In this issue we're delighted to be profiling Shaun Walbridge, who explains how he became a forensic accountant, what surprises him about the role and how it can be rewarding too.
Shaun is a Chartered Certified Accountant with over 20 years' experience as a forensic accountant specialising in commercial and criminal cases.
Shaun trained with a top 50 firm of Chartered Accountants in the South West of England, qualifying in 1991. He is a Fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants, a Registered Auditor and a Fellow of The Academy of Experts. He is also a TAE Accredited Mediator and Expert Determiner.
Can you describe your career journey, how did you get to where you are now?
I fell into a career in accountancy by accident!
When I left the Royal Navy (I was in submarines, as an engineer), I undertook a resettlement training course at what was then Plymouth Polytechnic — the course was entitled "Starting Your Own Business" and was run by a couple of local accountants.
My initial job was in a local factory (part of a multi-national engineering group) where I progressed to become an internal auditor — trying to curb all the stock losses. It was during this time that I realised that I had a bent for numbers and inspired by the accountants on the course, decided that this was the career for me.
Fast forward a few years — with plenty of hard graft, correspondence courses, lots of unsocial hours studying, resulting in my qualification as a Chartered Certified Accountant.
Upon qualifying, the firm that I worked for (now in the top 20), promptly made me redundant! This was at the time when the accountancy profession was in recession, I had become the fifth qualified person in an audit department that could barely support two, let alone five.
Having got over the initial shock, I started my self-employed career by setting up a consultancy practice and spent the next three years working in conjunction with the Audit Commission — mainly assignments within the Local Authority and Health Authority sector, together with ad-hoc private investigations.
It was this work that eventually led me into financial investigations and ultimately Forensic Accounting.
After three years, an opportunity came up to acquire a block of audit clients from a local accountant who hated audit work. This became the basis of my general practice which grew to employ ten people.
After a serious cycling accident in 2007, I reassessed my work/life balance, decided to sell the general practice and in 2008, embarked on a new career in forensic accounting. Twelve years on, I now run a successful practice covering commercial and criminal work.
Through my work, I have been recognised by my peers, and have been granted Fellowship of The Academy of Experts, a far and distant dream from my initial tentative steps as a junior.
What has surprised you, and continues to surprise you about the role?
The role of a Forensic Accountant provides me with opportunities that I wouldn't have come across in general practice, particularly in the criminal field (for both for prosecution and defence).
One of the biggest and earliest surprises was the simplicity of the majority of frauds. Far from being the complex frauds that we hear about daily - banking scams, the hacking of data etc., most frauds come down to poor accounting controls and procedures.
Another aspect has been the gullibility of people when offered something that is too good to be true. A classic example is the Ponzi fraud — the offering of unrealistic rates of interest that ultimately are totally unsustainable. Even now, despite the availability of information through the internet, people continue to fall for this type of scam!
What's the most rewarding part of being a forensic accountant?
The role of a Forensic Accountant is so totally different from that found in general practice or industry.
In general practice, I had become bored with the routine nature of the work — accounts preparation, tax returns and the increasingly burdensome nature of compliance. When I started in practice, it was about helping clients, finding solutions to problems and quite often, ways to mitigate tax.
I find that the most rewarding aspect of Forensic Accounting is the intellectual challenges that each case brings. Every case is different and requires the use of a broad range of skills acquired through work in practice and in commerce — accounting, audit, tax and good commercial awareness.
Whether it is a professional negligence case, or dealing with a criminal prosecution, I find that every case tests my abilities to present the facts of the case independently and impartially and to make sure that I fulfil my duty to the Court.
The most rewarding part of being a Forensic Accountant, is the chance to give evidence in Court (which whilst daunting at first sight), is ultimately the culmination of a lot of hard work.
How has ACCA enabled you to get to where you are now?
When I decided on a career as an accountant, coming straight from the Royal Navy without a degree was a serious obstacle as this was a prerequisite for entry as a trainee with the ICAEW.
Determined to get into accountancy, I persuaded a small practice to give me an opportunity as a junior, through the fact that I had started studying through the IAS (a predecessor training organisation to the AAT).
Despite thinking that I would never understand double-entry bookkeeping, I eventually qualified as a MAAT. Using this as a stepping-stone, I progressed to the ACCA and my eventual qualification as a Chartered Certified Accountant.
Training to be a Forensic Accountant
The one question that I am continuously asked, is what qualifications do you need to be a Forensic Accountant?
Simply put, qualifying as an accountant with ACCA or other accountancy professional body is merely the start of the career path to becoming a forensic accountant and expert witness.
To be a forensic accountant, it is generally expected that you will have a qualification with one of the major accounting bodies. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between.
Additional qualifications may add to the status of the forensic accountant. One that is seen quite often is that of Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE).
However, textbook theory and paper qualifications are no substitute for experience at the 'coal face'. To this end, it is not just good enough to have qualified; you will also be expected to have exposure at a high level as a partner or another senior position within a firm.
In addition to a broad understanding of accounting, audit, and taxation issues, you will require a good commercial grounding. After all, it is no use being an accounting wiz, if you haven't got a clue how companies operate in real life!
Once you have significant and verifiable experience, you may then choose to take it one stage further by undergoing vetting by an independent body who conduct peer-reviews on applicants by established experts in their field. Successful candidates may then be entered on to an 'Expert Witness Register', something that all solicitors refer to for verification of your experience.
Training & accreditation
An important factor in getting work and recognition as a forensic accountant is accreditation. This can take two forms, by membership whereby the applicant is subject to a vigorous vetting process, or through a simpler referee process.
The principal professional bodies in the UK are The Academy of Experts (`TAE') or the Expert Witness Institute ('EWI'). Both bodies act as a regulatory body for experts and have varying degrees of disciplinary and regulatory procedures.
I undertook my training through TAE, initially as an Associate (AMAE), then moving up to a full Member (MAE). Progression to Fellow (FAE) is conferred on those who can demonstrate an appropriately high standard of professional competence in their profession or calling and will have a wide knowledge and experience as an expert witness and knowledge of legal procedures and the laws of evidence.
I am fortunate to have been granted the honour of becoming a Fellow of TAE, one of less than 100 to have been granted fellowship in the life of The Academy of Experts.
If this has inspired you to consider the future direction of your career, find out how you can expand your services.
Interested in providing a new service to clients as an expert witness or via alternative dispute resolution? Check out our free resources to get started.
Training and accreditation in this fast changing and highly regulated area is also available directly on The Academy of Experts’ website. For a limited period of three months The Academy of Experts will offer ACCA members reduced course prices normally only available to TAE members. Check available dates and book your place now.