What To Do First If You're Involved in a Federal Investigation

You get home from work and find a card from an FBI agent in your door with a note that says “Please call.”

There’s a knock on your door asking if you have a few minutes to talk by a U.S. Postal Inspector.

You hear from one of your business colleagues that someone from the IRS Criminal Investigations Division has been asking questions about you.

These are some of the ways that people find out there’s an investigation against them. There are plenty of others.

But, if you find out there’s an investigation involving you, what should you do?

First, here's what not to do.

Second, you should hire a lawyer with experience with federal investigations (Here’s some advice on how to do that). That said, hiring a lawyer takes some time. You’d like answers now. Here’s a little guidance about what is likely to happen after you get a lawyer on board, and what you need to know before that happens.

If you haven’t already talked to the agents who are investigating you, think now, before they show up at your door, about whether you want to talk to them. Here’s some guidance. Ultimately, if you think through what makes sense for you, you’ll be less likely to bend to pressure when the agents are standing at your door step.

If you have already talked to the agents, knowing what you said will be very important for your lawyer. Take time, now, to sit down, and write up what was said. Put at the very top of every piece paper, or, if you’re doing it electronically, in the file name, “Attorney Client Privileged” and, at the start, before you write anything else, explain that you are writing these notes so that you can better get legal advice from an attorney. Try to include every detail you can. As you remember more things, add them to the memo.

When you meet with your lawyer, the very first thing he or she will do is call the agent. Normally, the agent won’t give much info to your lawyer; rather, the agent will pass the information from your lawyer’s call along to the federal prosecutor on the case – if one is already involved. For some reason, there’s an unwritten rule that, with a few exceptions, if there’s a prosecutor involved in a case, then the prosecutor (not the agent) talks to the defense lawyer.

If a prosecutor is involved, he or she can tell your lawyer what your status in the investigation is. There are three classifications for people in an investigation – witnesses, subjects, and targets. Here’s a page where I explain each status in an investigation in more detail (with a video).

One important thing to keep in mind – your status can change. You can start out as a witness, but, if the government learns more about you, they can upgrade you to a subject. This is not an upgrade that you want.

Depending on your status, that will suggest a different course of action for your lawyer.

At the same time, you and your lawyer should be talking about what happened so your lawyer can investigate the case. It may or may not be possible to get real traction on what the government is looking for.

But, perhaps most fundamentally, hire a lawyer quickly. From my own practice, I’ve seen people who have hired me come out with much much better results than if they hadn’t – maybe they aren’t prosecuted at all, maybe we can make a tactical retreat and mitigate the damage. It really depends a tremendous amount on the facts of the case.