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Building the Perfect P.I.

I’ve been lucky lately; things have been good. As a result, my business has been growing and I’ve been looking for investigators to hire. In preparing to interview applicants, I forced myself to sit down and define exactly what qualities an exceptional private investigator possesses. For it would be these qualities, perhaps only in seed form, that I would be looking for. Now, keep in mind I’m not talking about job skills here – things like, for example, knowledge of public records. Rather, I’m talking about core personality traits and characteristics. The more I pondered what these qualities might be, the more I realized that what I was really looking for was a P.I. who had it all. A P.I. who was perfect.

Of course, finding perfection in anything human is, by definition, futile. Then I started thinking…what if…I could build a perfect P.I.? What qualities would he or she possess?

I came up with a list of five key traits – certainly there are others, but these five seem to tower above all else in importance. See if you agree that these are the five most important traits for a private investigator to have. In essence, the building blocks of the perfect P.I.


Integrity stands above all other traits possessed by the perfect P.I. The perfect P.I. knows right from wrong and is committed to right in both his professional and personal life. I don’t believe that a P.I. who has compromised ethics can, or will, fully hold others to a high standard that he himself has failed to achieve.

Integrity also means that evidence, witness interviews and other important data are never skewed to support one case theory or another. Bad news for the investigation is reported with the same unvarnished forthrightness as good. If he screws up – fails to be at a certain place or time as needed, or gets burned on a surveillance, or uses poor judgment – he voluntarily reports this to his supervisor.

Integrity is the foundation of trust and once a case director or client’s trust in an investigator is diminished, the value of the investigator is also diminished. Simply put, the greatest asset any investigator has is his integrity – and once he discounts this, he places himself in the bargain bin as well.


This is not a profession for those fond of mysterious appearances and disappearances; for those who dazzle us with their brilliance when present, but leave us in a state of disarray when absent, waiting for their return to Earth.

The perfect P.I. is always present for an assignment as requested. No search party is needed to locate him when his services are required. When he’s assigned a surveillance to start at 6:00 a.m., he’s there at 5:45, not 6:20 or later. And when not on duty, he’s just a phone call away. If he’s not immediately reachable by phone and a message is left, he’ll respond in a timely manner; never nine hours later or, even worse, the next day. He understands that being reliable doesn’t mean demonstrating that you can be reliable once or twice and then forgetting about it – it means proving it every single time out.


By desire, I’m talking about the desire and passion to be a private investigator. A critical component of the perfect P.I. is that he wants to be one. Amongst those in our profession, there are the transient. One day, they will be doing something other than investigating for a living. And then there are the rest of us – the lifers. Find a lifer (or a potential lifer) and you’ll have an investigator whose mind and body is in the same place. A powerful energy can arise from this unity of purpose.

Less desirable are those who have never had a true desire to be a P.I., or those who had it and lost it. Included in these groups are moonlighters who work in the profession but would really rather be doing something else - actor, writer, cop. Also included are long time investigators whose desire has been lost in the haze of job burnout.

The investigator whose sole desire is to be an investigator will waken at three in the morning and churn over the details of a case before drifting back to sleep and letting his subconscious take over. When he wakes up in the morning, he suddenly has a new fresh approach to try on a particularly tough case. The other P.I., who’s not fully committed, may wake awaken in the middle of the night but his thoughts are of his other interests, not his cases. Now, which one do you think is more likely to come up with a break through on any given case?


The perfect P.I. will also possess the quality of self-reliance. He doesn’t need a corporate policy manual to find the lunchroom – he’ll use his nose. When he goes to the courthouse to review an important file for a background check and is told it’s not available, he doesn’t stop there and return to the office with nothing but "What could I do?" on his lips. He starts asking questions. Where might it be? Is there a supervisor he can talk to? He’ll bend the rules and if absolutely necessary, he’ll break them, but as gently as possible while never breaking the law. He finds a way to locate the file and obtain the needed information because if he doesn’t do it, no one else will.

A key part of being self-reliant is the ability to improvise when the unexpected happens. The ability to improvise is a characteristic that is frowned upon by many large bureaucracies, but rewarded in our profession. This is why many investigators coming out of large government and business institutions often (but not always!) fail to thrive as private investigators. After years of enslavement to policy manuals, they have lost the ability to think fast on their feet. Put a person without the quality of self-reliance out on a case and just wait till the unexpected happens: They’ll lurch and fall as if stepping out onto ice covered sidewalk.


Persistence is the secret behind so many "miracles" performed by top private investigators and is a quality that many, many would-be investigators lack. Above all else, persistence is driven by a strong unwillingness to accept defeat – a strong attribute of the perfect P.I.

This is the investigator who will sink his teeth into a lead and not let go until it’s bled dry of all possible usefulness. This is the worker’s comp investigator who uses his own time to check up on the subject of an investigation; quietly and methodically noting patterns that will assure success when he goes on the clock to conduct actual surveillance. This is the investigator who doesn’t become dispirited when canvassing a large area, perhaps an entire town, for a license plate. He breaks the area up into quadrants or grids and methodically eliminates them one at a time. The investigator lacking the quality of persistence becomes overwhelmed by the prospects of finding a needle in a haystack and, feeling hopeless, quits early or becomes easily sidetracked.

As with reliability, persistence is not a trait that the perfect P.I. demonstrates he is capable of achieving on one or two occasions and then delegates to afterthought status. It is a habit. He has it with him every single time out, just like his business cards.

In summary, it is these five qualities – Integrity, Reliability, Desire, Self-Reliance and Persistence that are the blueprint of the perfect P.I. How close to perfection are you?

Robert Scott is a Los Angeles-based private investigator and author of "The Investigator's Little Black Book 3". This article was originally published in P.I. Magazine in 2001.



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