Remember those law school exams that depended not as much on getting the right answer as on issue spotting? Usually you got a fact pattern and you had to look at all the ways those facts would present interesting legal questions for a judge to consider.

Investigation is something like this, but instead of legal issues, you are spotting factual issues. You don’t always get the entire answer, but sometimes, the very action of showing a looming factual issue means you’ve earned your fee.

Factual issue spotting often means that you are looking for the answer by figuring out first where to go to find the answer you want.

I learned the power of this way of thinking this the first week I worked as an investigator, when I was asked to find a lawyer our client could hire in Liberia. This was a shattered country with no working phone system. After a fruitless hour of looking up lawyers old lists on the internet, I pivoted.

I knew that a lot of the lawyers in Liberia had probably fled. I found a former president of Liberia on the faculty of a U.S. university, called his home number at lunchtime (he picked up with “Hello”), and asked him to recommend some lawyers. “They all carry cell phones from Ghana” he told me, and gave me three names and cell phone numbers. We had our Liberian attorney the next day.

Here the issue was dispersion. Knowing the lawyers and those who would know the lawyers were disbursed, I knew not to look in Liberia but rather elsewhere.

A few other examples:

In doing an asset search recently, I knew it would be impossible to look in each and every county all over the United States for property in the name of the subject (his name wasn’t John Smith, but nearly as common). Instead, I looked at property across the country by the address the tax bill was mailed to. That was a very specific query, but I was able to dig even deeper by looking at not only the subject’s current address, but the house he had until three years ago.

And there they were: Mineral rights for twelve pieces of property in Texas.

Here the issue was all known addresses of the subject not just the current one. He may not have updated his address with the tax authorities because his mineral properties were non-producing and so exempt from tax. They also remained nicely concealed from his soon-to-be former wife. These properties are like lottery tickets. Worth a few bucks today, and maybe much more next year if a company strikes oil or gas on them and needs to pay you royalties.

Finally, trying to figure out how much a husband makes as a financial advisor. On his FINRA report, I found that he was also a broker and an insurance salesman. He made money three different ways. A look at his company’s annual report revealed some 30 subsidiary companies that could have compensated him.

Here the issue was imagining a person’s tax return. If you want to hide money, using a secret company is a good way to do it because if taxed as a corporation, it stays off your tax return as long as it doesn’t pay you dividends. The only people who need to know about that company are the payer, the payee, and the person who perhaps prepares the company’s tax return.

For example, he could have had an arrangement this his insurance commissions were paid to a limited liability company he controls. If my client’s lawyer did not ask in discovery for all money paid by each of these subsidiaries to any company beneficially owned by the subject, the company may not report his full compensation.

Investigating is going from A to B to C to D to find what you need. If you want to plug in a person’s name and get everything there is to know about thanks to big data and artificial intelligence, you will need to do an investigation in a movie to TV show.

In real life, it usually isn’t so easy, even though your investigator should always be able to show you how it was done in order to prove he didn’t break the law or invade anyone’s privacy.