An Interview with Mike Hawkins
“The most important traits for a successful private investigator are people skills and the ability to think logically.”
Mike Hawkins is a private investigator and the owner of Hawkins Group, a licensed private investigation agency in Washington state.
Mike holds a Juris Doctorate from Mercer Law School and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History from Mercer University. Before he became a private investigator in 2004, Mike was a lawyer for 15 years and a federal investigator with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and U.S. Treasury for more than 10 years. In addition to his private investigative work, Mike teaches courses such as Anti-Terrorism Management, Arson Investigation and Search and Seizure to law enforcement officials.
In your own words, what is a private investigator?
A private investigator helps solve major cases involving felonies such as homicide, rape and large-scale drug trafficking. The investigator typically works on behalf of the defense team rather than the government. I have worked as a private investigator since 2004, and I have years of previous experience as a lawyer and federal agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and U.S. Treasury.
My work as a private investigator is somewhat common for people with my background, but other professionals in my field find work in law enforcement, litigation and federal prosecution, as well. I often interact with these other professionals as a result of my work with defense attorneys.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a private investigator,” what would your response be?
I would tell the student to make sure that they show respect to everyone they meet and are prepared for the rigorous schedule of a private investigator. Demonstrating respect to people no matter their backgrounds is key for making connections and obtaining information.
Private investigation also has a demanding schedule. I may not work 80 hours every week like I did as a lawyer, but I cannot always predict when I will need to work, or for how long. For example, some clients can only meet at certain times of the day. At other times, surveillance work or travel might keep me up well into the night. Those who want a predictable, 9 to 5 schedule should look at another career.
What level of education is ideal to become a private investigator?
Private investigators have no formal education requirement to work in the field, but those who specialize typically hold at least a bachelors degree. Those with only a high school education often perform surveillance for cases involving domestic disputes or workers compensation claims. Private investigators who have formal education tend to work with major or felony criminal cases.
My own formal education is the result of my previous career as a lawyer and has been very applicable to my work. It has given me a grasp on the rules of legal and admissible evidence, civic and criminal law and the legal language used by defense attorneys.
Are there any licensing or certification requirements to become a private investigator?
Yes, there are licensing requirements to become a private investigator, but they generally apply only to those who want to open their own agencies. These requirements also vary by state. In Washington state, those who want to open their own agency have to take an exam from the Department of Licensing or receive a waiver based on their background or field experience.
Why did you decide to become a private investigator?
I did not want to retire when my time with the government came to an end so I decided to start my own private investigation agency. I became interested in investigative work after I stopped practicing law and became a federal agent.
What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about becoming a private investigator?
Although I generally had a grasp on what to expect, I misjudged the availability of private investigative work. I believed it would be steadier than it is.
What do you enjoy most and least about being a private investigator?
I enjoy getting out and meeting people from all walks of life. I have dealt with motorcycle and street gang members, drug addicts and criminals. This variety of interaction and the freedom to get out of my home office are satisfying to me.
I dislike the business side of being a private investigator, however. Maintaining all of my records, paying taxes and performing all crucial business tasks is unappealing.
What is a typical week like for you?
I typically work 40 hours or more a week and spend most of my time alone. During the week, I set my own schedule, which fluctuates a great deal. Private investigation is not a traditional 9 to 5 job. I may be out working at 3 in the morning on a Sunday, for example.
My tasks during the week include calling and interviewing relevant people, or searching for them, and then writing reports on the information that I uncover. I also meet frequently with clients, or with other private investigators who are working for or with me. Depending on my cases, I might even do surveillance and executive protection work with computers and databanks.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
Over the years, I have developed the ability to compartmentalize my personal life and my career, which enables me to keep an acceptable balance between the 2. In my years as a lawyer and then a federal agent, I could not share my cases with my family. I had to keep my thoughts and feelings separate because I was obligated to stay silent. That compartmentalization has helped me make my personal time about me rather than my cases.
Compartmentalization also helps me manage the stress of this profession. The most stressful part of my job is not knowing what someone may do when cornered or questioned, especially if they are criminals.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a private investigator and what traits would hinder success?
The most important traits for a successful private investigator are people skills and the ability to think logically. Private investigators get out and do research. They talk to people. And private investigators sometimes have to be persuasive. Unlike federal agents, they do not have the weight of the government behind them when they are trying to get information from someone. Being unable to get out and interact with others will hinder most investigative work.
A private investigator also needs to see little pieces of information and use them to construct the big picture of an event. Cases are like word puzzles in this way. People who cannot apply logic to details and objective facts will struggle in this profession.
Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?
Yes, I would have gotten a degree in criminal justice instead of political science, but that was not an option at the time.
Are there any extra-curricular experiences that you think a student interested in becoming a private investigator should pursue?
Yes, I recommend that students interested in becoming private investigators should take self-defense or martial arts classes to prepare them for their work.
What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most and least valuable for the work you do today?
The most useful course I took was a writing course. So much of private investigative work involves written communication, so error-free, grammatically correct writing is essential. These days, however, social media sites often lead people to develop poor grammar habits. A college-level writing course can correct those habits.
Speaking more broadly, students should try to acquire the broadest education they can manage. This profession throws people into unexpected situations, which makes a diverse skill-set an asset.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a private investigator?
I caution students not to believe what they see on television. Television shows often treat court cases as fast-paced, and the characters even break laws now and then. In reality, cases take months and years to close and private investigators should never break the law, even in pursuit of evidence, suspects or leads. Illegality ruins credibility, which is the most useful tool a private investigator carries.
I also want students to know that police work is not always a sufficient substitute for private investigative experience or formal education. Many private investigators who lack the tools they need for success formerly worked in law enforcement and never received formal education. Patrol officer work, while often relevant, will not always prepare a person to become an investigator.