Frances McLeod is a co-founder and the US head of Forensic Risk Alliance (FRA). A former investment banker with more than 25 years of experience, Frances advises clients on sanctions, anti-corruption, fraud, internal controls, asset tracing, money laundering and data governance issues. Frances has been deeply involved in FRA’s compliance monitorship work, including currently serving as an independent compliance monitor to a European engineering company pursuant to a DOJ settlement. She speaks English, German, French and Mandarin, and holds an MA from Oxford University.
Describe your career to date.
I started out as an investment banker in the mergers and acquisitions divisions of Lazard and Schroders in London, and HSBC in Indonesia, before going in-house at a boutique investigations and security company in Washington, DC. As a banker and a Chinese, German and French speaker, I found myself pulled into a variety of fascinating investigations into money laundering and fund flows, among others. This experience led to my being recruited for a role in the Swiss banks investigations into dormant Holocaust-era assets, and subsequent change in career. Since co-founding FRA 20 years ago, I have been fortunate to have worked on many significant anti-corruption, fraud and money laundering investigations over the years, and continue to win demanding, interesting and important work.
What did you find most challenging about starting your career as a forensic accountant?
Coming into the forensic accounting field without a background in accounting was initially challenging and seen by many as a drawback. However, my investment banking experience gave me a unique perspective into how businesses work and are financed, which ultimately gives me some advantages over those who took a more traditional path.
What did you most enjoy about establishing your firm FRA?
I set up FRA with my two co-founders – my brother, Toby Duthie, and our friend, Greg Mason – more than 20 years ago. The independence of being self-employed and able to create our own paths has been enormously empowering. We have been fortunate to have so many supporters in the legal industry who were willing to give us a chance when we were just starting up –many of whom have continued to work with us for two decades.
What do clients look for in an effective forensic accountant?
An integrated, collaborative legal and forensics team can be very powerful. Being able to seamlessly partner with both in-house and outside counsel, and become a part of the team developing and executing a successful strategy, are key. It is also important to be nimble and able to embrace the changing nature of the investigative process – priorities shift, new fact patterns are identified – and to re-prioritise and scale the forensic accounting work. It is part of our job to decode the financials, but it is equally important to be able to clearly and compellingly explain one’s analysis to the legal team and to investigators. A good forensic accountant is a numbers person who can write. Finally, the ability to give robust opinions and analyses, and to stand by them, is of great value to our clients.
What are the main challenges you face when navigating international enforcement proceedings?
Increasingly, investigations are multi-jurisdictional, with enforcement agencies cooperating and sharing information across jurisdictions, but often approaching the investigation from different angles. Companies facing investigations typically operate internationally as well, so even when they want to cooperate, they often face conflicting laws, as well as national security constraints or data localisation requirements. This means that challenges are present at the earliest stages of identifying and collecting the data one needs in order to identify, quantify and assess issues. Working with counsel to set out the appropriate mechanisms for doing this, and then for subsequently presenting and transferring information and analysis, is an increasingly sophisticated and nuanced task – and requires a true understanding of what is at risk. That being said, working on multi-jurisdictional investigations and regulatory responses across the world – especially when it requires presenting analysis to multiple regulators on different timetables, and sometimes with different agendas – keeps life interesting.
What are some steps that companies can take to ensure they are agile in the face of complex compliance requirements?
A successful compliance programme should be fit for purpose and right-sized. Companies often spend enormous resources creating overly prescriptive, onerous programmes, or over-engineering systems that are ineffective and ultimately lead to fatigue and circumvention. A well-considered, collaborative, risk-based approach is key to avoiding silos and things slipping through the cracks – that means being sensitive to the biggest regulatory and compliance risks, being vigilant about where new risks might emerge and where failures might be occurring, and then bringing together the business people, compliance professionals and other stakeholders to calibrate the compliance and training programmes to mitigate that risk. Ongoing testing and monitoring – and effective reporting of the results – allows for a window into what is working and what is not. Having a robust culture of ethics, compliance and challenge is the most critical step of all. Employees and leaders must have good moral barometers.
How do you see your practice developing over the next five years?
I am focused on expanding our core offerings, building our presence in key markets, and continuing the firm’s growth by hiring and developing the best people in our field. As head of our US offices, I am committed to building out our brand in the US, and also see the Nordic markets as areas of high potential – we recently opened offices in Philadelphia, Dallas, Helsinki and Stockholm. We are also actively growing our data governance and transfer expertise globally by offering our clients sophisticated, compliant solutions, and secure solutions to safeguard their data.
You have enjoyed a very distinguished career so far. What would you like to achieve that you have not yet accomplished?
I am currently developing a mentorship and coaching programme for women at FRA. We are proud to have 40 per cent of our senior-level positions occupied by women, and I’m committed to helping them achieve success in what is still a male-dominated industry. I am also learning Icelandic.
Frances McLeod is a co-founder and US head of Forensic Risk Alliance (FRA). She is a former investment banker and has over 25 years of experience advising diverse clients on sanctions, anti-corruption, fraud, internal controls, asset tracing and money laundering issues. Frances has been deeply involved in all of FRA’s compliance monitorship work. She has extensive experience in complex international data transfer issues – whether in regulatory investigations or cross-border litigation. She speaks English, German, French and Mandarin, and holds an MA from Oxford University.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO A CAREER IN FORENSIC ACCOUNTING?
I started out as an investment banker doing mergers and acquisitions advisory work, and then went in-house at a boutique investigations and security company based in Washington, DC. As a banker, and a Chinese, German and French speaker, I found myself involved in a variety of investigations into fund flows, money laundering, etc. I was hooked. Shortly thereafter, I was headhunted for a role in the Swiss banks investigations into dormant Holocaust-era assets. That formalised my change in career.
WHAT STRENGTHS DO YOU BRING TO YOUR ROLE?
I’ve lived and worked in Asia, North America and Europe, and have spent significant amounts of time in other continents too. I understand where potential conflicts lie, and do my best to set the team up to navigate these successfully without compromising the independence and excellence of our analysis. I also have strengths in triaging information to distil the key facts and patterns and in presenting these clearly to a variety of audiences. Plus, I am very good at finding the relevant source data – we have an internal joke that I can always find that document or piece of data, no matter how well it is hidden.
HOW DOES YOUR PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE AS AN INVESTMENT BANKER ENHANCE YOUR WORK AS A FORENSIC ACCOUNTANT?
When I first moved into this field – particularly in the UK – it was in its infancy, or rather much more focused on smaller financial fraud and insolvency cases where not being an accountant was regarded as a drawback. However, with my banking background giving me an understanding of how businesses work and are financed, combined with fluency in some key business languages, I had an opportunity to stand out.
WHAT ARE THE GREATEST CHALLENGES CURRENTLY FACING FORENSIC ACCOUNTANTS IN THE INVESTIGATIONS SPACE?
The biggest change is the internationalisation of enforcement, particularly in the anti-corruption arena, and by extension cross-border cooperation. There is pretty much no such thing as an investigation that spans a single jurisdiction these days. We already see data protection laws and potential enforcement – such as GDPR – having a significant impact on how we approach multi-jurisdictional investigations surrounding movement of data across borders. In the UK (and where there is a UK nexus) the litigation privilege issue when “litigation is reasonably anticipated” is also potentially a huge issue too, stacking the cards in favour of UK enforcement agencies.
YOUR FIRM FRA TURNED 20 THIS YEAR. IN THIS TIME, HOW HAVE YOU ENSURED IT DISTINGUISHES ITSELF AMONG THE COMPETITION?
We are a firm committed to being trusted advisers to our clients, and people who our clients actually enjoy working with. Many of our clients have worked with us for two decades and over that time we have built strong client relationships acting as partner, valued adviser and thought leader. I think genuine commitment to diversity, and investment in and support of our people, regardless of gender, sexual orientation or identification, is key.
AS A FOUNDING PARTNER OF THE FIRM, WHAT ARE YOUR PRIORITIES FOR ITS DEVELOPMENT OVER THE NEXT FIVE YEARS?
I remain very committed to building out our presence and brand in the US, and will be looking for other areas of geographical expansion. We have recently opened offices in Helsinki and Stockholm, and see the Nordic markets as areas of high potential. I’m also very focused on targeted and complimentary diversification and or building out our core offering. We have strengths in M&A disputes advisory; are building our arbitration practice in London, Paris and the US; and are looking at developing further our trade and sanctions experience. Finally, continuing to grow our data governance and transfer expertise globally by offering our clients sophisticated, compliant solutions, while maximising security and controls to safeguard their data, is a core objective and one that I am personally passionately committed to. Clearly all of these ambitions are underpinned by a commitment to continuing to hire and grow the best people in our field.
WHAT HAS BEEN YOUR GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT TO DATE?
Seeing FRA develop and grow over almost 20 years has been the highlight of my career. We are incredibly fortunate to have worked on many major anti-corruption, fraud and money laundering and sanctions-related investigations over the years and continue to win demanding, interesting and important work. Having the independence of being self-employed, and being able to create our own paths, have been enormously empowering. I have been lucky enough to find supporters and colleagues – in-house and external counsel – who were prepared to take a chance and engage us as a start-up, and have continued to engage us. I also fully expect FRA to outlast me – so at this point it feels like a legacy.
WHAT IS THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU HAVE RECEIVED?
A very senior colleague gave me this advice when I started working at Lazard: “Have fun, do business that we are proud of, and make money – in that order.” Although I have changed careers it still holds true.
Frances McLeod is a highly skilled and “sharp” forensic accountant with expansive knowledge of the field. She is selected as a Global Elite Thought Leader this year.
Frances McLeod is a founding partner of FRA, head of its US offices and recognised in GIR’s “women in investigations” listing as one of the top 100 remarkable women in the profession from around the world. She is a former investment banker and has over 26 years’ experience advising diverse clients on sanctions, anti-corruption, fraud, internal control, asset tracing and money laundering issues.
Frances has been deeply involved in all of FRA's compliance monitorship work, to include DOJ and SEC FCPA monitorships, a New York Department of Financial Services bank monitorship, the Ferguson City monitorship, a PCAOB monitorship and a DOJ fraud-related monitorship.
She led the team providing technical advice to the Asia Pacific Group on Money Laundering under a mandate from the Asian Development Bank and has provided expert advice in terrorism financing litigation cases. She served as an expert witness on counter terror financing in litigation involving an international bank and led FRA’s UN Oil-For-Food (OFF) investigation work.
Frances has extensive experience in addressing complex international data transfer issues whether in regulatory investigations or cross border litigation. She led the FRA team responding to anticorruption investigation data requests in all jurisdictions for Alstom in the US, the UK, Brazil, Indonesia, Poland, Sweden, etc, which included addressing French data privacy and blocking statute issues. Frances was responsible for the design and implementation of claim evaluation and administration systems for the US$1.3 billion Swiss Bank and US$2.5 billion German Slave Labour Holocaust settlements.
Frances speaks English, German, French and Mandarin Chinese. She holds a master’s degree from Wadham College, Oxford.
Frances McLeod is a Global Elite Thought Leader in the field of forensic accounting and excels on anti-corruption and fraud matters. Peers comment that "she heads a superb team" and is "a pleasure to work with".
Frances McLeod is a founding partner of FRA and head of its US offices. She is a former investment banker and has over 25 years of experience advising diverse clients on sanctions, anti-corruption, fraud, internal control, asset tracing, and money laundering issues.
Frances is recognised in GIR’s 2018 publication Women in Investigations, which profiles the top 100 remarkable women in the profession from around the world; and in Who's Who Legal: Investigations and Consulting Experts. Sources regard her as a “highly respected expert” who is “excellent with clients”, and consider her “creative and extremely easy to work with”.
Frances has been deeply involved in all of FRA's compliance monitorship work, to include US DOJ and SEC FCPA monitorships, a New York Department of Financial Services bank monitorship, the Ferguson City monitorship, a PCAOB monitorship and a US DOJ fraud-related monitorship.
She led the team providing technical advice to the Asia Pacific Group on money laundering under a mandate from the Asian Development Bank and has provided expert advice in terrorism financing litigation cases. She served as an expert witness on counter terror financing in litigation involving an international bank and led FRA’s UN Oil-For-Food (OFF) investigation work, including an analysis of the function of the OFF escrow account managed from New York by a global bank.
Frances has extensive experience in addressing complex international data transfer issues, whether in regulatory investigations or cross-border litigation. She led the FRA team responding to anticorruption investigation data requests in all jurisdictions for Alstom in the US, the UK, Brazil, Indonesia, Poland, Sweden, etc., which included addressing French data privacy and Blocking Statute issues. She is leading FRA’s GDPR compliance initiative leveraging FRA’s decades of experience in addressing data protection issues in cross-border litigation and investigation. An Oxford graduate, Frances was responsible for the design and implementation of claim evaluation and administration systems for the US$ 1.3 billion Swiss Bank and US$ 2.5 billion German slave labour Holocaust settlements.
Frances speaks English, German, French and Mandarin Chinese. Prior to co-founding FRA in 1999, Frances worked in the mergers and acquisitions divisions of Lazard and Schroders in London, and HSBC in Indonesia. She holds a master’s degree from Wadham College, Oxford.