Finding the Right People to Help in a Legal Case

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1. You've just completed the initial phases of your client's big-money personal injury car-accident case. You've verified the insurance from the other driver, taken care of the client's property damage, sent the client to a doctor for treatment, and reviewed the police report carefully.
Finding the Right People to Help in a Legal Case

Late one Friday, you have a very brief conversation with the only witness to the crash who tells you he is just going out the door and asks if he can get back to you on Monday.

You dutifully leave him your office number and, when Monday and Tuesday come and go, you call him back. A metallic voice answers the phone with this chilling phrase: "The number you have reached is no longer in service. Please hang up and try your call again."

Your star witness, the one person who can verify your client's side of the story, has moved.

2. Your partnership dissolution case has dragged on for months and months. Both partners hate each other and have disrupted depositions, ruined settlement meetings, and generally made everyone's life miserable. After months of waiting for his partner to cooperate, the client says he's tired of negotiating and wants the courts to settle this business ''divorce." The defendant, a 20-year resident of the community, fails to show up at his office on the day your process server comes with the summons and complaint. Not only is he not there, but his furniture, file cabinets, and telephones are also missing.

3. Your firm has really worked hard on this probate case-long hours, bad takeout food, no rest for weeks and weeks. You've finally come to the end of a long road that started nearly two years ago. The estate money coming to the client represents a tidy sum. Your firm's percentage of the total check will make the partners happy for quite a spell.

The client is kind of a maverick, changing jobs and cities often enough to have a standing account with a moving and storage firm. You just spoke with her a few months ago to give her an update on the case. With the check in hand you send off a letter saying, "We've settled the case. Please call us immediately to get your check."

After a week, your letter comes back marked, "Return to Sender-No Forwarding Address." The client's check sits in your firm's trust account, gathering dust.

So what two things do these minor tragedies have in common? A strong sense of disappointment and a renewed feeling that the "real" work in the case has just begun. We all like to feel good about our work. These new problems locating witnesses, defendants, and clients can only add to your frustration level. Just when you think the case has turned the comer toward settlement or you've even re ceived the money from the other side, you can't enjoy any sense of accomplishment or closure. What do you do now that your case is in apparent shambles? How do you cope with missing participants? When all appears bleak, keep the following rules in mind.

Plan for these surprises before they happen: While no one expects you to have a crystal ball attached to your desk, you may be able to anticipate and ward off some problems with your witnesses, defendants, and clients.

Don't be shy about asking your witnesses if they plan to move anytime soon or if they will change jobs, addresses, or phone numbers in the near future. When you send them a "sign under penalty of perjury" statement, have them include their driver's licenses and Social Security numbers with their signatures.

Keep track of any available information that might help you later if they disappear: home and work addresses; home and work phone numbers; wives', husbands', in-laws', or childrens' names; license plates; post office box numbers; rental property addresses; probation or parole officers' or military base supervisors' names; bank accounts or finance company addresses; etc.

Try to make some assumptions about where these people might be in three months, six months, or a year from now. Are your witnesses, defendants, or clients in jail right now? In the military? In a community college or state university study program? Enrolled in a trade school or technical school? Married with a new last name? Divorced and using a previous name?

Find out where they work and make a note of their work supervisors' names and phone numbers if you can. This information may help you if these people quit, get transferred to another division in the same company, or change jobs but stay in the same career field. Learn to read the clues of movement: impending address, job, or marital status changes. If you're really concerned a witness, defen dant, or client will skip out on you, make a note on your calendar to review the file at appropriate intervals, checking status and verifying any new information.

Don’t worry more than necessary about these delays:

Accept the fact that there are some people who will not cooperate under any circumstances. Some fail to cooperate no matter how nice you are; others are negative and uncooperative even if you threaten them with civil, legal, or financial punishments. Remember that we live in a mobile, ever-changing society. People move from job to job and to different cities, states, or even countries much more readily than they did 20 years ago.

We also live in a highly transient country. A surprisingly large portion of our population has no real community roots and seems to drift from town to town, working and living just day to day. Many of these same people who bounce around like this also need more legal services-for accidents, insurance claims, arrests, etc.-than more structured, longtime community residents.

Don't lose sleep over what you cannot control or couldn't have foreseen. Regardless of what the attorneys or other related case participants say, it's not the end of the world. There are always other ways to proceed even though it seems as if everyone who is important to your case is gone. In these apparent last-resort situations, you can rely on taped conversations for missing witnesses, sub-service or ser vice by publication for your missing defendants, and due-diligence court orders to get your share of client settlement fees, Focus your attention and energies on more positive outcomes: finding these people and successfully closing the case. Concentrate on which people you need to find, when you need to find them, where, how, and why. You'll need to budget some of your time, an investigator's time, and most likely some money from your firm's expense account.

Start looking immediately for your missing person:

In most cases, time is of the essence. Don't waste a single minute floundering around for more information, motivation, or a place to start. If you wait too long to start the chase, you'll get far behind and fall into the "You just missed him" trap.

As soon as you hear of or recognize a potential problem, get busy. Pick up the phone, call your firm's outside investigators, and give them all the information they'll need to start a "skip trace." Try not to waste time tracking undeliverable certified letters or disconnected phone numbers. Focus your efforts on postal checks, telephone directory assistance, credit and property searches, and places of employment first. These areas usually offer the best results in the least amount of time.

Use a checklist each time you search for missing people:

Create a checklist of skip trace and locate activities for missing persons. Make copies and add them to your problem case files. Using the checklist ensures you won't forget any critical steps or leave out any important information that may become useful later. It also keeps you from covering old ground and wasting time tracking dead end leads.

Be prepared to wait for results: Witnesses, defendants, and clients can disappear and reappear as if by magic. One day, after you've abandoned all hope, your long-lost client will miraculously phone your office to ask, "Whatever happened with my case?" Finding missing people takes equal portions of skill and patience, but it also requires a fair amount of plain old luck. You may stumble across a piece of information that solves the entire mystery, or you may get a call from the missing person out of the blue. You may just have to resign yourself to the fact that all you can do is all you can do and wait for something to happen. If you apply proven search methods and invest some time and patience in the waiting game, you may be rewarded with the people or information you seek.

Putting Investigators on the Trail

The decision to use investigators to locate missing persons depends on a few important factors: the cost considerations, the overall strength and importance of the case, and time deadlines. If the case is relatively minor in terms of dollar values, or the participation of a missing witness is less consequential to the outcome, it probably makes better sense to save the money an investigator would require to locate the person. It's pointless to spend a large sum to find some one who might not contribute much to the case. If you have other witnesses or more viable options at your disposal, there's no need to throw good money after bad.

However, if time pressures are suddenly looming, it makes excel lent sense to get investigators busy on the case. They can often get good results in as little as one day or even one hour. Using their resources, some of which are more nefarious than others, they can often track down someone in such a short period of time that it saves the case and more than justifies their fees.

Following the Trail Yourself

As investigator Joe Coyle mentioned, the more you can do on your own, the better chance you have of finding the person without outside help. Your efforts to start the search process first can save time for you and money for your firm.

Remember the examples that opened this article. Each one presents a different case problem and a different type of missing person. These examples may be very similar to cases you're working on right now or to ones that may come up later. Try not to get discouraged as you search and wait. Keep your mind fixed on the various incen tives that will come when you locate a missing person: financial rewards for your clients and your firm; legal and professional satisfaction for finding the people in time to meet case deadlines, depositions, and court hearings; and most importantly, additional job satisfaction for you.

To find these lost people, follow some simple and inexpensive step-by-step procedures first, before you move on to other techniques or get help from an investigator.

Help from the Phone Company

Hearing the recorded voice of a phone company employee tell you an important phone number is no longer in service can chill your bones. But although it may appear that the person has moved, don't jump to any immediate conclusions.

Consider first that there may be troubles with the phone line. Try your calls at different times later in the day, and maybe the phone lines will work again.

Perhaps the phone was in fact disconnected, but the resident still lives at that address. Some people have problems paying their bills and can't get phone service. Sending your investigator or, if you have enough time, a certified letter to the address may get an immediate response.

If you're sure the person no longer lives at the address, wait a few more days to see if he or she gave a forwarding number to the telephone company that wasn't immediately installed on the old number.

Using your copy of the most current phone book, look for the person's name and all abbreviations of his or her first name. If you know the spouse's, relatives', or in-laws' names, look for those too. It never hurts to call and ask; they may lead you to the person you want. If the surname is not common, you might try calling straight down the column. After years of fielding misdirected phone calls, many people learn to identify and locate unrelated persons who share their last name.

If by chance you know your missing person has moved to another state, start with the area code and Directory Assistance again. Get an atlas or a map of the state and find the city. Go to the phone book and get the area code. If the state uses one area code for complete coverage, ask the operator to check for the new listing state wide. (They don't always like to do this, so ask nicely.) You'd be amazed how many times this works.

If you have the phone numbers of other witnesses, call and ask if they know the person you're looking for. In some cases, the wit nesses will have been passengers in the same car, friends together at the scene of an incident, or otherwise acquainted by virtue of profes sional or personal relationships.

Help from Property Records

You can try to find out if your missing person owns property in one of two ways: by checking the county property lists or by getting the information from a private real estate database service. The first method involves a trip to the county hall of records or courthouse for a detailed search under the person's name. You also can do some of your research at the county assessor's office to see where the person's property tax bills are being sent.

The database method is much faster, although it can be expen sive. With most of these services, the online time is charged by the minute plus a standard search fee. Many private investigators subscribe to these real estate search services and can get this infor mation for you.

Keep in mind this property search method only works if the missing person's name is on the deed or title to a piece of property; it doesn't locate renters, just owners.

Help from the Motor Vehicles Department

Nearly everyone over the age of 16 in this country has a driver's license, a state identification card, or a car registered in his or her name.

Many investigation firms subscribe to data search companies that are allowed access to state motor vehicle records. Privacy of informa tion laws vary from state to state, with some quite liberal and others, like California's, much more stringent. Depending on your particular state, you can get DMV information that ranges from extremely help ful to barely useful.

The key to the value of DMV information relates mostly to its recency. DMV records, unlike fine wines, don't get better with age. Old addresses, bad license plates, and other similar dated information can only cause you or your investigator to waste valuable searching time. Most people are basically honest, and they notify their DMV soon after they move. This keeps them current in the computer files and helps them get their new registration tags and license renewals.

It's fairly simple and painless to locate these people. However, there are some people who don't notify DMV after each move either be cause they're forgetful, or have crime on their minds, or they move so often that they have a hard time keeping track of themselves.

Many state DMV records are cross-referenced, meaning that en tering the person's name also will give you his or her driver's license number, driving record and license history, and any vehicles-including boats, trailers, and motor homes-that are registered under his or her name. Depending on who gets the information for you and the speed of your state DMV office, it usually takes about 10 working days to get a printout copy of someone's driving record.

If you run into roadblocks with one name, try running same-surnamed relatives or children if you know of them, You can often verify that the infxormation is current by checking the last date the DMV interacted with the person. Anything over one year old is probably suspect. If your information is fairly current, it's much more likely to be accurate.

Help from Credit Agencies

Many fraudulent people use several different Social Security numbers to confuse creditors and keep the IRS and other agencies off their backs. If you find several names and several numbers, you may have a more serious criminal violator on your hands.

Besides providing location and credit status, the credit report is useful for gauging a person's assets should a civil suit become neces sary. Besides acting as a first-look net worth indicator, the report also may list court judgements against the person, wage attachments, and state and federal tax liens. This information can help you plan your case better and may offer other suggestions to help find the person. If your firm doesn't subscribe to a database information service, you might want to do some research and present a list of these companies to your attorneys. Many of these firms offer a wide range of information, including DMV records; personal and business credit; property, title, and asset searches; and criminal, civil, and judicial index records.

If you do decide to use one of these services, help it as you would an investigator by providing as much information as possible.

Help from the Government

Whether you like it or not, our government keeps tabs on everybody, young or old, large or small. Banks of federal computers whir and grind 24 hours a day, keeping track of us for tax purposes and reasons of business, national security, defense, law enforcement, property, voting, mail, health, farming, industry, and for a range of other rea sons we're not always too sure about.

While much of this information is protected at the federal, state, county, and city level, some of it is not. With a little diligence and some careful searching, you can find out many things about a person. Your tax dollars have paid for this tracking system, it's legal and relatively accurate and efficient, so why not put it to good use for your firm?

Here's a short list of some of the offices, divisions, and databanks within our vast government where you can do some research:

At the County Courthouse/Hall of Records:

Fictitious business license applications: You can search the files for addresses here by the person's name or by the company's fictitious business name. Marriage? birth? death certificates: Access to these records may give you new leads or answer questions about the whereabouts of a missing person.

Criminal cases: Using the public records of Municipal and Superior Court proceedings, you can identify convicted criminals and find out if they are in jail, on parole, or on probation.

Civil cases: You can research civil court cases and locate plaintiffs and defendants involved in past proceedings.

Other Resources:

The Office of the Secretary of State in your state: You can call this office in your state capitol to request address and personnel information, such as the agent for service, for a corporation incorpo rated or doing business in your state.

Marshals? Constables? Sheriffs as process servers: You can contract with these public officials to serve your civil process papers for you. They are often more efficient and less expensive than private enterprise attorney services. These law enforcement officials are especially helpful if you have defendants to serve in small towns and rural areas.

Depositions, Dollars, and Due Diligence

Sometimes you want to find missing people, like clients, to give them money. Other times you may want to find and depose witnesses and other case participants to get critical information. And still other times you may want to find and serve defendants for the purposes of relieving them of their money. In each case, make sure you use the right piece of paper for the job. If you have to subpoena witnesses, tell them what to bring with them (as with a subpoena duces tecum), when to appear, and how much, if anything, they will be paid for their time.

Lastly, if you or your investigator decides to throw in the towel and give up trying to find someone, make sure you document every effort to both locate and serve the person. Due diligence laws vary from state to state. If you fail to follow correct "sub-service" or ser vice-by-publication requirements, you could run into many proof-of-service headaches later on.

Some states require at least three bona fide attempts to serve a person and three different types of records checks, i.e., voter registra tion rolls, DMV records, and a postal check, before you can serve by publication or any other similar legal method. Do what you can to find the person and then move on to other cases.

Missing Person Search Checklist

Here's a detailed checklist you can copy as one of your case file forms when you need to find your missing witnesses, defendants, and clients. Type the items on a page and put a line next to each one, so you can check it off as you complete it. Many investigators use a similar form themselves.
  • Current Phone Book Listing
  • City wide Telephone Directory Assistance
  • Statewide Directory Assistance
  • Call other witnesses/family members/workplaces
  • Property Search
  • County Property Tax Records
  • Deeds and 1 itles
  • DMV Records By Name
  • DMV Records By Vehicle
  • DMV Records By Boat/Other Vehicles
  • Out-of-State DMV Records Check
  • Credit History-Personal and Business
  • Social Security Number Check
  • Postal Check
  • Voter Registration
  • Civil Index-Superior and Municipal Courts
  • Federal Civil Index
  • City, State, and Federal Criminal Cases
  • Fictitious Business Names
  • Citv Business License
  • Special Licenses/Permits/Degrees
  • Secretary of State Incorporations
  • City Business Tax Liens
  • State Tax Liens
  • Federal Tax Liens
  • Birth/Marriage/Death Records

Most people, unless they are wanted fugitives, leave some paper trail behind them. To locate various witnesses, defendants, or forgetful clients, just use the resources at your disposal along with a little common sense.

Get authorization to make important decisions before you proceed. Keep time and deadline pressures, dollar figures, degrees of difficulty, and your firm's and client's spending limits in mind at all times. Do what you can on your own, and then get the help of a licensed, qualified investigator after you’ve exhausted the possibilities on your end.

Rest assured that your attorneys don't expect you to become a PI nor should you want to be one if you're comfortable working as a paralegal. Do what you can from your desk and make a few trips to some governmental agencies for more help. Otherwise, stick to your own job and rely on skip trace and locate experts to do the leg work for you. This helps you avoid any conflicts of interest, malpractice, or other legal or statutory violations.

Don't forget that when trying to find missing persons, luck and patience often play just as important a part as skill and experience.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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About Harrison Barnes

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