How can a small firm in a small town develop a thriving niche in litigation services? We’ve had great success in building this service line in our practice by simply focusing on our existing strengths.
Core competencies. We’re not located in a big city and there are approximately 40,000 people in the immediate area surrounding our town. Because it’s difficult to find people in a small community who specialize, I was approached many years ago by local attorneys who thought a CPA might be able to help them in litigation work. I decided to add this service line to my practice and eventually settled on receivership and conservatorship cases. In many situations, a receivership case is much like managing someone’s checkbook for them. They have not previously done a good job of setting up separate bank accounts, doing the accounting, paying the bills or preparing reports for the court, so you step in and fix the problems. Essentially, we do what CPAs do best—account for money. My first receivership case was for an attorney who was an existing tax client. There were two partners fighting over a real estate deal and the bank wanted someone to manage money and oversee the sale of the real estate development. This was a great opportunity to use both my current skill set and this new specialization while assisting my existing client base.
The profession’s reputation. CPA firms are natural choices in receivership cases because attorneys are looking for individuals with integrity to properly tackle these financial tasks. We are trusted professionals and have a tradition of independence; therefore we’re well suited to represent the public’s best interest.
Varied work. Working in a small firm provides a great opportunity to expand the CPA skill set and engage in highly varied work across a broad spectrum of areas, and litigation is certainly different and quite interesting. Conservatorship cases, for example, generally involve court-appointed conservators for people who are not considered mentally capable. One of our conservatorship cases involved real estate and oil and gas royalties for one such person. We found that the conservator had stolen $1.3 million from this person over three years. We were paid for our investigative work, then we took on the conservatorship role. In another situation, one very unusual case involved a gold mine. A gold bar had been stolen and the local attorney needed help determining the value of the gold bar for the insurance company.
A good professional network. To get started in litigation services, build relationships with the attorneys in the niches that interest you. We often do work for attorneys who know they need a CPA’s financial skills. They might call us to calculate payments on a note agreement or for a quick valuation for an insurance company.
I enjoy litigation assignments because they are so different from what we usually do. While these cases are a relatively small part of our practice, they can often be done outside of busy season and they may provide a steady stream of income if they involve monthly fees over the course of two to three years. Adding this service line has helped both our clients and our bottom line!
To get started, I’d recommend:
- Understand your options. While receivership and conservatorship cases have worked for us, we found that divorce work, which can require immediate action without much notice, didn’t fit into our schedule. A little research into what’s involved in different kinds of litigation can help focus your efforts.
- Identify your market. CPAs can build their network and referral base by attending professional networking events that include attorneys who concentrate on the types of cases that interest you.
- Articulate your strengths. Remember that attorneys may not be aware of all you have to offer. Using what you’ve learned in your litigation research, be ready to discuss your skills and explain how they can benefit the attorney.
Charles P. Fredrick, CPA, is the managing owner of FredrickZink & Associates, PC, a small firm in Durango, Colorado.