Forensic accounting careers: Sleuthing for a living

Follow the money

When you picture the life of an accountant, you might imagine a mundane desk job spent hunched over the calculator, crunching numbers all day. Although this is the reality for most accountants, there is a very specific type of accounting that brings the fresh air of excitement into the field. Love crunching numbers and bringing criminals to justice? You might be interested in forensic accounting careers.

Below we look into what forensic accounting actually is, what kind of characteristics make a good forensic accountant, and finally show you how to get started in the field.

What is forensic accounting?

Forensic accounting is a specialty field in the area of accounting that helps to track, monitor and interpret financial data in order to help authorities prosecute a crime or build a case. Typically, forensic accountants are used to investigate white-collar crimes, but they can also be utilized in other crimes as well as divorce proceedings.

“Forensic” means that any findings uncovered by the accountant can be used in a court of law.


In the past, forensic accountants have been used across a variety of high-profile cases like bringing down Al Capone for tax evasion, or working to uncover the financial complexities of the Enron scandal. Now, not every job you work on will be at that same level, but you’ll get to work on a wide variety of cases across the legal spectrum.

The whole truth and nothing but

Forensic Accounting Career
Forensic accounting requires curiosity, an analytical mind and persistence.
Photo: Igor Ovsyannykov on Unsplash

The two main areas encompassed by forensic accounting careers are litigation support and actual criminal investigation. Litigation support deals with uncovering factual information to help parties reach an agreement before it hits the courtroom. Investigation can take place in  both criminal and civil cases and will help to determine the extent of the criminal charges that are brought.

Beyond solely pouring over financial documents, you could be called on as an expert witness in the cases you’re involved in.

Some types of criminal and civil cases you might be called on to investigate include:

  • Money laundering
  • Financial and insurance fraud
  • Embezzlement
  • Divorce proceedings
  • Contract disputes
  • Business valuations
  • Personal injury suits

Forensic accounting skills might also be used outside of the legal arena, including in matters like business mergers, risk reduction and management, when the details of a contract truly matter.

4 traits shared by the best forensic accountants

Most professions tend to attract particular types of personalities. Here’s a list of four characteristics needed in forensic accounting careers.

  1. An analytical and detail-oriented mind.

  2. A strong code of ethics.

  3. Dogged persistence.

  4. A curious nature.

Good forensic accountants have a very specific combination of personal traits and skills. Of course, having the required education is an absolute necessity, but beyond the tangible skills, this set of characteristics will make it much easier for you to succeed in this field.

1. An analytical and detail-oriented mind

The core of being a forensic accountant revolves around analyzing complex financial and accounting data and assembling that into a coherent story of fraud or defense. To be effective, you need to be able to pour over complex data and analyze what you’re seeing for fact or fiction. Plus, all of this needs to be done without missing a single detail. Even the tiniest, seemingly most insignificant detail can cripple (or win) a case.

2. A strong code of ethics

A forensic accountant must be able to produce an objective report that’s free from bias and emotion. Your goal is to rely only on hard financial facts and figures you’ve uncovered to present a compelling case. This also extends into your background and personal history, as you might be working for a government organization or have your background brought forth during a case.

3. Dogged persistence

Forensic Accounting Career Cave
Do you have the drive to keep looking, no matter how dark or complex the trail?
Photo: Zhifei Zhou on Unsplash

Uncovering and gaining access to financial records can truly test your resolve. Although not always the case, you might be required to jump through hoops just to obtain the information you require. A good forensic accountant won’t give up until theories have either been proven true or false.

4. A curious nature

Typically, your case will be made in the details. It takes a curious and inquisitive mind to be able to uncover the truth behind a company or individual’s financial records. Your mind needs to be oriented toward questioning everything until you land on evidence-based answers.

How to start forensic accounting careers

Forensic accounting is an incredibly fast-growing field. Typically, a forensic accountant is a CPA who either works in conjunction with, or is employed by, the FBI, U.S. Secret Service or other large accounting firms. If this field interests you, then the steps below will help you take the right educational path and find work in this space.

1. Get a degree

At the minimum, you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field like business. Obtaining a master’s degree isn’t completely necessary, but it will increase the number of jobs you can apply for and your overall employability.

Forensic Accounting Career Graduates
After you earn your bachelor’s degree, improve your career options with certifications.
Photo: Faustin Tuyambaze on Unsplash

Once you’ve completed your degree, you’ll want to study for and pass the CPA exam, which will allow you to obtain your CPA license.

2. Find work

The requirements for forensic accounting careers depend on what kind of organizations you’re applying for. For example, if you want to work for a government agency, then you’ll be required to pass an extensive background check. Other jobs will require more advanced degrees or basic accounting experience before you can transition into a forensic accounting role.

The organizations highlighted below can be a great way to network with other professionals in your field and find work:

They’re also great places to look when furthering your education. Speaking of that …

3. Obtain specialty certifications

Depending on your interests and ambition, it can be helpful to obtain relevant certifications as well. For example, you can become a Certified Fraud Examiner or Certified Forensic Accountant. These certifications will not only increase your knowledge, but beef up your resume and qualify you for better jobs. Keep in mind that you typically need to have two years of relevant experience before taking either of these exams.

In conclusion

Traditionally, accounting has had a reputation for being a sedate career. But forensic accounting careers offer the chance to investigate serious crimes side-by-side with legal professionals. If helping bring people to justice sounds appealing, then forensic accounting might be the job for you.

Image by: Images_of_Money on / CC BY