Payroll Fraud: Raise your own pay 10X

We’ve all felt underpaid at various times. This feeling of being underappreciated is a little miserable and can motivate people to act. They find a better job, go back to school for a new degree, or just steal.

Our story today looks at another law firm. In March of 2022, Christiane Irwin pled guilty to stealing $1.48 million from her employer.

Irwin worked as the controller for the law firm Simon Greenstone Panatier. Her salary was reportedly $140k a year and part of her job was submitting payroll details to the firm’s payroll provider. Starting in 2019 Ms Irwin began inflating her own salary, first by $30k/month rising to $49k/month by the end. These amounts were direct deposited as part of her payroll every 2 weeks. In total she is alleged to have received improper payments of $1.48 million over 3 years.

This seems simple enough. Jacking up your salary when you have responsibility for payroll isn’t sophisticated. Any number of controls could have caught this. A review of payroll, a review of budget to actual for payroll. Even an independent bank reconciliation might have found some good questions to ask. By the end this was like hiring another 3 1/2 Christiane Irwin’s at her salary.

Most law firms are light on back office staff. Attorney’s are outwardly focused on clients and they put their money into staff that can be billed out. That’s why we’ve seen a couple of frauds related to law firms, but it’s not a good excuse for ignoring the basics of good controls.