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Houston-In a perfect world, law firms could employ private investigators who are as skilled as pseudo-bumbling television police detective Columbo, according to Dallas lawyer William Brewer III. That’s rarely the case when Brewer contracts with private investigation companies to help with litigation at 35-lawyer Bickel & Brewer, so the firm launched its own investigative unit in January. It’s staffed by three former agents and a former training instructor with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “It saves the clients money, because it’s more efficient,” said Brewer, a name partner in the firm. “The thing that bothers us all too often [with outside investigators] is we are paying rates . . . for investigators that charge like lawyers, but who deliver sporadic quality.” Brewer said that the firm’s new in-house investigators will do a better job than outside investigators because they will work closely with the firm’s attorneys on litigation and have a better handle on the information that’s needed. “They can help you review the evidence and help in the advocacy,” Brewer said, noting the firm uses investigators in 90% of the civil suits on its docket. All too often, Brewer said, reports from outside investigation firms prompt him to scratch his head and wonder, “How is this useful?” Bickel & Brewer isn’t the first Texas firm to have private investigators on staff. But Bickel & Brewer, which also employs consultants with degrees in tax, finance and engineering, may be taking the concept to a new level by launching such a large unit of in-house PIs. “It’s been tradition on the plaintiffs’ side to have one, because they are doing so much investigation on PI cases,” said Thomas Ajamie of Houston firm Ajamie. “You can see how a medium- to large-size commercial law firm would benefit. It would make a lot of sense.” Investigative work is simply too important for Bickel & Brewer, which handles securities and large commercial suits, to rely upon a spotty network of outside investigators, Brewer said. Rusty Hardin of Rusty Hardin & Associates in Houston, is another trial lawyer in Texas convinced that having an investigator in-house at a firm is the way to go. “I don’t understand why more firms don’t do it,” said Hardin, whose firm handles civil and criminal work. “I am constantly shaking my head at the number of large firms that call us for a reference for an investigator.” Ex-cop does the job Hardin said Jim Yarbrough, a former Houston Police Department homicide investigator, has worked at his firm for four years. Hardin said Yarbrough is a tremendous asset, particularly for the firm’s civil work. Hardin noted that law enforcement officers do a better job at witness interviews than lawyers, and at investigations. It’s also cheaper for clients, Hardin said. “I would much rather have an investigator at $150 an hour interviewing people-and the client would-than being charged $300 or so by a lawyer,” Hardin said. Even though his firm has only nine lawyers, Hardin said he is seriously considering employing a second investigator. Plaintiffs’ lawyer Mikal Watts said he employs eight investigators at his firm, the 27-lawyer Watts Law Firm in Corpus Christi, Texas. It’s efficient, he said. Watts said he usually employs former Corpus Christi police officers. The firm does a lot of automotive litigation, and Watts said some of the investigators he employs “are real specialized in terms of being able to do seat-belt analysis and knowing how to document the scene of an accident.” Brewer said he frequently uses investigators to help develop a case outside of the formal discovery process. “One way to go in preparing a complex case is to take 100 depositions. Another way to do it is to find out which people may have information [and] who are relevant to the case, and send a seasoned professional to go out and interview them, like Columbo,” Brewer said.

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