What a Lawyer Should Look for in a Forensic Accounting Expert Witness (Part 3 of 3)

Natalie Burchfiel, CPA

Part 1 of this article on forensic accounting expert witnesses covered why a legal team would want or need to use an expert witness and Part 2  reviewed the specific focuses a witness may bring to the table, and the differences between testifying and non-testifying experts.  Our series concludes with a look at the many skills and special qualities a forensic accounting expert witness may possess that will aid in reaching a successful outcome to a case.

Traits of a Great Expert Witness

An expert witness brought in for their accounting and financial background should have strong technical, analytical, and communications skills.  At ease reviewing standard accounting tools and documents, pointing out accounting irregularities, knowing laws relating both to their field and to the laws regarding fraud – these are all requisites.  Communication in all its forms – written, oral, visual – gives the legal team options in being able to reach understanding to all involved.  One expects a “numbers-cruncher” to be savvy with financial data, but beyond technical skills, an attorney also needs an expert who testifies well and is credible and likable to juries.  This would be true of an expert witness in virtually any field, because once we are in the courtroom we are dealing with both facts and humans.

Bringing Those Traits to the Case Prior to Trial

In our example, the financial / accounting expert needs to work well with the lawyer(s) from the start, in great part to shape the case and decide how to pursue it.  The attorney needs to understand the expert in order to build the case, so this rapport and ease of communication must be evident pre-trial.  The analytical savvy is most important here, as the expert witness may early on be able to identify signs of fraud, dig up evidence for the case, find information during the interview process that could change the direction of the case, and basically help build the case.  Examination and reporting skills are used here first; the written form of communication will be paramount as presented as evidence, especially as anything available to opposing counsel may be subject to severe scrutiny.

Gaining the Understanding of the Judge and Jury

Bringing our financial / accounting expert witness example to the trial stage, the stereotype of the boring or difficult to understand accountant needs to be smashed for all in the courtroom, especially for the jury and judge.  Instead the selected expert should be able to explain in a clear and straightforward manner what the accounting and financial issues are, while balancing a respect for the intelligence of the jury members while instilling confidence that said expert witness clearly knows what is appropriate in a given situation regarding the case.  The smartest accountant in the world may still alienate the jury, or remain unable to break down the concepts in a palatable manner.

In addition to the spoken word, any prepared visuals could be shown to the jury and have an impact – at this stage the expert witness could be called upon to verbally explain the visuals, so their understanding crossing over forms of communication needs to be smooth and clear.  An explanation should clarify, not make the jury members more confused.  Impatience or arrogance will likely harm the credibility of the testimony.  Additionally, a testifying witness is subject to cross-examination, so being able to maintain one’s cool and keep focused on the facts at hand is of paramount importance.

There is certainly more to selecting a forensic accounting expert witness, but this overview is intended to provide some food for thought for the attorney who is preparing for a fraud-related case.  We would be interested in hearing from attorneys about any difficulties they have encountered when searching for a forensic accounting expert witness, or during an actual trial (for them or for opposing counsel)

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