Peers and clients say:
“He is a clear communicator who stays focused on the central issues”
"Keith has a very practical approach to each engagement”
"He always brings the right level of resources, knowledge and experience to every matter”
Keith Williamson is a managing director based in London with Alvarez & Marsal and leads the firm’s disputes and investigations team in Hong Kong and China. He has more than 25 years of forensic and investigative accounting experience (including 12 years in Asia), specialising in investigations of fraud, corruption (U.S. FCPA / U.K. Bribery Act) and regulatory issues, asset tracing and recovery (including cryptocurrency), and litigation support and expert witness services for disputes.
What inspired you to pursue a career as a forensic accountant?
I studied law as my degree and enjoyed it without ever thinking I would go on to be a lawyer as I always wanted to work in business. When I was then training as a chartered accountant performing statutory audits for Deloitte’s clients and had to spend 10 weeks in another department as part of my training, I discovered that forensic accounting existed. This seemed like a perfect mix of law and accountancy. The first investigation I performed immediately had me hooked and I pursued a career as a forensic accountant from that day onwards.
What do clients look for in an effective forensic accountant?
I think it differs from client-to-client and situation-to-situation, but common traits include strong hands-on leadership, concise and timely verbal and written communication skills, the ability to meet deadlines, working collaboratively, the ability to provide advice and solutions rather than just identifying problems, and the ability to stick to a budget (and/or communicate early and fully about necessary expansions of scope and budget). Through varying combinations of these traits in particular circumstances, I think clients are looking for a forensic accountant that ultimately makes them look, to their own clients, bosses, peers and other stakeholders, like they made a good decision in hiring the forensic accountant in the first place.
How has the role of a forensic accountant changed since you first started practising?
The biggest changes have resulted from the developments in technology over the period I have been practising. Some early investigation and dispute projects required the identification, review and copying (for evidential purposes) of huge volumes of hard-copy documentation, even including manual accounting ledgers for some very old issues. Much of the identification and copying work is no longer performed by forensic accountants, and instead specialist teams of forensic technologists identify, process, key word search, risk profile and host electronic data for our review. This means that the work is not as labour intensive as it once was, and increased value is now placed on the ability to intelligently design and execute scopes of work and methodologies that leverage technology to achieve desired outcomes in a focused and effective manner.
What new types of fraud have you seen emerge recently? How are you ensuring that you and your clients are well-equipped to tackle the forensic challenges they pose?
The newest frauds to emerge in the past couple of years have involved investments in cryptocurrencies or individuals being defrauded of assets that include or are converted into cryptocurrency assets. This has required us to climb a relatively steep learning curve to ensure we completely understand how such assets are created, transacted, concealed and converted to and from fiat currency, and the technology that is available to assist us in identifying and tracing such assets. Having done this and successfully performed investigations and asset tracing exercises, it has been important to educate more of the lawyers that we work with about what is achievable on these matters so that they in turn can advise their clients and manage their expectations.
What makes Alvarez & Marsal stand out from its competitors in the market?
I think there are important aspects that make Alvarez & Marsal stand out as an employer that in turn help us stand out from our competitors in the market. Firstly, the firm is truly a meritocracy – promotions and compensation are earned from achievements, how we serve our clients and how we develop our people, not from time served and not restricted by any bias other than our ability to perform in accordance with our core values for our clients and team. It requires individuals to take responsibility for their work and in turn their careers, and rewards those that are self-starters, self-motivated, have integrity and take ownership and pride in everything they do. Another common thread running through the team is that while everyone is different and has different interests and pastimes outside work, everyone is down to earth and does have a life outside work, which the firm looks to ensure is protected and enjoyed. This all contributes to the firm’s founders’ guiding principle for the firm of “like what you do, and love who you do it with”, which in turn hopefully comes across to our clients who return to us not only because of the quality and results of our work, but because of the people they enjoyed working with.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in forensic accountancy?
Don’t look to specialise in a particular area until you are sure this is your area of strength and the one that you most enjoy – explore as many different types of work and project as are available to give yourself the best opportunity of having options and making the right decision if the time comes to specialise.
Identify and engage with mentors that you respect and who you can learn the right and wrong ways to do things from through observation and interaction.
Enjoy the thrill and embrace the challenge of the extremely busy and demanding periods, but equally remember to relax, reflect and appreciate your achievements during the quieter periods.