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Is Forensic Accounting for You?

By Dona DeZube, JobsintheMoney

Bribery involving a Fortune 500 and a foreign government. Untangling the next Enron. For an auditor with a few years of experience, forensic accounting and litigation support (F&L) can be an exciting career option.

Forensic specialists are the detectives of the accounting world. They're sent into companies to uncover potential fraud, unravel accounting knots, and support attorneys who take action in response to what the forensic accountant discovers. Additionally, forensic specialists are involved in investigating damages that might be involved in disputes between parties.

As a national recruiter for FTI Consulting's forensic and litigation services in San Francisco, Byron Carman spends many hours talking to audit group CPAs who are considering a move into the area. Too often, he says, they don't realize what it takes to break into the field and thrive in the job, or where a career in F&L can lead them.

What You're Getting Into

F&L isn't a well-known area because firms rarely look for entry-level talent or recruit on college campuses. Graduates joining public accounting firms may not learn about F&L because rotation programs typically don't send employees through F&L departments.

Thus, it can be hard for the early-career accountant to know if a shift into F&L would be a good move. To make the call, you need to know what the job is really like, Carman says.

F&L has a lot in common with law enforcement work. Like a cop driving a patrol car, these specialists go through periods of calm, routine work, then find themselves in emergency mode. "Although infrequent, there are times where it's slow and then you'll get an Enron-level scandal that requires you to travel heavily and work long hours," Carman explains.

If your company undertakes an investigation in Manhattan and you live in San Francisco, you may find yourself working in New York for months. "You have to be really passionate to do that," Carman warns. "It's fascinating and intellectually stimulating work and you'll have to use every core accounting skill you have, but you'll still need that passion to carry you through."

Where It Leads

F&L work matches up nicely with the temperament of Gen Y accountants, some of whom look for variety in their work and interaction with clients. Carman believes that's why F&L can be a better choice for graduates than going into public accounting for two years before moving into private work. Far too many accountants use their public experience to move into the corporate world without realizing they could have used that same experience to pursue a career in F&L.

Some are discouraged from moving into forensic work because they hear the specialty is a dead-end. However, Carman argues that stereotype simply isn't true: "While many love the F&L profession as a career path, there are options available if you decide it isn't" the right career for you. "Working in F&L can be a good background for a controller or compliance officer within industry," he says. "You could also go back into audit."

Making the Move

If you're thinking F&L might be for you, don't expect to simply hop into the pool. 

"We're looking for individuals with more than just idle curiosity," Carman notes. "Someone who's taken the steps to go down that path and seek certification or training involving fraud investigation will stand out. I look for individuals typically with two to four years of top-notch accounting skills, attention to detail, tenacity, and passion for putting the pieces of the puzzle together and recreating what occurred."

As an intermediate step, try taking a course in fraud examination, or attend a seminar offered by group such as the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants or the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. Not only will you pick up skills you can use later, you'll also meet professionals in the field with whom you can network. Even if it turns out the coursework demonstrates F&L isn't for you, the skills you pick up will come in handy in addressing fraud wherever you go.

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