Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Are you an accountant […]
Let's not all point and laugh at once now, kids. I did the math […]
Earlier today, we shared a nice little story of an accountant who hustled after his […]
From “sometimes” GC reader JB (ever get the feeling like you’re being used for your snark and career advice?):
I finished up a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civ. from Harvard, speak and read Chinese proficiently (non-native), and I absolutely hate academia. I’m getting out, and that’s that. I know–why invest 10+years of your life in a field getting a Ph.D. if you hate it? Well, it’s too late to change that, and I finished because I wasn’t going to throw away a Ph.D. from Harvard.
My problem is that I need to do something practical in life and fast. I’m old–36–and I’ve been thinking about getting a JD or a Masters in Public Accounting. It seems like the job market is shot for attorneys for the fu about accounting? Perhaps some of your readers are ex-accountants who moved to law and could shed some light on the current state of both fields? I was thinking about doing the 18 month Masters in Public Accounting at a place like McCombs. Would you and your readers have any thoughts about one’s employability after finishing that program in the current job market?
Okay, lots to digest here. We’ll tackle the accounting angle first:
McCombs is a good choice but make sure you check out their pre-enrollment requirements. We’re guessing your East Asian Languages background doesn’t cover Macroecon, Microecon, Stats or Intro to Financial Accounting.
That being said, if you do choose the accounting route, some might say a Masters in Accounting is useless while others will say it was the best decision they made. The usefulness you get out of it depends on your intentions, which are wholly unclear. Do you actually want to be a CPA or do you just want a job? Going back to school will at least get you in front of the Big 4 recruiters but they’d much rather take a 20-something with bad social skills and a stellar GPA over a 36 year old with one PhD to his name who A) probably has already formulated his views on the world and is therefore not so easy to persuade any other way and B) could easily leave them the minute the job market picks up for something bigger and better. Your language skills are extremely attractive however, so if you were interested in working in Asia (granted, this is probably a number of years into your accounting career) that could play in your favor.
Accounting programs are not pimped and packaged like law programs, so there are fewer grads looking for jobs but in the United States being able to sue someone is a far greater skill to have than being able to depreciate someone’s PP&E so there are more law positions to lose. Check out our recent post on CPAs thinking about law school and you’ll find most lawyers (the non-CPAs, mind you) that jumped in the discussion would have done things differently. Spend five minutes perusing Above the Law Editor Elie Mystal’s posts and you’ll change your mind pretty quickly about pursuing a law degree. Again, your language skills are a big plus, play that up.
To answer your question directly, the MAcc route is your best bet. However, you’re swimming an uphill battle trying to elbow your way into public accounting. I used to scratch my head wondering why some truly intelligent, qualified individuals couldn’t seem to find a job then it dawned on me that the firms like someone blank and pliable, not a free-thinker with goals that aren’t easily molded to meet their careful definitions of “work-life” and “life in general”.
If you play the game and don’t try to appear too ambitious, you might have a shot in public. But you’re better off figuring out what you actually want to do with your life and not wasting another 10 years working up towards making that decision. Good luck.
We try to encourage you to think about your careers here at GC every once in awhile; present you with some options or ideas that maybe you haven’t considered before. We’ve covered several credentials out there that you can obtain and we’ve also touched on the pros and cons of the PhD.
But this time we’re going to get really crazy and give you the lowdown on an idea that we know many of you have had (including your humble editor) and that is the consideration of going to – gasp – law school.
For whatever insane reason, you can’t shake the idea of committing three years of your life and borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to live on PB&J, ramen noodles and frozen pizzas. Oh and of course there’s studying, tests and everything else that comes with returning to school.
But think about the benefits; you’ve got the CPA and if you were to get the JD, maybe you’ll top it off with an LLM and it’ll be smartest thing you’ve ever done. Think about the money! The prestige! The hot lawyers that you will bed and wed! It will all be worth it, right?
Well, maybe? If you spend even a little bit of time reading our sister site Above the Law, you might get the impression that the last thing you should ever do is go to law school. There’s an ncertain job market out there. You may end up with a huge debt load that can take a lifetime to pay back. And we’ve been told by a fair amount of our lawyers simply, “It’s just not worth it.”
Considering all that, we wanted to get some first-hand perspective, so we put the feelers out to a few CPAs turned lawyers to get an idea of their experience so those of you considering law school can make a more informed decision.
We spoke to three CPAs turned attorneys, Eric Gullotta who has his own practice in Sonoma, CA, Steve Farrar of Smith Moore Leatherwood in Greenville, SC and Timothy Gagnon who has in own practice in Needham, MA.
Messrs Gullotta and Gagnon both specialize in estate planning and taxation while Mr Farrar is a litigator who defends lawyers and accountants in malpractice lawsuits.
The three men agreed that their decision to go back to law school was worth it but that the process is certainly a challenge, “It was a tough three years. Probably the hardest thing is getting re-oriented with being a student after being out for awhile,” Mr Gagnon said.
Motivation and Benefits
Gullotta and Gagnon both believe that the biggest benefit that they’ve enjoyed by obtaining the law degree is that clients recognize the value that a background of a CPA can add to providing legal services. “The amount of respect and trust that clients put in you when you are both a lawyer and a CPA is really unbelievable,” Mr Gullotta told GC. “Being able to see the tax effects of legal transactions is really amazing and you can really bring value to your clients when you are able to negotiate or structure deals with tax effects in mind.”
Steve Farrar had a very different thought process before he returned to school. He went back because he was interested in being a trial lawyer, “I went back to law school with the intent to try cases,” he told us. While he was interviewing, most firms wanted him to consider working in a more transactional capacity but he found a firm that was willing to let him work in litigation and it turned out to be a perfect fit, “I’ve been ecstatic. While you might hear stories about people being burned out, I enjoy every minute of it.” And the biggest benefit for him? “This is going to sound hokie when I say it but I enjoy the theatrical chess match of going to trial.”
Back to School
But before getting to all the benefits of CPA/lawyer superstardom, there is the little matter of going to law school. While many lawyers we’ve talked to have said that the law school you attend is everything, it really depends on what you’re looking to accomplish with the degree. As Eric Gullotta told us, “it’s important to know what you what to do. If you want to work in [a large city], you’ll have to go to a reputable law school. If you want to practice locally, hang the shingle out, then you can go to slightly less prestigious school that is more practical for your situation.”
And being a CPA could possibly put you at an advantage when applying to law schools, “The interesting thing is that because you have experience and have a CPA, it can help you get into some of the better law schools,” Tim Gagnon said. “They’re looking to diversify their class, age, experience and you could bring something that diversifies the class that they can’t get out of somebody that just got out of undergrad.”
But there’s got to be drawbacks right? Besides all the lawyer jokes, Steve Farrar mentioned losing flexibility in his schedule, “The best way I can explain it is that I have multiple busy seasons but I never know when they’re coming.” For Tim Gagnon, it sheer volume of continuing to keep up-to-date on the changing rules, “It’s hard enough to keep up on one but you put the two together and you really have a lot of information to cover.”
Oh, and then there’s the practical (and possibly more important) stuff, “Higher malpractice insurance,” according to Eric Gullotta.
So, are your aspirations for law school a good idea? Hard to say. Knowing what you want to do with the degree seems to be the key to making a decision. If you are thinking that a law degree will be the solution to your self-perceived lackluster career to date, you could find yourself very disappointed.
However, if this is a career that you truly want then it sounds like there isn’t any shortage of success stories. Choose wisely.