While 99% of my PI firm’s cases begin with a phone call, we try to have clients come into our office before proceeding with a case whenever possible. We will not work a case without a signed contract, and I prefer to complete this step face to face.
Having an in-person conversation allows you to confirm the client is who they claim – we take a copy of their driver’s license with all contracts as proof. You can also interview them, gather all the facts, and confirm the case is one you are willing to take on.
There are times that meeting in person is not feasible, be it distance or time constraints, but even then, a signed contract along with a photocopy of a state issued ID is taken via email.
If issues or red flags are raised at this stage, we take a step back. One individual refused to sign a contract but was willing to pay a substantial amount for information about his “girlfriend”. Some prodding revealed that he had not spoken to or seen this “girlfriend” in 6 months. There was not enough cash in the world for us to touch this case – especially given the refusal to sign a contract. Any person who is unwilling to sign our contract is turned away.
A contract, after all, is there for both parties’ protection. Which is why having an airtight agreement that spells out your working and payment terms is critical.
We recommend obtaining legal advice when crafting your contract, but here are a few key points they should cover.
We require 50% upfront of agreed-upon costs to begin any investigation, with the remainder due upon completion and prior to the release of any information gathered during the investigation. Our retainer spells this out, with space left in the document to fill in the amount being paid. It also outlines that no work will begin until the retainer is paid, and that the retainer is non-refundable.
The non-refundable retainer guarantees our availability on specified days and hours. It’s there to protect both the client, and us. If we take on a case for a set time slot, then we might have to turn down other work for that timeslot. But if the first case falls through, we’ve lost not only their business, but the second client’s business.
The non-refundable retainer guarantees to the client that we will be available during the nominated time period, while also ensuring that we will be paid regardless of any last-minute changes of heart. We always take the time to explain the non-refundable portion to the client so there is no room for confusion.
Stated Purpose of the Investigation
Your contract should have space to fill in the reason you are being hired. Be as specific as possible to minimize miscommunication. Spell out exactly what will be done during the investigation. Rather than say “hired to investigate infidelity of John Doe”, provide more detail. Write “hired to perform 20 hours of surveillance on John Doe on February 13-16, and provide pictures, video and written report to detail infidelity investigation” instead. This way, the client cannot come back and say that you promised any other service than what was detailed.
Hourly Rate and Reimbursable Expenses
Be sure to include your hourly rate in your contract, along with any and every possible additional expense the client might be liable for. Database fees add up, as do parking fees, copy fees, record fees, etc. Go through your old business records to see where these fees historically arise. Include them so the client understands that the final price may reflect more than just your hourly rate.
Legal Uses of Information
This section of your contract outlines what the client may and may not do with the information you provide to them. We state that the information is to be used for legal, permissible purposes, in accordance with local, state and federal laws, that the information is to be held in confidence for their own exclusive use and is not to be communicated except as needed within the court of law or with their own legal counsel.
Though of considerable importance, this section of a contract is often overlooked. Our contract outlines that the document in question represents the entirety of the agreement and that there is no other agreement be it expressed, implied, written or oral. We state that we make no guarantees or assurances regarding the outcome of the case, and that we reserve the right to withhold information developed during the course of the investigation. This is to protect our business as well as other parties. What if we were to learn that a protective order was in place, or a client gets arrested for harassment or assault of the subject during the course of the investigation? Just because the client paid for X does not mean they are entitled to Y.
Default Payment/Legal Recourse
We have all dealt with slow-paying clients. Part of it is the cost of working with attorneys who act as intermediaries with clients, but sometimes clients simply do not pay. This section of the contract outlines the payment terms the client is agreeing to, and should make collecting overdue bills easier. We make it clear that if a client defaults, they are responsible for all costs related to the collection of that debt, including reasonable attorney fees, court costs, as well as actual costs incurred in collecting on a judgement. We also state that all litigation will take place in our area, and that we reserve the right to charge interest on bills 60 days or more past due. Finally, we note that even if any portion of the agreement is determined invalid or unenforceable, the remainder of the agreement still stands.
Once the client has read and signed our contract, I countersign and then give them a copy. We have our contracts printed on carbon copy paper, but you can also just run it through the copier. After the meeting, I scan and save a copy on my computer, and place the original hard copy in the folder that I will build on as the case proceeds. Stapling it to the inside of the folder avoids the risk of being misplaced.
I am a firm believer in the protection that a well written and executed contract provides to a Private Investigations firm. This, in combination with straight-forward communication with your client, will set you up to meet or exceed expectations every time.
Article by: Stephanie Savoy
Stephanie Savoy is the owner and managing partner at Savoy & Associates Private Investigations in Naugatuck, Connecticut. She holds a certificate in Legal Investigations from Texas A&M University. Her writing has been featured in other investigation publications and she’s been interviewed on PI’s Declassified. When not working tirelessly for her clients you will find her serving as a Police Commissioner with the Naugatuck Police Department, or coaching youth sports. Contact: Facebook @savoyinvestigations or on Twitter: @savoyassoc