The Boons of Being a Generalist - Especially When Conducting Investigations During a Pandemic

The Boons of Being a Generalist - Especially When Conducting Investigations During a Pandemic

In his 2019 book Range, journalist and author David Epstein makes the case for generalists in a world dominated by specialists. Epstein, a sports journalist, contrasts the upbringings and backgrounds of the generationally dominant figures in golf and tennis: Tiger Woods, who was groomed for greatness, and Roger Federer, who played many youth sports and even resisted advancement in tennis so he could stay in a group with his friends. The successful practice of investigative research is in much the same way predicated on a diverse, generalist skill set and profile and positions practitioners to better serve their clients by bringing a broader array of abilities to the task of answering their questions and solving [or mitigating] their problem. There will still be plenty of times a subject-matter expert (such as in the fields of forensic accounting, anti-money laundering, cryptocurrency or digital forensics and data recovery) will be absolutely necessary in an investigation, but the generalist will know if, when and what type of expert is needed. Here are a few examples from 2020 that many business lawyers and other practitioners likely can relate to or learn from. They illustrate how being a generalist can get the case on the right track from the outset.       

“I need a cyber expert,” said one client. As any business lawyer can relate, the approach to your client’s case depends in large part not only on the information the client provides at the onset, but the details you are able to draw out during an initial intake call. What clients “think” they need often isn’t what they really need. Generalists who are highly skilled and seasoned are quickly able to ascertain the client’s real need. Inquiring about a “cyber expert” is like saying one needs “a lawyer.” Each of these professions has many specialty areas. After listening to our client, it turned out she didn’t need a cyber expert, but was instead in need of assistance in 1) identifying the sender of an anonymous – and threatening – email; and, 2) conducting a threat assessment to learn more about the sender’s personal and professional background, past behaviors, life situation and “red flag” issues.

“We need to conduct an internal investigation and interview employees and other stakeholders in-person,” said a corporate client recently. In any other year, an investigative team would hop in a car or get on a plane and head to the client site. But, this is 2020. Delaying an investigation comes with a slew of drawbacks and downsides, so this case required much more in the way of planning, staffing, and logistics for the health and safety of all involved. The most crucial decision was to determine which interviews were necessary to conduct in person, and which could be done remotely. Of the remote interviews, who can we talk to by phone and whom should we schedule on video. And, how do we as interviewers assess a witness’ or suspect’s credibility if he or she is wearing a mask and sitting six or more feet away? These are the considerations du jour, while an in-person interview is preferable and often the best way to obtain information, there are often subjects who are providing less critical or important information who can be interviewed in a remote context.

“Our legal team needs a copy of [a police report, a vehicle title, court filing] ASAP to use in a court proceeding,” said numerous clients. These days, not much is happening ASAP, especially when it comes to getting copies of records when they aren’t available online and the agency that has the record is closed to the public. A generalist understands both the array of public records available, and where they are housed and will know how to get them as quickly as possible by not simply accepting the agency is closed to the public but trying one or more ways simultaneously to see what might work the quickest. While email has displaced the phone for so much business communication, 2020 ought to remind us what an invaluable instrument for every investigator the telephone is. A polite call to a court clerk accompanied by a bit of persistence can yield – yes! – a faxed copy of a record which otherwise can’t be emailed. The generalist might also know that the information could come from either the tax assessor or the county recorder. Maybe someone already posted a copy of the court filing online on her social media feed? Or, perhaps submitting a FOIA request to a police department might get you a copy of the police report quicker than the one in the criminal court file gathering dust in the closed courthouse.     
      
There are myriad examples why being a generalist in investigations – and many fields – is beneficial. A generalist is not an inexperienced newbie but instead one with years of professional experience and expertise, with a broad reaching yet deep skillset across a variety of areas. What you get with a generalist is someone who has the foresight on how to handle a situation, who can predict the next obstacle and who is equally at ease talking to a CEO or the tax assessor in a tiny town. She can also conduct an investigation and source interviews across multiple countries, find and forensically capture social media posts of interest, weed out dozens of civil litigation namesake matches (of, say, Michael Smith in Chicago), run a surveillance operation, and cogently summarize press findings on some esoteric topic like fracking. And, these days she can take receipt of copy of an order of protection from a court clerk giving second life to the fax as a communications tool. And, if she can’t do those things, she knows who can.