Many professionals provide services to attorneys, both as licensed investigators and certified process servers. I count many of these individuals as friends and respect their talents and abilities.
In this article I will identify distinct differences between the two services and the professionals who render them. These differences are not distinctions based on character and capability, but distinctions based on assignments and economics.
A civil process server is a professional charged with delivering summons, subpoenas, and other process run in civil actions throughout the state.1 In the course of this work, process servers conduct efforts to locate witnesses or defendants to effect lawful service. This may consist of conducting cursory interviews of neighbors, family members, employers (if known or developed), or associates, in order to determine the subject’s current whereabouts.
Process servers who are licensed investigators may have access to proprietary databases, which they may use to conduct routine “skip tracing” investigations. These databases provide information about real property, vehicle registrations, and family and associate contact information.
These tasks are conducted for a singular objective: the effectual service of process on the named witness or defendant. This sole objective is consistent with how process servers generate revenue, as income is earned by effecting service (or non-service) on the witness/defendant and submitting an affidavit of service with the invoice.
This singular focus contrasts with that of the professional investigator, who may be called on to conduct a variety of different services to accomplish different objectives. These might include:
- Surveillance to determine the activities of a claimant or a spouse
- Interviewing witnesses to establish liability or verify an alibi
- Researching assets of a debtor or the background of a prospective partner or business investment
- Photographing a crash scene or crash vehicle for submission to an expert or to prepare an exhibit
The means by which a professional investigator generates revenue is typically billable hours, rather than a flat fee. Invoices reflect the variety of tasks completed and billed. The duration of the assignment may be a single hour or may carry on for months or even years.
Naturally, these varied tasks require specific skills that are separate from those required of a process server. For example, a process server should certainly exhibit sufficient communication skills to effect proper service on a named witness or defendant. However, he generally doesn’t need to be able to conduct a comprehensive witness interview or write a detailed report. For a process server, the driving revenue generator is the number of papers served and affidavits completed. A busy process server who is good at what he does usually does not have the time to be doing anything else. Any activity that detracts from those objectives costs the process server income. Some common tasks for a professional investigator – such as online research, witness interviews, surveillance, and field photography – require time that a process server needs to devote to the time-consuming task of effecting proper service on witnesses and defendants.
Investigators and process servers do often work together to locate and serve “hard to find” witnesses and defendants. In those cases, the investigator’s research and interview skills will often result in a successful service on a challenging defendant. The cost to accomplish this will be higher than the ordinary cost of the service. However, without the research, the defendant would never have been found, and the litigation would have stalled indefinitely. (See the accompanying case study, “The Best of Both: Cooperation Between Investigators and Process Servers.)
It is unreasonable to expect a process server to have the same skills as a professional investigator. It is unreasonable for a process server to offer investigative services to attorneys who require a high level of investigative skills to adequately represent their clients. Likewise, busy licensed investigators don’t have time to make multiple attempts at service for a flat fee.
When business is slow and the economy is stagnant, it is tempting to venture into areas outside one’s professional capabilities. However, this is a temptation to be avoided, since it often produces unsatisfactory results for the attorney-client and a failed litigation effort for the client. The professional investigator or process server offers his attorney-clients a level of specific competence developed from years of experience in a particular specialty, and the distinctions between process servers and investigators are significant. Keep these distinctions in mind before asking a busy process server to conduct an important investigation or a busy investigator to serve a large quantity of subpoenas for you.
When you need a quality investigation conducted, call Complete Legal Investigations at 561-687-8381.
 Florida Statute 48.011, 2011