5 Ways Firms Can Better Prepare As Legal Claims Rise Against CPAs

5 Ways Firms Can Better Prepare As Legal Claims Rise Against CPAs

Since 2000, on the heels of several corporate scandals and financial reporting fiascos, judges have been less likely to throw out cases against CPAs than they once were. Judges grant fewer motions for summary judgment and seem to require additional discovery before rendering decisions on cases.

According to CPA Mutual, a national risk retention group and accounting firm liability coverage provider, firm claims with actual expenses paid have increased by 41 percent since 1998. Accounting firms can expect, on average, to experience one liability matter per every 38 employees each year.

It’s not that public accounting firms are less cautious in their practices. CPAs are an easy mark to go after in lawsuits because they carry professional liability insurance. Add to that a labor shortage in the profession, and overburdened managers and partners are faced with increasing risk to place qualified team members on engagements. “There is nothing worse for firm owners than to hear a staff member explain at deposition, ‘I had no idea what I was supposed to do, and there was no one on the job to answer my questions,’” says Bill Thompson, President of CPA Mutual.

When it comes to diligent risk management against a legal claim, purchasing liability coverage isn’t enough. The time and expense of a lawsuit can disrupt firm operations and cause clients to question their choice of advisor. In addition to the right coverage, accounting firms can add the following strategies to practice management. These steps can improve the odds of avoiding claims, and at the very least properly manage them.

Invest in consistent staff training.

Plaintiffs attorneys like the idea of “kids” doing audits, that is, less experienced auditors. Firms need to have enough senior-level staff people to adequately supervise each engagement. Before adding a new client, think long and hard about whether you have the right people to take on the engagement. For quality control, make sure that qualified staffers are positioned at every level and phase of the engagement.

Update and enforce document retention policies.

Paper and electronic files are discoverable in a lawsuit. These include workpapers, but also e-mails, text messages, instant messages, blogs and any other message stored electronically. The firm’s document retention policy should include electronic communications even on personal home computers and phones used for business. Remember, Arthur Andersen wasn’t found guilty of performing a bad audit – it was found guilty of a cover-up based upon one bad e-mail! Train staff on saving client and firm communications in all forms. Read more on CPA Practice Advisor.