Q&A with Chuck McLaughlin, Private Investigator
CriminalJusticePrograms.com interviewed Chuck McLaughlin, president of McLaughlin Investigative Group and a board member as well as Ambassador of the World Association of Detectives (W.A.D.), the oldest private investigation and security association in the world.
Below he shares his thoughts on private investigation and what it takes to be successful in the career.
Q: Can you describe your current position and background in investigation?
In addition to my private investigation firm, I also have a pre-employment screening business, EmploySecure.com (for employers doing background checks on their employees). It’s something that students may want to consider.
I started in the private investigating business after I graduated from college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, about twenty years ago. I had a job doing part-time work, mostly surveillance on domestic cases and workers’ compensation. That’s how a lot of people break into the business. At the time, I had a lot of on-the-job training. There weren’t a lot of resources out there.
For my degree, I studied legal studies and sociology and minored in criminal justice. My intention was to go on to law school, but that never happened and I’m happy that it didn’t.
Q: What made you decide to pursue private investigation?
To be honest, it was an interesting career opportunity that I had. I was just out of college and thinking of going to law school. I had worked for a short period of time as a legal assistant in the Middlesex County sheriff’s department helping inmates do legal research and preparing court documents. I was focused in the criminal justice/legal world, and then I had an opportunity to do some private investigative work, and I liked it. Really quickly, it grew from part-time. Within three years, I became the vice president of a company in Boston. There was a lot of opportunity there for me and the work was fascinating, something different every single day.
You go from dealing with a homeless person to a CEO in the same day. The ability to engage people at all different levels is what separates a good investigator from an average one.
Q: How does private investigation differ from law enforcement?
You see a lot of police officers who retire or are out on disability and think, “Well, being a private investigator is going to be an easy stint for me. I’ve done investigative work.” It’s really not. A police officer has a badge; they have the power to affect somebody’s liberty and have access to the courts to get subpoenas. As a private investigator, you really don’t have any power per se. You don’t have any special access. It’s really based on human nature skills that you need to develop. Also, you need to know where to find information – looking in public records and private databases that you can subscribe to.
A successful private investigator is a successful business owner first; that’s really the key to it. Many law enforcement personnel that go into private practice have never worked in a private business before. Understanding the criminal justice system is key, but understanding business is just as important, if not more so.
Q: How important is a degree in advancing someone’s career as a private investigator?
The more knowledge you have about a great variety of things, the better off you’re going to be because you’re dealing with different things all the time. Knowing how the court system works is fundamental – that’s step one. Having a broad-based knowledge of life in general [is good too]. There is nothing that you can study that is going to be a waste of time.
More specifically, I know there are some really good programs out there – Boston University has a certificate program that deals with private investigation. I learned everything as I went along and through making mistakes. I had the basic education from going to college and having a minor in criminal justice, which helped me a lot, but a lot of it also came from trial and error.
Q: Is there a minimum degree required?
At minimum, you have to have an associate or bachelor’s degree. You really need to have a base of knowledge beyond criminal justice because you need to know how the world works. You need to understand business. You don’t need to be an expert, but you need to have a general knowledge of a lot of things.
Q: When people start in this career, do they usually start with a firm?
In Massachusetts, you need to start with a firm because you just can’t get a license otherwise. You need to establish a history of doing investigative work. You can also really get some good experience working for the committee for public counsel, court-appointed criminal defense work with which you can learn some great private investigating skills.
Q: In general, are there any specific traits that work well for a private investigator?
You should be a people person – able to engage people in conversation and feel confident enough to talk to all different types of people. You also have to have an overall sense of curiosity.
Q: How can people make themselves stand out during the job application process?
You have to separate yourself from the crowd. I get countless, daily emails from people saying, “Please see my resume.” That does nothing to get my attention. You need to be creative and resourceful otherwise you’re going to get all kinds of resistance. The majority of private investigation firm owners are business people. They have two to five people working for them, and they’re busy. I remember someone sent in a DVD that she had made. I thought to myself, “She has a skill set and some multimedia skills I can find a way to use in a business.” It really caught my eye.
Q: What should students expect as they start their careers?
The duties of those who just start to work for us can break down into three categories. One is Internet research. When I started, there was no Internet or email. Having a strong Internet-research-based skill set is important now.
Secondly, we do a lot of court research. You need to be able to understand how the court system works and do court and public records research.
The third skill is surveillance. You can’t be a private investigator without having done some surveillance work. It’s something that looks easy on TV, but there are only a few people I know that are really good at it.
Q: What makes someone really good at surveillance?
Patience, patience and more patience – and focus. You need to be able to sit still and concentrate on what you’re looking at. It sounds very simple, but you can’t go somewhere and read a book or a magazine or play with your phone. When you look down for four or five seconds, your subject is going to walk out of the house and disappear on you, and you’ll never know he or she is gone.
Q: Is there something that really surprised you about private investigation when you started?
Well, I’ve made more money at my private investigating business than I ever thought I would. It’s been financially good for my family. I wish I knew business better when I started. I made a lot of mistakes along the way. If I knew when I started college that I was going to become a private investigator, I would have studied writing and business management along with criminal justice.
Q: How does writing come into play?
At the end of the day, what we sell is a piece of paper. It’s what we produce for our clients. I could be the greatest private investigator in the world, but if I can’t put my successes onto paper in a way that makes sense, that’s clear and concise, I’d be wasting my time.
Q: What kinds of changes, and particularly changes in technology, have there been in the field in the last few years?
Technology just makes investigations go at a much different speed. If you’re not caught up on technology, you’re at a huge disadvantage. I think younger people have a real advantage here because men and women that are older may not have that technology skill set.
For example, ten to eight years ago, pre-employment screening was done mainly by private investigators and mostly for the upper management/executive level. The cost of doing a background check would be around $1,000 to $1,500. It was very labor intensive. Technology has brought that $1,500 background check down to about $150, allowing companies to screen all their employees, not just their executives. The work is basically the same, and we’re still sending people out to courthouses, but the administrative side of things can be automated through technology. Pre-employment screening is a booming industry.
Q: What do you see for the future of private investigation?
I think the industry will continue to grow. The PI industry, in general, had, by its own fault, a bad reputation. There have been a lot of rogue private investigators out there, and they’re the ones that make the news and have hurt our industry. But, I think there are a lot of good associations and programs that understand the importance of professionalism and education. Any successful litigation law firm has private investigators because the law firms understand the value that they get by bringing investigators to the table.
Q: Can you talk about the World Association of Detectives? Is there a way students can get involved?
The World Association of Detectives is the oldest international private investigating and security association in the world. It is truly an international association. Members come from all over the world.
We have a student membership category for the World Association of Detectives. Students can go to www.wad.net and get an application. They’ll have access to our listserv and can come to our meetings. At our annual meetings, we have seminars that cover a wide variety of topics. For students, it’s a “if I knew then what I know now,” type of thing. If you go to one of these meetings, you’re meeting those at the top of the PI industry.
Q: Any other particular recommendations for aspiring investigators?
Get a lot of life experience and a strong educational background. Meet people that are in the business. Don’t just send a resume saying, “do you have any positions?” Go out there and talk to investigators – people love to talk, and it’s a skill set that you need for the business anyway.
Photo: Alessandra Bisalti