceptions do people have about private investigation?
Private investigators on TV are so glamorous, but it's not as glamorous as people think; there's grunt work to every job. It's possible to make a lot of money, but mostly you don't. Public defense work doesn't make a lot.
What skills are most important for people who want to become private investigators?
To be patient and listen to people. It helps to be a mature person. When I was 25 I was petrified going to jail, but now it's no big deal. You need communication, writing and computer skills. There's so much information on the Internet that we used to find by leg work. Now you just plug in the name, use search engines, and you can find a person's whole history.
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