Types of Investigation
Once you have a clear view of the goals of the investigation and an investigation plan, the process of investigation begins. If the best means of obtaining information is through formal discovery, the timing and type of discovery methods used should be discussed with the supervising attorney. If you are pursuing an informal investigation, you may investigate in any one of four ways: through correspondence, by telephone, by computer, or in person. Some investigations require all four methods.
Investigation Through Correspondence
When the purpose of the investigation is to obtain documents, a request by correspondence is often the most efficient means of obtaining documents. In a personal injury case, the plaintiff might supply authorizations for review of medical records. The paralegal might simply send the authorization to the provider with a letter requesting copies of the records by return mail. This method of investigation works well if the documents can be described with particularity and the paralegal knows exactly what documents are available.
A pitfall of using the correspondence method of obtaining information is that the responses tend to be limited to precisely the document asked for.
Using correspondence is not the same as using a subpoena. Responses to correspondence are voluntary and the recipient is under no obligation to provide all possible information that meets your description. While a general, all-encompassing description of documents may be useful in a subpoena, more precise descriptions are required in a request by correspondence.
Investigation by Telephone
Telephone investigation can be used to interview a witness from a remote location, to verify the existence of documents, or to locate other investigative resources. Clerks and records managers are often very helpful when contacted by telephone to discuss the identity, location, and accessibility of documentary evidence. These conversations often identify other sources of information — names of witnesses, knowledge of information handling procedures, etc.
A disadvantage to investigation by telephone is that there is no record of the investigation. The paralegal's notes of the conversation are of limited utility if the other party does not acknowledge the conversation. When interviewing a witness it is often useful to write a letter confirming the matters discussed in the telephone call. If the information is important, the paralegal should give thought to arranging a more formal contact with the witness. In all cases, the information obtained in the telephone call should be reduced to writing as soon as possible. The memo of the telephone conversation should include the date and time of the conversation, the subject matter of the conversation, the person contacted, their contact information, and a complete summary of what was said. If possible, the summary should be organized according to the elements of the case.
Investigation by Computer
A large amount of information for investigations is available online. Data compilations are available from sources as diverse as the U.S. Department of Labor or the National Weather Service. Businesses are required to make online filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Many courts now allow online access to public information filed with the court, including birth and marriage records, real estate filings, and court pleadings. Proprietary databases such as Westlaw and Lexis provide gateways to “people finders” as well as access to numerous newspaper archives. If the information is publicly available, it is likely that it is available online.
Documents do not lose evidentiary value just because they are available online. The paralegal should be aware of the requirement for authenticating an online document, however. Much of the required information is not available on a printout or download and the paralegal must take care to record the necessary information before leaving the online site.
Investigation in Person
Investigation may involve an in-person interview or a review of records. An examination of records in person might be needed when the paralegal is not sure what documents are available, or when the documents are voluminous and it is not expected that all the documents will be needed. In-person document reviews are also necessary when the paralegal expects the documents to be difficult to follow or to read.
If the in-person investigation involves the interview of a witness, the paralegal should prepare for the interview in the manner described in Chapter 17. Special consideration should be given to the timing of the interview in the context of the investigation. If the witness can only be interviewed once, the paralegal may wish to wait until more information is available.