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The last time I saw the family dentist while I was in college, he asked me what I was studying. When I told him I was studying tax accounting, he got a strange, smug look on his face and asked, “what are you going to do when there is a flat tax?”
It’s been almost 30 years since I saw that dentist, and so far I’ve dodged the flat tax bullet. There has been one big tax reform since I started public accounting, and next to getting fired by good old Price Waterhouse, The Tax Reform of 1986 has been the best thing that happened to my career.
The 1986 Tax Reform Act’s 25th anniversary is tomorrow. With talk of radical tax reform in the air, from Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan to Rick Perry’s embrace of an old-fashioned flat tax, young tax nerds may lose sleep worrying that this time tax careers really will be legislated out of existence.
Go back to bed. For young tax nerds, radical change can be a huge career boost.
The 1986 tax reforms were enacted during my third year out of school. The local office of my national firm was going to put on a big client seminar, and I was put in charge of organizing the presentation. In the pre-Internet days, we got one paperback copy of the legislation, which I tore apart at the bindings so the presenters could have their part of the law. I proofread the slides, sent them to the photographer, and then manually arranged the presentation in the slide carousel (there was no PowerPoint, kids).
The seminar came off well (I did passive losses), which helped keep me (and the evil manager who didn’t like me) from getting me fired again. But in the following weeks the real benefit began to dawn on me — thanks to tax reform, I suddenly knew more about most of the tax law than everybody in the office who outranked me — including the evil manager. It got me promoted quickly, and it gave me much-needed credibility a few years later when a bunch of us went over the wall to start a new firm.
If there is radical tax reform, it will trash a lot of accumulated tax trivia knowledge that experienced tax nerds trade on. But it will also create huge opportunities for young, smart nerds who are willing to learn the new rules. It will be a great leveller in the profession, and a huge advantage to the young and strong.
But it will probably make it almost impossible for me to sell my collection of 1986 Tax Act books for a good price on e-Bay.
Welcome to everyone-whip-out-those-birth-certificates edition of Accounting Career Emergencies. In today’s edition, a Big 4 tax intern is thinking about life after public accounting, just in case, you know, he hates it. Are there real options out there or will it be a choice between being a Big 4 partner and opening a H&R Block in a strip mall?
Looking for career advice from a complete stranger who may mock you in the process? Is a co-worker questioning your intelligence? Thinking about taking your talents to an archrival? Email us at [email protected] and we’ll help you with your Benedict Arnold impression.
Back in tax:
I’ve accepted an offer for an internship in tax this summer with a Big 4 firm, because I’ve always preferred tax to audit as far as a career within the firm. However, I am starting to have concerns over my potential career outside the firm should I decide that I hate public accounting. Unless I were to make partner, it is likely that I will have to look elsewhere to continue my career.
What are the career options outside the firm for someone working in tax at the manager/senior manager level? What can I do to make myself a more attractive candidate? Should I try to get into a specialty tax group? Would my career in tax give me the skills to open my own CPA firm down the road?
I apologize if these questions have been answered, I’ve spent the better part of two days trying to get answers to some of these questions. Feel free to direct me to the answer if this is the case.
Dear Tax Intern who seems to be getting ahead of themselves,
You’re having career concerns and you haven’t even been shown your cubicle? That makes me think that you might also be stressing over the Mayan calendar but since you mention making partner, I suspect you’re not that crazy (or this crazy).
Anyhoo, I’ve got good news – there are plenty of opportunities for you both inside and outside your Big 4 firm. Hopefully you’ll get exposure to various groups within your tax practice during your internship and that will get you thinking about what aspects of tax you enjoy best. If you like compliance – wow, are you in for a treat. You’ll probably start out there but at some point you may be able to jump into state and local (aka SALT), an international tax group or M&A. There are lots of options, which is why tax is such a great career path. Personally, I feel a speciality group can be great experience but you may limit yourself for opportunities outside the firm. That said, there is something to be said for being considered an “expert.”
As far as opportunities after your career in Big 4, you’ll be able to take any expertise you’ve obtained to clients in their own tax department. Remember GE’s department is the best tax law firm known to man and other corporations strive for similar tax savvy; you could fit in nicely. Similarly, if you’re confident you can go out on your own and start a tax boutique firm, you might be able to provide specialized services for a fraction of the cost of other firms. You’ll probably need a couple of colleagues to take the risk with you and some capital wouldn’t hurt but it could pay off in spades in the long-term.
Any tax mavens with some years behind them are invited to share their experiences. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to mocking birthers.