Audit committees have never felt so stressed and stretched. Everybody, from stock exchanges to boards of directors to investors, expects more from them, and the penalties for failure have never been more serious.As a result, audit committees are meeting more often, setting more serious agendas tilted more toward inquiry, demanding more of internal auditors, and calling for committee members with better qualifications.

"Audit committees are meeting more often and they're meeting longer," said David Richards, president of the Institute of Internal Auditors. "Some are meeting every month for two to four hours - a significant change from when the standard was four times a year, generally for only an hour and a half at most. They use the telephone for meetings more often, and they are more involved in looking at financial information before it's released."

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