Financial Pros Add Expert Witness to Résumés

By Eilene Zimmerman

Sep. 6, 2011

Sareena Sawhney is a detective of sorts. As a certified forensic financial analyst, she exposes a hidden world of fraud and negligence by analyzing financial transactions and reconstructing accounting records.

Sawhney, a certified fraud examiner, is a director in the litigation and corporate financial advisory services group at Marks Paneth & Shron in New York City. She investigates fraud for corporate and nonprofit organizations and determines if and how fraud took place.

Those findings can be used in litigation. To get a leg up on the witness stand, Sawhney recently took the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts’ three-day expert witness training, known as Litigation Boot Camp, in Jersey City, New Jersey.

“In cross-examination, there can be some pretty grueling questions,” said Sawhney. “You learn what you can expect to be asked and how to avoid being tricked by the opposing attorney.”

The program not only improved her skills, she says, but also gave her a niche specialization that can be touted in marketing the accounting firm’s services to its clients. The cost ranges from $1,890 to $2,750 per individual, depending on factors such as membership in the NACVA.

Growing interest in expert witness skills training prompted the NACVA to partner last year with the American Institute for Expert Witness Education to offer the institute’s Expert Witness Boot Camp. They offered it to NACVA members and nonmembers, after introducing it on a limited basis in 2007.

Not surprisingly, the training has attracted interest from New York’s robust financial services community. To be sure, not every accountant or analyst will excel in the high-pressure role of an expert witness.

However, some of the city’s small and midsized firms hope that by giving employees specialized preparation for the witness stand in a boot camp, they will make their teams more attractive to clients in a sluggish economy.

Forensic CPA Michael G. Kaplan heads the AIEWE and teaches its boot camp classes in New York and other cities. The founder of Kaplan Forensics in Los Angeles, Kaplan has testified as an expert witness in more than 250 cases.

He says that, after the financial scandals at Enron and Arthur Andersen, “it became clear there was quite a bit of fraud going on in the world of accounting. Those cases raised the stature of forensic accounting, which continues to evolve. And the minute you move into forensics,” he said, “you get called into the courtroom.”

Finbarr O’Connor, a chartered accountant and executive director with Capstone Advisory Group in New York, took the training at management’s suggestion. Though he hasn’t yet had the opportunity to take the witness stand, he said that it “rounded out my skill set.”

O’Connor estimated that once a month someone from the firm, which has about 130 employees, is asked to provide expert testimony. “It certainly makes me more valuable to the firm,” he said.

Some company owners see value in getting expert witness training themselves. Tim Stickley, a partner at the 10-employee forensic accounting firm Boucher Stickley Group, with offices in New York and Mahwah, New Jersey, took a boot camp class in June in San Diego.

He is a CPA who primarily provides data and support for his business partner, David Boucher, when Boucher prepares to testify in court. Now Stickley is planning on stepping out from behind the scenes and taking the stand himself.

“We expect the need to testify will come up more often, and this certainly boosts our marketability,” Stickley said. “I would like some of our employees to go through the training because I expect this part of our business will grow.”

Even if they never expect to take the witness stand, they will become more effective in helping others in the firm prepare for court.

“They understand the questions that will be asked and the thought process that happens when answering,” he said.

Workforce Management Online, September 2011Register Now!

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