So with the increasing interest and enrollment in forensic accounting classes, I thought I should speak to those who I might be mentoring sometime soon—to give those aspiring forensic accountants an idea of what to expect and what to do in order to be the most prepared in this challenging, yet totally satisfying, specialty.
When I was in school, majoring in accounting and interviewing with recruiters on campus senior year, red power ties and big hair were all the rage—but no classes related specifically to forensic accounting or fraud investigations even existed yet. My generation came to be in fraud investigations and forensics by starting off as auditors, tax preparers, bookkeepers, or all of the above. In those days (when portable computers you took to a client were the size of sewing machines), staff accountants learned the trade by reconciling bank accounts, preparing journal entries, generating general ledgers and presenting monthly financial statements for clients. Personally, I grew up in a mid-size, boutique accounting firm in Chicago and was exposed to every industry imaginable. The in-charge accountants, managers and partners took the clients’ accounting needs from bookkeeping to financial statements to entity tax returns to individual tax returns. That knowledge of the nuts-and-bolts of those industries and that experience I obtained through years of understanding them is the only reason I am the best at what I do today. I understand both the fundamentals of accounting and journal entries, as well as management or owner motivations in falsifying financial statements and tax returns. Such as it is in sports, it is my personal belief that the sense and instinct necessary to be an effective forensic accountant cannot be taught or learned outside of knowing and practicing the fundamentals.
As a forensic accountant you will need to be prepared for confrontational episodes. You will be investigating persons who have done some not-so-acceptable things. They have deceived shareholders, hidden assets from their spouse, cheated on their taxes, stolen from an employer to feed an addiction… they are not looking forward to the day that you show up. At some point you need to be ready to ask for sensitive information, challenge data and interview hostiles.
Since the definition of forensic is “pertaining to, connected with, or used in courts of law or public discussion and debate,” every forensic engagement needs to be conducted as if it will go to trial. In speaking with litigation attorneys, my peers and compadres in the forensics realm, the recurring theme these days is that it is hard to find people who want to testify in court. Why? Well, it’s not necessarily a pleasant experience—but realize that it could be the most exciting and fulfilling experience you’ll ever have in your career.
Think about a really stressful situation you have been in or were nervously anticipating. College finals, a first date, your wedding day, skydiving, unexpectedly hitting a slick patch of ice while driving. Well… ok… imagine those all combined into one. Yes, maybe that’s a bit overdramatic, but when you are able to come through all or any of those moments successfully, it’s quite satisfying, isn’t it? It is the same testifying in court. You did all the heavy lifting, sweated all those hours and have all the paper cuts to prove it… this is your case to be confident in—don’t be intimidated by someone who doesn’t know this case as intimately and thoroughly as you do. Why would you even want to give that opportunity or satisfaction to someone else? This is actually the reward for all your hard work!
My wish? That you ultimately find that forensic accounting can be the most exciting, challenging, fulfilling, stressful, nerve-racking and best career decision you ever make—all at the same time. To that goal, knowing what you are getting into and the best way to succeed in doing it… that is ultimately our responsibility—and is absolutely our privilege.