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In social settings, when asked to define himself as an attorney who no longer practices law yet still plays a significant role in the legal world, Charles Eric Gordon offers the intriguing explanation, “I do detective work, but I’m not a detective.” When meeting with business prospects, at law firms and corporate legal departments for the most part, he speaks more plainly about his work as an “investigative counsel.” His job — while not exactly obscure, according to Gordon and his colleagues — is an alternative career path in the law that is unknown to many lawyers, and sometimes misunderstood. “It’s all still a bit under the radar,” said Barbara Kessler, a graduate of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who has been a solo investigative counsel in Manhattan for almost two years. According to one of the largest firms doing business in this specialty area, Vance International/Decision Strategies of Oakton, Va., the bread-and-butter work is the often dry stuff of corporate, criminal and financial investigation, background and due diligence inquiries, security audits and gathering litigation intelligence. But Gordon, a Brooklyn Law School graduate who has been a Long Island-based investigative counsel for 28 years, said there is still “quite a lot of romance” to the work, especially in locating missing persons — such as his recently having to wing off to Eastern Europe in search of cemetery records, an adventure he is obliged to keep secret, or his work on behalf of a celebrity he is not at liberty to identify. “Never can you give the impression you’re a private investigator, which is something very different,” Gordon said. “I always tell clients, ‘You’ve engaged me as special counsel.’ I have a license as a lawyer, and I want to keep that license. “The job,” he said, “has gray areas, but I never go into where it’s dark gray.” Perhaps because Gordon stands somewhere north of six feet, or because he owns one of those seen-it-all faces, or because it is not his habit to appear in lawyerly vesture — “I hate starch,” he says — attorney clients sometimes give free rein to their imaginations. “They’ll say to me, ‘Where’s your ankle holster?’” Gordon sighed. Then, brandishing a cell phone, he said, “This is my piece.” Kessler, too, must occasionally disabuse fellow lawyers of pulp novel assumptions. “I don’t do surveillance,” she said. “I don’t sit in a car.” NO SPECIAL LICENSE Gordon and Kessler have taken advantage of Article VII �83 of the New York State General Business Law exempting attorneys from having to obtain special licensure to conduct private investigations — though they may not call themselves private eyes. Adding to the vagueness, there seems to be no roadmap to becoming an investigative counsel. “The profile that our firm would look for is an attorney who was a former federal prosecutor, or a federal agent also admitted to practice,” said Robert W. Knapp, managing director and regional counsel in the New York office of Vance. Knapp, a former longtime attorney for the FBI, said there are two types of lawyers who come his way: “They’ve had enough on the public side, and want to increase their financial return, or they’re seniors guys with federal or local governments looking at a second career.” But lawyers in private practice, senior and otherwise, are also beginning to see the work of investigative counsel as a career option. Nobody seems to know how many, but organizations such as the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals and the Society of Professional Investigators report a small spike in lawyers among their members. While salaries at Vance and other such firms may be attractive to public sector attorneys, Gordon said Manhattan associates weary of big-firm life but accustomed to its economic benefits should be guided accordingly. “I make six figures,” acknowledged Gordon, who said he usually bills clients at an hourly rate of $300. “But I don’t make what a second-year [big-firm] associate makes.” At the straight research level, said Knapp, investigative counsels bill at about $195 hourly. The more complex the work, he said, the more the charge, averaging to $265 hourly. As head of his firm’s New York office, Knapp said he bills at $325 hourly. For Kessler, money is neither a big draw nor a significant drawback. Having gone solo as an investigative counsel, she said, “It’s nice creating my own day. When you’re in the grind, no matter how much you enjoy your work you’re in someone else’s world. I’d rather incorporate my work into my life than my life into my work.” After a career in marketing for the U.S. Football League and Citicorp, Kessler enrolled at Cardozo for her law degree. But after a stint as an attorney at a small general practice, “I found [the law] wasn’t as rewarding as I was hoping it would be.” Back at Cardozo for advice, she found a job posting from a business intelligence firm seeking people with legal backgrounds. Kessler was hired, and soon discovered that her non-lawyer colleagues were at a disadvantage. For example, when a certain company wanted information on a competitor rumored to be opening a new plant, Kessler said her law school training led her to conclude from a trade press article that the competitor would likely be eligible for tax incentives. “You have to apply for those incentives, and that’s public record,” said Kessler. “So I filed a [Freedom of Information Act] request and ended up getting quite a lot of information on that plant, right down to the size of employee lockers.” LEARNING THE CRAFT Gordon learned the basics of his craft while a student at Brooklyn Law, working a part-time job at Bankers Trust as a “skip tracer” — a particularly dogged sort of collector who deals with particularly cunning debtors. With such experience, he was assigned to work with the detective squad during a follow-up student internship at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, where he mastered the art of wiretapping. Over the years, he learned other arts: trademark research, locating missing persons and detecting tenant fraud in rent-stabilized apartment houses. Essential tools of the trade, Kessler and Gordon said, are computers, a lawyer’s facility with public records, and a talent for teasing information out of real, live people. Gordon is especially proud of a recent case in which he chatted up a court clerk in Alabama by telephone, persuading the clerk to patch him through to a judge who drew up a legal opinion on the spot, enabling Gordon to obtain a juicy tidbit, the sort of research item that simply cannot be Googled. The downside of her life as an investigative counsel, said Kessler, can be the low profile of her specialty. “I’m a lawyer, and I have to keep up with my CLE, but there are very few courses out there that speak to me,” she said. “I do hope this area becomes more well known. It would be nice if I didn’t have to always explain to people what I do.”

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