The findings of forensic accountants provide pivotal evidence in court cases and can also see them called as expert witnesses to face questions from the barristers acting for both sides.
This specialist niche has traditionally been the domain of city centre practices, but Stafford-based firm Deans has earned a reputation for its forensic expertise.
Now partner Richard Stonier has been inducted into the Academy of Experts - the professional society and accrediting body for expert witnesses of all disciplines.
The 45-year-old, who lives near Eccleshall, followed in his father footsteps to enter the accountancy profession.
"I have always been good at maths. My dad is a chartered accountant and I did quite a lot of work experience at his practice during school holidays. Accountancy was an obvious career choice.
"Having said that I did explore the possibility of becoming a wildlife cameraman when I was a bit younger – I am a keen birdwatcher and photographer so I did try to see if a career could be made from those hobbies," he tells Weekend.
This specialist branch of accounting involves taking an investigative and analytical approach.
"Once you qualify as a chartered accountant there are so many different avenues open to you ranging from working in industry, becoming a general practice accountant to specialising in niche fields, such as forensic accounting.
"Anything with forensic in the title conjures up images of CSI Miami and other such programmes on TV. In reality the term forensic accounting can cover a wide range of accounting assignments.
"Yes, it is true that some jobs deal with financial mis-management, theft and fraud and these can involve court reporting and court attendance – just like the stars of CSI. There are lots of other types of work in this sector. For example there is a lot of work around divorce cases such as business valuations or capital gains calculations.
"We also do work for loss of profit claims, insurance claims and trading standards cases – basically anything with a financial angle that requires a professional opinion or data analysis.
"On that latter point of data analysis we do lots of work for businesses in analysing data, redesigning management reporting systems and controls.
"On the fraud side of things we are often brought in where there is nothing more than a suspicion to start with. We can work remotely and with confidentiality to help business owners gather information to prove or dis-prove any form of mis-management of funds.
"There is an important sub-specialism within forensic accounting – that of an expert witness. An expert witness is a recognised expert in their field who can be requested to attend court to give expert evidence.
"The expert witness is actually the only type of witness in a court that is allowed to give opinions. There are relatively few expert witnesses – especially outside of the big firms and big cities. The thought of going to court for many people would be a turn off – you have to have lots of experience in your field, be calm under pressure and be confident of your opinions. Training is also key, not just when you are starting out but ongoing to ensure you keep on top of rules, regulations and procedures surrounding any court appearances," explains Richard.
Experience is key for anyone wanting a future as a successful forensic accountant.
"Many of the forensic accounting jobs involve an element of working with incomplete records, missing information or simply a case of not knowing what it is you are looking for, just trying to spot anomalies in data etc. This is where your experience comes in. If you are starting out in this field then having a good coach or team around you to learn from is important.
"Other key attributes include being able to communicate clearly and succinctly in verbal and written form as often the subject matter might be very dry or complicated. You have to be good with people and be able to form working relationships and communications with all sorts of clients. It is also important to be professional at all times and to remember who your ultimate client is - often you are working and reporting direct to a court and not to the solicitors that have appointed you.
"For an expert witness there are additional attributes such as remaining calm under pressure, such as when being cross examined in court, and being able to explain opinions clearly and concisely.
"The Academy of Experts say a good expert witness has three attributes - the three “I’s” They are Independence, Integrity and Impartiality," Richard tells Weekend.
What makes being a forensic accountant an enjoyable job is the variability of the work, he says.
"No two jobs are the same. You also get the satisfaction of helping clients to resolve the issue that led to them instructing you in the first place. They can then move on with their lives and re-focus on business activities," explains Richard.
His biggest achievement during his career so far was being accepted as a member into the Academy of Experts as the entry requirements are tough.
It required at least three years of relevant experience and three top quality references from solicitors Richard had worked with and the submission, for vetting, of one of his court reports.
"For people coming into this area of the profession the first court attendance is a major milestone. I still remember my first appearance. I did a lot of preparation for it and that set me up well. Planning, preparation, knowing your subject and knowing your written report inside and out are key to a good performance in court," he tells Weekend.
Richard has witnessed many changes in the industry over recent years but he believes the biggest has been the use of IT.
"The use of IT just continues to gather pace, and Covid-19 has actually accelerated this change. The reliance on IT means that the techniques to analyse data are constantly changing, you have to be able to find your way around the many finance packages that are used and you have to consider the IT controls around security. For this reason we have now teamed up with a firm that specialises in IT forensics. They can do all of the clever stuff with computers. For example we just referred them a case where an iPad needed to be accessed and some deleted emails, that were only ever drafted and not sent, needed to be recovered," he explains.
Richard would have no hesitation in recommending his chosen profession to others. "It is a specialism that away from the big cities is not serviced by many experts. Therefore there is scope to make your mark. It is very interesting work with no two jobs being the same. It is also very rewarding in that a lot of jobs result in the client having some sort of resolution or closure. It is hard work, can be stressful or daunting, such as court appearances, and it does often involve sifting through volumes of data. However, if you put the work in it is ultimately a very enjoyable and rewarding specialism," he says.