Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Are you an accountant who's thinking about law school? We were curious about the transition from accounting into a legal career, so we found someone who could answer a few questions.
GC caught up with Pamela Burneski, a second year law student at Michigan State University, who decided to pursue law school after completing a double major in accounting and finance as well as a Master's degree in Accounting from Indiana University-Bloomington. Pam admits the transition from accounting to law was tough, but she's found many ways to incorporate her accounting background into her law school studies. She also had a lot of good advice for accountants who may be considering a law school program. By the way, Pam attended IU on a full golf scholarship, so you definitely want her on your team at your firm's next golf scramble.
Leona May: Why did you decide to pursue a legal career after earning your MS in Accounting?
Pamela Burneski: I thought my life was set in the accounting world until I travelled with my father to a Grain and Feed Trade Association (GAFTA) arbitration hearing in London during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. I had the amazing opportunity to work with law professors, prepare documents for the hearing, and follow the arbitration process from start to finish. I developed an extreme interest in law during my summer experience, but still continued with my business studies.
Then during my senior year, one of my electives was International Business Law. I absolutely fell in love with the class and I found myself focusing more on learning about the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) than some of my accounting subjects.
The night before my Advanced Financial Accounting final exam, I decided that I wanted to take the LSAT. I had enjoyed my experiences participating in the GAFTA arbitration hearing and my International Business Law class too much to not give myself the opportunity to attend law school. I knew if I did not at least take the LSAT, I would regret my decision for the rest of my life.
To ensure that I was making a good decision, I interned at Clyde & Co. in London during the summer between my senior year and my MSA. During my internship, I experienced all aspects of Big Law life, and I solidified that a legal career was the right choice for me. While pursuing my MSA, I took the LSAT and decided to continue my education at law school.
LM: What was the biggest change moving from accounting to law?
PB: Moving from accounting to law was a huge shock. Excluding special circumstances, accountants are generally taught to find the correct answers and stray from being overly creative. For example, on accounting exams, I could usually tell how well I was going to score depending on how my books balanced or if I could find the multiple choice answer than matched mine. Additionally, accountants are generally results-oriented and most emphasis is put on bottom line.
In law, there are no correct answers and creativity is generally encouraged. Sure, some answers may be better than others, but there is never a black and white solution.
The hardest part of the transition for me was grasping the idea that multiple answers can be correct. Another change is shifting my bottom line focus to a focus on the analysis. In law, the final answer is not as important as the way the final answer was achieved…which is why I now despise multiple choice exams.
LM: How have you managed to apply your accounting skills to your law school journey? (eg – I noticed you're involved in securities law stuff, so I'm sure you have an interesting perspective given your financial background.)
PB: There are a lot of opportunities for business and law to intersect. I have used my accounting skills at almost every job I have had so far. For instance:
- I used my Excel skills to calculate information about victims of a fraud;
- I used my general business knowledge to complete a business proposal while I worked with general counsel of a non-profit company; and
- I used my business formations knowledge to determine if companies were in compliance with corporate laws.
There are also many opportunities for me to use my business school background at law school. For instance:
- I am the incoming Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Business and Securities Law. I am extremely interested in the topics we cover at the Journal and I am happy that I have the background knowledge to understand the articles the Journal features. From my experience, I have found many students shy away from business law and topics that involve computations because it is complex. I am extremely thankful for my accounting and finance experience because it makes understanding difficult business law concepts more tangible.
- I am a clinician at the law school’s Tax Clinic. I was able to tap into my accounting experience to help people with Federal and State tax problems. Without my accounting experience, I would not have been as efficient at helping people resolve their tax issues or complete their Federal and State tax returns. I really enjoy working at the Tax Clinic because it blends my accounting and legal education together into one package that helps people.
LM: We all know that the job market for attorneys is tough while the job market for accountants is booming –- how has your skillset affected your job hunt? What types of opportunities do you hope to pursue after graduation?
PB: I think the job market is extremely scarce for people who want to practice general law. With my background in accounting and finance, and efforts in law school to specialize in business law, I think it makes me more [marketable] to employers. In my opinion, what hurts law students most is not having a focus or passion for a particular area of law. I think having a focus during law school, whether it is business law, environmental law, or public policy, gives you an opportunity to differentiate yourself when it comes time to get a job.
This summer I am excited to gain practical legal experience working at a law firm. Afterwards, I will have had experience working as a public-sector attorney, private-sector attorney, and in-house council. Once I have weighed all of my options, I will decide which type of work I like best and will pursue a career in that area. For my job hunts, I have searched for opportunities that allow me to utilize my accounting background, and I think employers have liked my focus areas. I am excited for my post graduate prospects, and I am looking forward to utilizing all of my educational experiences.
LM: What advice do you have for CPAs considering law school?
PB: 1) Make sure law school is something you really want to do and have a passion for. Law school is a three year commitment of your life and will require sacrifices to complete. There is a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a lot of stress. 2) Do your due diligence about the law schools you want to attend. Look into the strength of the faculty in the area of law you want to focus on. Consider what location you want to work once you graduate. Look into the extra-curricular activities offered and what you can join that will enhance your resume. 3) Just do your best and know that nobody comes to law school knowing all the answers.
LM: Which do you prefer: Going Concern or Above the Law -– or do you troll both? (Answer honestly.)
PB: Both equally! I honestly do not have much time to read anything outside of my case books or assigned readings these days.