Welcome to the latest installment in our career alternatives series, in which we explore opportunities for attorneys outside the world of large law firms. We know and love the world of Biglaw — it’s our focus here at Above the Law — but we realize that there are other things you can do with a law degree.
One possible alternative: corporate intelligence (aka working as a private investigator / detective). A legal education certainly helps if you want to break into this field. Jules Kroll — founder of Kroll Inc., and widely regarded as “the founding father of the modern intelligence and security industry” — is a lawyer (Georgetown Law ’66).
ATL: Can you tell us a little bit about your educational and professional background up to this point?
PS: I was a journalist for 19 years before going to law school. In the last ten years I specialized in finance and worked mostly in Asia, lastly as Finance Editor at the Asian Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong.
I won a Knight Fellowship to do the first year at Yale Law School and liked it so much I gave back part of my stipend and transferred to Cardozo Law School to get a J.D. I loved law school but didn’t know many happy attorneys, so when my teachers at Yale encouraged me to get a full degree, I said “I don’t want to practice law.” One of them said, “You don’t have to practice. There are lots of things you can do with the degree.” None of them suggested investigative work.
ATL: So when did you enter the world of investigative work?
PS: I started working for the James Mintz Group right after taking the New York bar in 2006. I worked on complex litigation, after-fraud internal investigations, and did some complicated due diligence that required slogging through piles of dockets. I moved in 2008 to become a partner at GPW, a British firm that decided it wanted to build a brand in the U.S. Then Lehman Brothers collapsed two months later, the world changed, and I decided I would start my own firm.
PS: My firm, Charles Griffin Intelligence (named after my son), helps lawyers and companies find facts. About 90 percent of litigation is fact-finding, yet lawyers are hardly ever trained in how to gather facts about opponents, witnesses, assets or fund managers in a systematic way. We’re small — two full time and one part time person — but this is a business of networks. Even the huge firms with multiple offices have to rely on part-timers. If you need work done in Tyler, Texas or Bahrain, chances are you won’t have an office in either of those places. Instead, you’ll know which experienced person to call in on contract.
ATL: What led you to go into this line of work?
PS: I once covered a talk by Jules Kroll, the man who made investigation respectable. White shoe law firms used to treat investigations the same way they treated criminal defense: it was sordid stuff that was little discussed and preferably outsourced. As an ex-journalist I found the stories in our law school casebooks as interesting as the legal arguments we would be tested on, and Kroll presented a picture of a life of digging up interesting stories.
ATL: So do you see investigative work as similar to your career in journalism?
PS: It’s a lot like journalism, except that you have three readers instead of one million. Everything we find out is privileged, so we can’t broadcast our results. Plus, we’re always guided by client concerns as well as the rules of evidence and the ethical rules that bind lawyers.
ATL: Give us an example.
PS: A reporter can call anyone up, but I can’t call up a party opponent without his lawyer on the phone. Even if I could make phone calls, my clients might forbid it because word of an investigation leaking out would be fatal to a deal, a plea bargain, or other client interests.
Every case is different, so you never get a very strong sense of déjà vu. That makes it more fun than doing routine Chapter 7 bankruptcies or writing stories about the same company or legislature for 20 years.
ATL: How’s it going so far at your firm?
PS: We’ve been able to get clients through word-of-mouth, some web advertising, and some cold-calling. Last summer after we opened it was slow, and we realized we needed a more open approach to demystify what it is we do. We want to get far away from the private-sector spying image some of the industry has, because we have no subpoena power and will never do anything illegal or unethical.
It’s all on the blog of our new website: “Can you get me someone’s cell phone records? Hell no!” The website has a lot of material on it designed to make people feel more comfortable with hiring a professional fact finder, the way they think nothing of hiring an accountant or an attorney.
We were flat-out busy from November to January — I worked every day of my one-week vacation in Los Angeles — but now things have calmed down a bit. We would like to hire one or two more people within the next year, both so that when we get really busy we don’t have to work 14 hours a day, but also because we don’t want to have to turn down a complex after-fraud case that might need three people on it full time for a couple of weeks.
ATL: You’ve talked a bit about legal considerations. What connections do you see between investigative work and your legal background and training? Has it been an asset?
PS: I’m reading legal documents every day, and can do my job far more quickly with legal training. If we’re doing an asset search and someone’s in the middle of a complicated bankruptcy and adversary proceeding, knowing debtor-creditor law can help sort it all out.
Legal background is also important for client relations because most of our clients are brought to us through their lawyers. I can very quickly be up to speed on where our clients are in their process –- be it contemplating litigation, discovery, during trial, or just helping to vet a potential business partner. If we need to establish jurisdiction I can understand what kind of evidence will get over the bar.
As critically as anything else, as an agent of a lawyer (even if I wasn’t a lawyer), I would be bound by all the ethical rules lawyers have to obey. The book from law school that I consult more often than any other is my professional responsibility text. Current law students I teach are sometimes surprised by that, but it’s true. My ethics teacher at Cardozo was delighted and even asked me to come in and tell her students that.
ATL: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Best of luck!
Disclosure: Charles Griffin Intelligence has advertised on Above the Law in the past.