Those little letters are rocket fuel for your career.
By Brad Sargent, CPA/CFF, CFE, CFS, Cr.FA, FABFA
“Kid, the attorneys hire us for our financial knowledge, not for our legal knowledge. That’s their area of expertise.”
These words from a trusted mentor ended my short-lived dream of becoming a lawyer. I was a freshly minted CPA, brimming with confidence and ready to take on the next challenge. I had spent two years in litigation support and forensics; it seemed that getting my law degree and JD was the natural next step. My mentor recognized my desire to grow and offered a solution worthy of Solomon: “Kid, juries love credentials. Why don’t you add a few letters to the CPA?”
Let me be very clear here. I was 40 years old when my mentor called me “kid”—pretty much daily. I wore this as a badge of honor, even though “The Inspector” called nearly everyone “kid.” (We forensics-types can be a little different.) That said, I immediately launched myself into the pursuit of credentials specifically related to my field of choice.
Within one year, I earned three additional designations; two required passing an exam and the third was “grandfathered” in, where you offer proof of a certain level of education and experience, as well as already earned credentials, and then pay a small fee.
I soon discovered that I had been undersold. Not only do juries (and jurists) love credentials, but employers and headhunters do, too. My name soon appeared on various association membership directories and my phone started ringing off the hook with prospective job opportunities. Credentials added not only to my sense of achievement, but also to my personal bottom line.
Since many of today’s organizations offer a veritable plethora of credentialing options, how do you know if one credential is as “good” as another, which organization is superior, and whether you should invest in a difficult (and potentially costly) examination-based credential versus filling out a few forms and sending in a check?
As a forensic accountant, I urge everyone to launch a focused information-gathering investigation. The first step is to identify the credentials relevant to your career. Next, research the organization that provides the credential and get to know the groups you need to join. I have had incredible experiences meeting people from around the world through these organizations, and I have witnessed radically varying degrees of responsiveness and professionalism from organization to organization. Call the association and speak directly to staff members to quickly get a feel for how they conduct business. If an association doesn’t publish member lists, ask for several members in your area with whom you can speak.
Once you have a feel for the organizations, research the processes for obtaining their respective credentials. In forensics (just as in all areas of accounting), designations that require examinations simply carry more weight than designations that don’t. Get a full understanding of the investment you will need to make to pass the exam. We all know what the CPA Exam takes; other credentials can be almost as difficult to achieve.
Many organizations provide their own training and exam “prep course,” which usually involves a few days out of the office at a distant (and hopefully enticing) locale. Be forewarned, though, that costs may run very high, particularly if you need to pass several sections. Moreover, keep in mind that you’ll need to maintain a current membership status with the organization to carry the credential, and you’ll likely have to complete specific CPE requirements on an annual basis. But don’t let costs be the be-all-end-all. While many employers have cut back on paying for credentials beyond the CPA, take the initiative to prepare a great business case, outlining the benefits to your employer. And be prepared to agree to a specific term of employment after achieving the credential.
The last, and possibly most tangible, benefit I should mention is the impact credentials have on clients. Jane M. McFetridge, Esq. is the managing partner of the Chicago office of Jackson Lewis LLP. Her practice covers the spectrum of employment litigation, including both state and federal claims, and individual and class-action suits. McFetridge uses accountants as experts on a regular basis and states that, “There’s always a chance that an expert’s credentials will be challenged. Passing a difficult examination, such as the CPA Exam, is proof-positive of technical skill. Additional credentials can help to further identify an individual as an expert in a unique subset.”
Patrick T. Stanton, Esq. serves as leader of Dykema's Business Litigation Practice Group, primarily representing businesses involved in commercial litigation before federal and state courts, as well as alternative dispute resolution organizations such as the American Arbitration Association. Like McFetridge, Stanton uses financial experts on a regular basis.
“In looking for an expert or consultant, I am more concerned with actual experience rather than designations, memberships or affiliations,” he says. “However, the CPA credential does factor into the decision to hire a financial expert.”
Now that a path has been presented, don’t forget to do your part: Pass the exam.
Brad is the managing member of The Sargent Consulting Group LLC, which specializes in forensic accounting andfinancial investigation. He is a frequent lecturer, and chair emeritus of the American Board of Forensic Accounting. A member of the Illinois CPA Society since 2002, Brad also serves on the Society’s Board of Directors.