Understanding the highs and lows of forensic accounting

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Forensic accounting is one of the most exciting professions to join – but it brings significant challenges.

It can be helpful to have an experienced view of what forensic accounting is really like; so what are the highs and lows of this enticing profession?

“The best part of the job is resolving a challenging set of problems,” says Gwynn Hopkins, Managing Director of Perun Consultants, a boutique firm specialising in forensic accounting, restructuring and liquidations. “Being able to start with a limited array of incomplete information and following the threads to end up with a sustainable case to track down and recover assets is very satisfying.” Also pleasing, Hopkins says, “is having a valuation accepted by disputing parties despite them disagreeing on everything else.”

And the low parts? “The most frustrating part of the job is the ‘hurry up and wait’ aspect of the litigation process,” Hopkins says. “It’s not uncommon to be instructed on the basis of the matter being urgent – then, having moved heaven and earth to meet the specified reporting deadline, find that nothing much seems to happen until the next ‘urgent’ deadline to be met on the case.”

Why does this happen? “It’s tempting to pin the blame on the instructing lawyer, but it’s usually not that simple. Most of the associated litigation that the forensic accounting work is supporting will be complex, with many parties involved. This leads to a lot of scheduling issues, plus an almost inevitable series of motions for the judge to hear about, discovery or a case management matter.” The forensic accountant’s report, whilst important, “is likely to be just one aspect of a much wider litigation battle.”

Gifts in unfamiliar packaging

“The great part of this job is that you never know what will come in the door – meaning that you have no idea what the next assignment might involve,” says Gavin Pearson, Forensic Accounting and Expert Witness Partner at HSNO.

Pearson, like many forensic accountants, has a highly varied caseload. “It could be a contractual dispute, a fraud, a matrimonial matter or a compulsory purchase order, all with the challenges of taking on a new case working with different people.” Whilst the unpredictability of the role is part of its attraction, this also means you have to be flexible in your approach. “The bad part is that you can’t control what work comes in or when – so you can go from worrying about where work will come from one day, to being mad busy and worrying about how you will cope the next!”

What should potential forensic accountants look out for when they start, and what does Pearson wish he’d known from the beginning? “People considering forensic accounting should consider what kind of work they want to undertake,” he says. “Much of the Big 4 work tends to be fraud investigation focused – meaning that someone could join a Big 4 team and spend months, if not years, working on one large investigation.”

On the other hand, the smaller teams “tend to work predominantly on disputes works and therefore there may be relatively limited opportunities to get involved with big investigations.” So it really does depend on the kind of work you’re interested in; think about what appeals to you before applying for roles.

“The most difficult projects are those where you are on a tight timescale and/or there’s only limited information available to you,” says Pearson. “I was involved in a large warranty claim involving an Eastern European technology company, where we had large amounts of information, much of which was not in English. We needed to absorb and understand this very quickly in order to prepare a report – and there was a Big 4 firm against us on the other side.” And the most enjoyable? “They’re the cases where you feel you have really helped your client. We’ve been involved in criminal cases where the Crown has dropped all charges against the defendant based on our report – that is a very satisfying feeling.”

Being human

How to ensure your good days don’t become bad days? “Always remember the human element,” says Gwynn Hopkins. “It’s very tempting to get stuck in to the numbers and focus all your efforts there – this is understandable, since that’s where accountants are most comfortable.”

However, Hopkins recommends spending time walking around the company, talking to people and getting to know the lie of the land. “This can all help identify potential issues and areas on which you can focus your efforts.” For example: “consider a construction supplies manager who’s building a palatial new home for himself. It’s a topic of office gossip, with ‘amazed they can afford it’ sentiments being bandied around.”

Hearing that gossip might make you want to check whether company construction material is being diverted to the manager’s personal use. “It seems obvious – but I’ve been involved in a couple of cases like that. The general lack of curiosity, or willingness to go beyond whispered amazement, can be one of the reasons that frauds are able to run for longer than you’d expect.”

Finally forensic accountants also have to accept that not all of their cases have happy outcomes – even if you win. “One of the unfortunate aspects of the investigative side is that even when you are successful in a fraud investigation it may not be possible to obtain much of a recovery for the victims,” says Hopkins. “On one of my cases the director of a financial services company had misused his authority and stole a substantial amount of money from clients. Most of it had gone to supporting his lifestyle – there weren’t many recoverable assets available to make restitution.”

Forensic accounting – the highs…

  • The job satisfaction. ‘Even when the job is stressful, and the case can take years, when you finally get to give evidence in court or at the international arbitration tribunal, it’s a real high,” says Vikki Wall, a forensic accountant and Partner at Haberman Ilett LLP.
  • Every case is different. “There’s lots of international work, you learn from your experience all the time and it’s always a challenge,” says Wall.

… and the lows

  • Delays in court, despite working hard to urgent deadlines. “Sometimes the forensic accountant can simply get ‘forgotten’,” Gwynn Hopkins says, “in the sense that all the parties have agreed to a deadline for a report but the first you hear about it is when you get a call asking for a progress update.”
  • The late nights. “It’s not a 9-5 job,” Wall says. “Things change suddenly, after having worked extremely hard.” Difficult clients can be frustrating as well – “but even when things are tough, it’s a value-add profession. You really see results, and you know your work is incredibly valuable.”

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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