The path to forensic accountant

February 15, 2019

By Tiffany Couch

As a kid, Barbara Mandrell’s “I was Country…when Country wasn’t cool” played in a loop on the 8-track player in the car. In my family, it was true. Wranglers, boots, hats, belt buckles, and the Grand Ole Opry were staples in our house long before they became “cool” in the late ’80s and ’90s.

In a way, I carried on that “family tradition” when I became a full-time forensic accountant in 2005. Back then, most people had never heard the term. Moreover, my accounting colleagues thought my idea was ludicrous. Foolish, they told me, for not maintaining a traditional tax or accounting practice – how was I going to support my family?!

I will never forget a former boss, a partner in a traditional accounting firm: “You’ll never make any money doing just that!”

I knew, however, that in order to make forensic accounting a niche practice, I had to practice that niche every day to become an expert in a professional field that, at the time, was wide-open and certainly wasn’t considered “cool.” As a young accounting student in 1997, I had never heard the word “fraud” in any of my courses, and the Certified Fraud Examiner credential was not on my radar.

After two stints in private industry, where I was good at my job but became restless once the mundane settled in, I found my way to an accounting firm where I was the staff accountant for two business valuation experts. At that’s where I met her:

The client who changed the trajectory of my entire life and my career.

Let me set the stage. I was young, newly married, “house poor,” and had just discovered we were expecting our first child. She was a gorgeous woman with the most beautiful clothes I’d ever seen, the largest diamond I’d ever seen outside of a locked case, and she drove a Jaguar. She told us, “My husband is divorcing me, and he says we have no money.” A dive into his records revealed that he wasn’t truthful. There was plenty of money. However, there was one catch. He hadn’t reported any of the proceeds of his incredibly successful business to the IRS. Over time and a lot of legal wrangling for records, we figured out how much money had been made and unreported.

Suddenly, I was no longer working a job. I was figuring out a giant puzzle and giving a client great clarity in return. The best part: Someone was paying me to do it! This was certainly a new frontier to explore!

It didn’t take long for that bubble to burst. At that point in time, I knew very little of being an accountant. In what felt like a “backward move,” I took a job in a traditional accounting role performing tax and audit in a firm where “fraud” seemed like a really bad word and certainly not something that happened to any client we ever had. Five years into that role, along with countless fraud-related CPE courses and a stint in the forensic accounting department of a large regional accounting firm, guided me toward starting a forensic accounting firm.

All of these experiences have revealed insights that are often overlooked in a world where forensic accounting now seems to be “the cool” profession so many aspire to. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way, before forensic accounting was cool.

Lesson 1: Credentials are just a stepping stone

I will never forget the elation I felt when I received my accounting degree and subsequently passed the CPA exam. I had the feeling that I could take on the world and do anything! I will also never forget that just a short six months later, I was sitting in my car in the parking lot at work, sobbing. I was now tormented by the realization that I didn’t know anything!

A professional degree or credential like the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) is just a stepping stone. Moreover, it is dangerous to imagine that it is a sufficient foundation on which to “hang your shingle.” Case in point: I spoke to a recent graduate of a popular forensic accounting master’s degree program. He had learned much theory – and had only been asked to put together a single criminal case as a capstone project. This person was finding it difficult to find work as a forensic accountant, even with a degree and a credential.

Excerpted from the article originally published in the February / March 2019 edition of The Accountant. Read the full story: The path to forensic accountant (PDF)

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