Shawn Fox (BBA96) is glad he was an attentive student. Advice from now Emeritus Associate Professor Richard Tubbs not only saved him from possible prison time, but set him on track for an exciting career, one in which he often plays the leading role in courtroom drama and fraud investigations.
Fox is the principal and founder of Fox Forensic Accounting, a boutique forensic accounting advisory firm with a reputation as a leader in cases of litigation between feuding business partners, angry shareholders, or divorcing spouses. Fox is based in Chicago, but his team extends to Missouri, Texas, and California.
In 2013, Fox helped win a $150 million settlement for a nonprofit healthcare foundation in the Midwest. The win, which involved nearly 3 million documents and was covered by The New York Times, cemented Fox’s reputation as a star expert witness in forensic accounting.
Since then, he’s helped win dozens of other cases (and millions of dollars more) for attorneys and their clients; people who were the victims of patent infringement, lost profits, or misconduct by a financial lender. In a recent case in California, Fox served as the expert witness in a trial of an employer suing a former management team who used stolen trade secrets to launch a competing company and siphon clients away from their former associates.
It all started at Iowa
But when Fox was a student at the Tippie College of Business in the early 1990s, he wasn’t sure what sort of accounting he would go into.
His first job out of school was with a large Des Moines-based accounting company in the firm’s Iowa City offices. Fox worked on tax and government audit projects and found he enjoyed the focus required. But when his boss asked him to sign the working paper for a city audit that he knew was flawed, he remembered the advice of a Tippie professor and refused.
He was fired, but a few years later, when his former boss became entangled in a police investigation, the firm he founded and built destroyed by scandal, Fox knew he’d done the right thing.
“Professor Tubbs told us that when stuff goes bad, the authorities will always come looking for the audit staff who signed off on the audit working papers,” says Fox.
After his dismissal, Fox quickly found another job, this time in forensics and valuations. His father, then a practicing CPA in Oelwein, Iowa, encouraged his son to pursue valuations, a relatively new field at the time, and Fox discovered that he loved the variety of work and the thrill of financial sleuthing.
"I live in a world that is very unpredictable; where partners steal trade secrets and spouses purposefully devalue their business to avoid large alimony payouts. It’s never boring.”
Before opening his accounting advisory firm, Fox worked in forensic accounting for some of the largest accounting and consulting firms in the nation—RSM, Grant Thornton, BDO, and Willamette Management Associates. However, he says he prefers being his own boss and having the freedom to work on “more diverse” projects.
When he’s taking part in a deposition for a lawsuit, Fox often must answer questions about his experience, his qualifications and educational degrees, the fees his firm charges, and his police record (which is clean). It’s all part of a legal strategy, and Fox can’t show that he’s shaken.
“A lawyer can take two hours just going through my resume and it’s exhausting,” says Fox. “There is a lot of gamesmanship on both sides of a case, and it can be extremely competitive. I can spend hours preparing for my testimony. I have to remember the facts even under duress. I have to hold my cool.”
A niche that’s full of surprises
Fox has testified in more than 60 cases in federal, bankruptcy, and state courts, and has worked on hundreds of disputes, including lost profits, unjust enrichment, reasonable royalty, and fair market value. He says one of the keys
to his success taking full benefit of his professional network. Fox speaks about forensic accounting at conferences, writes articles for his firm’s blog and professional publications, and hosts continuing education webinars for attorneys and CPAs.
"I have to get my name out there and be seen as a thought leader to have success in the court room and to attract clients,” he says.
When he starts a new job, Fox and his team often review thousands of documents to find the ones that are relevant to their analysis. Although the deposition room or witness stand is where the excitement happens—where voices boom and personalities clash—Fox also enjoys the solitude of the hunt, when he’s alone among leaning stacks of document files and thick plastic binders.
“You have to like to read, you have to be analytical, and you should be confident,” he says. “You’re often working very closely with attorneys, and you have to be comfortable in their world—the world of the law—as well as your own world of expert financial opinions.”
For Fox, forensic accounting is the right mix of chaos and calm. “It can be incredibly challenging, but it’s also incredibly satisfying.”