WVU FAFE program teams up with local law firm to offer "Moot Court"
Imagine that you’re called to testify in court. You know your story, that’s not an issue. But the attorneys are intimidating. They’re asking all kinds of questions and you can’t quite see what they’re getting at. It’s like you’re in the hot seat, sweat dripping from your brow, heart pounding fast. The information you share has the power to shape the outcome of someone’s future – guilty, or not guilty?
It’s a nerve-wracking scenario, and it’s one that anybody with a career in forensic accounting or fraud examination and investigation is likely to face in their line of work.
That’s why Professor Richard Riley has made it a habit to team up with the West Virginia-based law firm Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC to offer his students the annual Forensic Accounting and Fraud Examination (FAFE) Moot Court, a practice session for the real thing.
“The exercise is a critical step in the evolution from student to FAFE professional,” Riley said. “All FAFE engagement might land in court. The courtroom switches the playing field from a ‘world of numbers’ favored by the accountant to a ‘world of words,’ the attorney’s playground. Until a person has faced a gifted attorney trying to critically de-construct their work, they really don’t know how to defend that work.”
With the assistance of Steptoe & Johnson, FAFE students spend six and a half hours preparing with classroom instruction, including a practicum on testifying as an expert witness. This allows them to learn what to expect in court, and the tricks lawyers might attempt that an untrained person would be likely to miss.
“Despite the equivalent of two weeks of classroom instruction, the students still find battling attorneys and using words to explain numbers to be incredibly difficult. But once the students have completed this exercise, they not only know how it is done, they can do it,” Riley said.
In addition to providing a valuable experiential learning opportunity for students, the Moot Court is also mutually beneficial to attorneys at Steptoe & Johnson. In recent years, S&J has sent younger attorneys who can use the Moot Court as a training ground for depositions. They are introduced to the general topic of FAFE, who commits fraud and why, and the basics of business valuation in order to develop a financial theory of the case.
“These attorneys are skilled at deposing witnesses, but the nuances of fraud, forensic accounting and valuate impact the deposition activity,” Riley said. “My sense is that the young attorneys learn as much about forensic accounting as our students learn about how to properly testify.”
The exercise is a framework to prepare students for the future by allowing them to live through their mistakes in a low-risk environment. It serves as the FAFE students’ final exam.
“I think that it is fair to stay that most students are scared to death at first,” Riley said. “They, emerging professionals, are facing a gifted orator.” But once they’re finished, they debrief — a relieving experience for many.
“Most are elated with how well they performed. To us who have done this for years, it’s no surprise. But to the students who felt ‘thrown to the wolves,’ they can’t believe they did so well,” Riley said.
Riley and his students feel that using experienced attorneys adds considerably to the depth and knowledge developed in the curriculum. Since its inception, 450 FAFE students have completed the exercise.