So You Want to Be a Forensic Accountant

By | April 10, 2010

Forensic accounting is about as sexy as it gets these days for boutique accounting services. For starters, there’s no shortage of work. And even if you’re too inexperienced to start up your own firm, you might be able to cut your teeth at a Big 4 forensic practice or since the SEC seems to getting serious about doing its job, you could go that route.

Hell, even if you’re currently on the other side of this equation (i.e. the perp) it seems to have worked out for at least a couple people, namely Barry Minkow and Sam Antar.


The AICPA sees the potential and is on the offensive, offering a “Certified in Financial Forensics” credential starting in 2008 after demand for such a cred came from its members.

The Institute recently published Characteristics and Skills of the Forensic Accountant, a survey of attorneys, forensic CPAs and academics that presents their “views on the qualities they believed were essential in a forensic accountant.”

Surprisingly, the three groups managed to agree on the most important trait, “All three groups surveyed overwhelmingly cited analytical ability as the most essential characteristic of a forensic accountant: 78 percent of attorneys, 86 percent of CPAs and 90 percent of academics.”

And that’s where the agreement ends:

Attorneys believed oral communications to be the most important skill, reflecting the need to express an opinion effectively in a court of law. CPAs, on the other hand, identified critical and strategic thinking as most important, with written and oral communications as second and third, respectively. The academics agreed with the CPAs that critical and strategic thinking was the prime skill, but, interestingly, rated auditing skills and investigative ability as second and third.

Hard to believe this differing opinions here. Lawyers prefer blabbing? Accountants prefer keeping their heads down and academics take it to an even brainier level? Shock.

We shot a message over to Tracy Coenen, friend of GC, forensic accountant for her thoughts and she notes that all these people surveyed are missing something important – intuition:

I think what they’re missing is investigative intuition. It’s common for people to think that a good auditor makes a good forensic accountant, and that’s simply not the case. Some people have a gift for thinking outside the box and can get a gut feel for what’s wrong. Others only have a gift for reconciling numbers and using checklists. The survey addressed investigative intuition, but it didn’t even make it into the top five of core skills. I think that’s wrong on many levels.

We’d have to agree that there is something to be said for raw talent. You can try and teach someone the necessary skills but if they don’t have that sleuth mentality, forensics probably won’t be a natural fit. Sam Antar agrees, and he laid out his own crucial characteristics for us:

The AICPA likes to talk about the skills of an effective forensic accountant, but it ignores the important personality traits required for them to be successful:

• An effective forensic accountant must have a pair of double iron clad balls and a triple thick skin. Prospective forensic accountants can count on making many enemies in the course of their work and must be unhinged by the retaliation that normally follows uncovering fraud and other misconduct.

• The saying, “It takes one to know one” applies to being an effective forensic accountant. If a forensic accountant is not a convicted felon (like me), there must be at least some degree of larceny wired into their personalities. Effective forensic accountants must at least think like a scumbag to understand criminal behavior, techniques, and countermeasures.

• “Critical and strategic thinking” are relatively ineffective unless the forensic accountant exercises “professional paranoia” in the conduct of their work. Effective forensic accountants must be born cynics and skeptics and never accept any information at face value. A healthy degree of paranoia helps.

Without the personality traits enumerated above, no amount of education can help a person be an effective forensic accountant.

Regardless of the differing opinions, the AICPA wants more people getting into forensics and we think that’s a good thing. However, since the chances of a CSI: Bean Counter are nil, more traditional recruitment measures have to be employed.

AICPA Report Educates CPA Firms, Professors on Forensic Accounting [AICPA Press Release]
AICPA Forensic and Valuation Services Center [Website]