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#WriteTip PIs, Lawyers and Clients: Who’s Driving the Bus?

Posted by Writing PIs on June 11, 2016

Would a PI grill a new client while the lawyer says nothing?

Would a PI grill a new client while the lawyer says nothing? (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

A Cliche in the Making?

Recently, I’ve read this scenario in several private eye novels: In a first-time meeting with a new client in a defense lawyer’s office, the PI runs the show while the lawyer stays mum in the background. Sometimes the PI gets aggressive with the client, going full-tilt interrogation mode, demanding to know what the client said and did at a crime scene, for example. Meanwhile, the lawyer sits idly nearby, saying zilch, the epitome of passivity.

I’ve never met a milquetoast criminal lawyer. Especially on their turf.

Better to double-check for accuracy than propagate a cliche in your story.

Better to double-check for accuracy than propagate a cliche in your story (image licensed by Colleen Collins)

After reading similar scenes in multiple books, I began to wonder if some writers are reading scenes like this in others’ private eye stories, so they copy the same set-up as if it’s realistic. Nope. It’s not. Copying a scenario, especially one involving a legal setting, without conducting some research to check accuracy is lazy writing. You might as well put your PI in a trench coat, carrying a sap, and swilling whiskey while on the job. You know, the stuff cliches are made of.

Let’s look at a few reasons why a PI wouldn’t behave like this.

Why a PI Would Not Blindly Take Control

Typically, a PI has already spoken to the attorney about the case, as well as the lawyer’s client’s involvement, before the meeting. It could even be the PI has recommended this particular client to the attorney, which has happened to us in the past, but we still let the attorney guide the meeting because if the PI takes over, problems can occur:

  • The PI might lead the client to have unreal legal expectations.
  • The PI could propose an unwanted (by the lawyer) course of legal strategy, or the investigator might foreclose the exploration of a viable legal or factual defense.
  • It is unethical for a lawyer to practice law with someone who is not a lawyer, a gray area that the PI could step into if he/she’s trying to run the meeting.
  • A client can lose respect for the lawyer if the PI is coming across as the one in charge. (Note from Shaun, the defense lawyer in Writing PIs: “This is more from the lawyer’s perspective because the last thing a lawyer wants to lose is his client’s respect.”)

Contributing to the Discussion

Nothing wrong with a PI making contributions in such meetings, but a smart PI knows better than to try and drive the bus.

Although you could turn this around for humor, or tension, in your story. Maybe the lawyer warns the PI to stop talking, and the investigator keeps yammering away, until the lawyer invites the PI into the hallway “for a chat.” Or maybe the lawyer warns the PI ahead of time to keep his/her opinions to herself, please, and let the attorney run the meeting…and the PI doesn’t.

Shaun had such a chat with an investigator many years ago because she had a bad habit of trying to “play lawyer,” but at the same time she was a stellar private investigator. After he gave his closing argument at trial, the PI passed him a note that read, “You forgot to mention these points…” And listed items she thought he had missed. “You need to ask the judge for a few more minutes to finish your closing.”

Shaun gave her a look and crumpled up the note. Twenty minutes later, the jury came back with a not guilty verdict.

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All rights reserved by Colleen Collins. Please do not copy/distribute any images noted as copyrighted or licensed. Do not copy or re-use any portions of this article without first contacting its author, Colleen Collins, for her written permission.

Coming Soon: How Do Private Eyes Do That? Second Edition

Coming August 2016 (image copyrighted by Colleen Collins)

Coming August 2016 (image copyrighted by Colleen Collins)

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