Being a forensic accountant is an enormously satisfying role – but one that not too many accountants are aware of.
So how do you get into this exciting profession – and what qualifications and experience do you need to get there?
“Forensics is essentially where the law meets accountancy,” says Louise Bridge, Business Director, Public Practice at Hays Senior Finance. “The lawyers will decide whether or not there’s a case to be pursued, but outcome squarely depends on the evidence that the forensic accountant provides.”
Being a forensic accountant is intellectually challenging – but knowing the way in is an advantage. AAT studies are often a route to chartered accountancy which can give you audit experience, an essential in this area. “It does cream off the upper quartile of ability. But, your underlying academic record is enhanced by the skills you have and the type of person you are – it takes a particular kind of personality to be a forensic accountant.”
As well as good results then, what skills do firms hiring forensic accountants look for? “It divides into two key areas,” says Bridge. “Expert witness work, litigation support and dispute analysis is one; the other is fraud investigations, including fraud advisory.” The key skill in the latter is to be very good at following a trail. It’s comparatively black-and-white – you investigate, there’s either a fraud or there isn’t, and it’s down to the client to decide what to do with the information you’ve provided.”
However, litigation support is a very different way of thinking. “Not everyone can do it. The dispute side of forensic accounting is about critical thinking – forming an opinion and building the evidence.” This side is the opposite of black-and-white: there is no ‘right or wrong’.
The company view
What kind of personality suits the role of forensic accountant? “We’re looking for tenacious, inquisitive people,” says Vikki Wall, a forensic accountant and Partner at Haberman Ilett LLP. “It goes without saying that you need to be accurate with your figures, but we also want people who can see the bigger picture, and won’t miss the wood for the trees. You need to be able to step back and say – is there a better way of doing this?” For Wall, the key is to be a dogged personality who isn’t easily rebuffed or distracted. “You need to push until you get a solution. Someone who can get to the bottom of an issue and discover the answer.” Then again, Wall adds, “you don’t want to get hung up on that answer – you never get the perfect result. It’s always complex.”
“We also want people who as well as showing individual determination can work well in a team – you need to be able to work with both lawyers and clients.” If you enjoy taking responsibility for a case and can work by yourself on it – whilst then communicating well in front of people – you might be the kind of person who will thrive as a forensic accountant. “You need the confidence to present to the team, but it’s also vital that this confidence does not turn into arrogance; you need to be single-minded, but not inflexible or incapable of changing your mind. It’s quite a rare mix.”
As forensic accounting is a growing sector, there are distinct possibilities for accountants wanting to move into the field from other areas. Wall’s firm is a boutique forensic accounting practice that specialises in both expert evidence in the UK and international litigation and arbitration. “I worked for EY for a long time and I went into forensic accounting to focus on disputes.” But working for one of the Big Four meant “it was hard to be independent, which means having no business relationships with any of the firms working on the case. It became apparent that setting up a boutique firm would be successful and in demand because of the lack of audit and other connections elsewhere in the firm.” Vikki and her partners are all ex-Big Four; “so we have the quality and experience, but no conflicts – we can work on contentious disputes, arbitrations and litigations.”
Does this mean accountants in other disciplines could potentially move across? “Yes. People who have trained as tax experts or lawyers have come to us – it’s helpful to have done something else.”
And advice about the best way to get there? “Make sure that it really is an area you want to be in. It’s not the same as audit or management accountancy work – a good way to deduce whether or not it’s for you is to find people who do it already and just talk to them. It’s really enjoyable, but it is very challenging.”
Finally, how to thrive once you are in post? “Be the kind of person who constantly asks and wants to know more,” says Louise Bridge. “Because detail can be distracting, you can easily go down a dead end – instead, contextualise against the big pictures so you’re not swayed by details that are not substantive to the case.” Be resilient – “your opinion will be challenged, and this gets harder – not easier – as you climb upwards.” The evidence you are preparing may be used to testify in court,” Bridge says, “so you have to be able to echo the tone of the Partner you’re writing for.” It’s a serious business – “and if you’re ill prepared, you’ll be pulled apart by the other side. It’s a tough but unbelievably satisfying thing to be doing.”
Being a forensic accountant – key take-outs
- It’s not one-size-fits-all. “You want a spread of abilities – across numeracy, literacy and the lateral skills you might get from a humanities subject,” says Louise Bridge. “You need to be able to write well, communicate well, investigate well and be able to evidence things.”
- Gain audit skills and experience. “The work is difficult and we have to rely on people to get things right,” says Vikki Wall. “So very high standards are the order of the day.” An audit background is “non-negotiable,” says Louise Bridge, “because audit is essentially questioning assumptions.”
- Have a determined personality. “Be tenacious,’ says Louise Bridge, “and know that people are going to try to put you off the scent. It’s your job to absolutely stick to the trail – be a terrier!”
Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.