Legal & Criminal Justice

Legal & Criminal Justice
private investigator

Working as a Private Investigator

Article Highlights

  • Life experience can sometimes be the best training for private investigators.
  • Private investigators commonly work long, unusual hours to gather information for their clients.

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For decades, fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Magnum P.I. have glorified the private investigator turning them into a hot commodity. Although private investigators can be tasked with some exciting cases, their main responsibility is to uncover the facts and bring justice to their clients.

“Media portrayal of private investigators is far more exotic than the actual day-to-day dynamics,” says Roger Humber, director of the Criminal Justice department at South University, Montgomery. “The typical day will depend on the case or service that the PI has contracted to perform.”

Instead of being inspired by fictional private investigators, John Morse, owner of Morse Investigation Services, decided to open his own firm after hiring an investigation professional to do work for him more than 10 years ago.

“I found the experience horrible,” Morse says. “I knew a lot of the tricks of the industry and knew I could do a better job.”

Morse had to put in a lot of hard work in order to get his firm started.

In Virginia, where his firm is located, he says candidates for private investigator jobs are required to meet certain guidelines and minimum training requirements.

He had prior experience running a business and managing people, which he says helped him to avoid some of the common pitfalls of starting a new business.

When hiring private investigators to add to his staff, Morse says he has found that no matter what is taught in a classroom or read in a book, there is no replacement for actual experience.

“Sometimes life experience in general is more than enough,” Morse says.

Media portrayal of private investigators is far more exotic than the actual day-to-day dynamics.

When a firm is staffed with good, hard-working, knowledgeable investigators, Morse says providing good customer service is probably the single most important aspect of managing a private investigation firm.

“You must manage your clients’ budget, expectations, and ensure that your client is kept up to date,” Morse says. “Managing a large caseload and multiple investigators is an arduous task. We utilize cloud base case management that allows our investigators to update a case in real time. This has proved to be a wise investment and has saved countless man hours.”

Life as a Private Investigator

As a private investigator, Morse says his work hours can often be long and unpredictable.

“If an investigator is not careful you will end up working nearly 24 hours a day,” he says. “There are cases that can only be worked at times when the only people that should be awake are the law and the outlaw. People under investigation typically mess up when it is least convenient for you as an investigator to respond. That is why it is so important to be able and ready to drop what you are doing and go after your subject without notice.”

Morse says his firm primarily focuses on family law cases.

“However we have had great success with cold case murders, criminal defense cases, and personal injury cases,” he says.

Qualifications for Private Investigator Jobs

Gabriele Suboch, an adjunct Criminal Justice instructor at South University, Online, says private investigator jobs span a wide variety of specialties, ranging from divorce to fraud. And that they mainly focus on civil issues, as the police are typically responsible for criminal cases.

“The PI is not allowed to make an arrest,” Suboch says.

Suboch says private investigators are commonly retired law enforcement officers, mostly detectives.

She says a private investigator must have good interview, computer, photography and interpersonal skills, in addition to a firm understanding of laws regarding what you can do and where you can go without a search warrant.

“A weapons permit is also strongly recommended,” Suboch says.

She also notes the importance of private investigators being knowledgeable in their line of work, so they can recognize everything they will need to do for an investigation to be a success. 

Humber says the private investigation profession is not as strictly regulated as publicly funded criminal justice entities.

“There are no universal minimum standard criteria for someone interested in pursuing this career field,” Humber says. “For example, in Alabama there is currently no statewide regulation or requirement for someone wishing to become a PI.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) most states do require a private investigator to have a license, but specific laws vary according to each state.

Most states also require private investigators carrying a handgun to meet additional requirements, according to the BLS.

A private investigator specializing in negligence or criminal defense investigation can obtain the Certified Legal Investigator certification, offered by the National Association of Legal Investigators to demonstrate expertise in the field, says the BLS. Investigation professionals with a security specialization can also get a Professional Certified Investigator certification from ASIS International.

According to the BLS, private investigator jobs are expected to experience a 21% increase between 2010 and 2020. This is due to increasing security concerns and the need to keep property and confidential information secure.

Advances in technology have also led to an increasing number of cyber crimes, including identity theft, spamming, internet scams, and financial and insurance fraud, which has assisted in the demand for private investigators, says the BLS.

Author: Laura Jerpi

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