Putting the “Expert” in “Witness”

Written by Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, CFF

On Balance – The Magazine for Wisconsin CPAs
January/February 2012

Lawyers are constantly on the lookout for financial experts who can help them win cases. Virtually all civil suits involve issues about money, and a certified public accountant is one of the best resources for sorting out the financial details.

As a CPA, you don’t have to focus on litigation work to become an expert witness. As a professional doing income taxes, financial statement audits, benefit plan consulting, or other advisory work, you possess valuable expertise that could help expand your practice. The key is to set yourself up as an expert on a narrow range of issues and market yourself to the right potential clients.

Know What You Know
To be an effective expert witness, you have to be an expert on a topic. Some experts have knowledge within a certain industry. Others are experts on particular accounting rules, while others may know a lot about fraud. Figure out where your expertise lies and how can help win lawsuits.

A narrow focus is best when you present yourself as an expert. While it is nice to say that you are an expert on a variety of accounting-related topics, potential clients seem to find experts easier when the experts cite specific types of cases in which they excel.

For example, a tax accountant who knows a lot about the federal tax code will have more marketing success by narrowing down his or her expertise to particular topics within the tax code.

Examples of a more narrow tax focus could be estate planning, small business sales, or corporate audits. Narrowing your expertise down even further may prove to be beneficial. Practice talking about the types of matters that you can assist with by using well-known legal cases to illustrate your niche.

Building a Practice
Once you know what expert witness services you can sell, you need to market them. Putting up a website or appearing in an expert witness directory will not get you any paying clients. You must engage in proactive efforts to connect with the buyers of your services. Attorneys are the ones who make the decisions about expert witnesses in lawsuits, so they are your broad target market.

You must narrow the focus by identifying the types of attorneys who would need your expertise. Litigators are a natural target, but you can further narrow your focus based on the types of cases attorneys handle. Areas of law like intellectual property, regulatory compliance, white collar criminal defense, or elder law are examples of concentrations within litigation.

Find ways to meet attorneys you have targeted for your expert witness services. You might consider attending networking events, advertising in professional publications, or using social media to develop name recognition.

Building this type of practice is a relatively slow process because it requires developing relationships and finding the right cases. Litigation can be slow and painful, so an attorney who appears to be the perfect potential client may not actually need your services for months or years. Even when an attorney has a case with a definitive need for an expert, the progression of the case through the court system may delay the actual retention of the expert.

Performing Under Pressure
Being an expert on a particular accounting-related subject is not enough. You must be able to analyze the facts of a case, form opinions supported by the evidence, report those opinions clearly, and testify about your opinions at a deposition and a trial.

Many accountants and auditors are comfortable with the process until it involves testifying. If you are afraid of public speaking, testifying in a deposition or in court will likely terrify you. Litigation is often contentious. As an expert witness, you may face attacks on your character and your work. Be prepared for these attacks and respond to them calmly and reasonably. You should not feel personally insulted, but should focus instead on standing behind your opinions.

Your performance on the witness stand will improve each time you do it. In the beginning, you may only testify a couple of times a year, so it may take a while for you to become an experienced witness. You can practice your testifying skills, but there is no substitute for real-life experience. Be patient with the process of litigation.

If you find that you don’t execute well on the witness stand, you may still be able to work as an expert. Present yourself as a consulting expert, providing expertise to attorneys in the early stages of litigation. You can help evaluate cases to determine whether the financial facts are in favor of your client. You may also help with discovery requests, advising attorneys on the documents they should obtain and the right way to word the requests.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, CFF, is a forensic accountant and fraud investigator with Sequence Inc. in Milwaukee and Chicago. Contact her at [email protected].

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