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Pique students’ interest in the profession with forensic accounting

A promising career option provides exciting real-world context for accounting studies.
By Anita Dennis

Many students enroll in introductory accounting courses because they are required to for another major. The students may not necessarily plan to pursue accounting as a career. However, faculty members can take the opportunity to change students' minds about working in the profession. One way they can do this is to incorporate some material about forensic accounting into their classes. Not only is forensic accounting an appealing career option, but it can also offer fascinating real-world context on the many ways students can put their accounting knowledge to work after graduation. Faculty members don't necessarily have to teach forensic accounting, but they can discuss fraud and related topics and the career paths involved.

Forensic accounting presents accounting practices in the context of legal and investigative work, which can help bring complex accounting topics to life in the classroom. In their high-stakes work, forensic accountants may be involved behind the scenes in investigations of potential fraud or business disputes, and they may also testify in court on their findings in legal or civil cases. They may uncover hidden assets in a divorce case, ferret out embezzlement at a small family-owned business, or investigate fraud at a multinational corporation.

"When my students hear about forensic accounting, it sounds exciting," said Lynda Schwartz, CPA/CFF, CGMA, lecturer and Forensic Accounting and Analytics Program director at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

It can also illustrate how accounting skills make a difference. "Forensic accounting can be an easy access point for students because it is built around the human element of accounting," said Kari Day, CPA, CGMA, senior manager, AICPA Certified in Financial Forensics (CFF) credential.

Here's some advice on the best ways to introduce forensic accounting to students:

Describe the opportunities. Faculty members can use forensic accounting cases to illustrate the importance of considerations such as proper financial statement preparation, internal control, and good management. "Students find out how disputes and fraud allegations can challenge businesses and how they can get back to good health," Schwartz said.

Illustrate the importance of forensic accounting. "Forensic analysis can help you get to the truth of what happened," said Kathy Johnson, CPA/CFF, CGMA, vice president of forensic accounting and economics, J.S. Held LLC, and an adjunct professor of accounting at California State University, San Bernardino and Long Beach; the University of Redlands; and the University of California, Riverside. In her classes, she uses fraud cases to discuss and analyze how financial accounting techniques can identify crimes. She also points to the high standards that forensic accountants must follow that give their work credibility when testifying or preparing a forensic accounting report, including the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct.  

Faculty can emphasize the positive impact that forensic accountants can make using the skills learned in financial accounting classes. Before coming to the AICPA, Day was a tenured associate professor of accounting. In those classes, she referred often to her own experiences, and continues to do so as an adjunct today. In one example from early in her career, she worked with a forensically trained mentor on a case involving a county residence for a marginalized community. A manager at the residence felt it was necessary to alert the auditors to red flags that implicated other managers and the CEO in fraudulent activity, but also didn't want to get fired. Based on the manager's private input, Day's mentor used discreet investigative techniques that ultimately put a halt to the criminal activity without endangering the manager's job or causing any interruptions in service to the residents who depended on the facility.

Reveal the rewards. Given the difference forensic accountants can make, faculty members with experience in this area can also discuss how rewarding the field can be. Decision-makers — such as judges or juries — make better decisions with good information, noted Schwartz, whose career includes both service as a partner in a Big Four forensics practice and work as a small practitioner. "It's my role to gather information for them and analyze it." Forensic engagements often involve complex, protracted disputes or a need to fully understand the facts of an allegation of wrongdoing. "If I can bring clarity to those heated situations, I feel really good about it," she said.

Johnson appreciates the challenges of her work. "I can use all the knowledge and skills I've attained throughout my career," she said. "The stronger my accounting skills are, the better investigator I can be." She also enjoys using her communication skills to explain complicated accounting and forensic issues for attorneys, their clients, judges, and juries. "I have to figure out how to tell my story to people who have different levels of understanding."

Offer details on how to enter the field. Entry to the field may be gained through an internship with a public accounting firm, for example. Alternatively, students may start their careers by gaining skills as an auditor, then choose to specialize by earning the CFF credential. Day also recommended that students consider memberships in related organizations, such as the AICPA. "They can be handy platforms for networking, job boards, study groups, volunteer résumé-building opportunities, and even scholarships," she said.

Make use of available resources. There are numerous tools faculty can use to incorporate fraud or forensics into the classroom. One starting point is the AICPA Model Forensic Accounting Curriculum, which gives students foundational knowledge of forensic accounting. There are also several AICPA digital badge bundles — in fundamentals of forensic accounting, core forensic accounting, and specialized forensic accounting — that faculty can use in part or in full for undergraduate and graduate student programs. Students who complete the courses receive a digital badge that they can use with their résumés, professional bios, and social media groups.

Also, consider reaching out to professionals in your own community. "There are many forensic accounting practitioners who would be happy to be part of classroom experience as guest lecturers or instructors," Schwartz said.

Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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