Career Alternatives, Job Searches

Career Alternatives for Attorneys: Accounting Firms

accounting accountant CPA.jpgJust how versatile is a law degree? To quote one applicant for our new writer position: “If I had a nickel for every time someone told me ‘you can do a lot with a law degree,’ I’d have enough to pay for about a semester of law school.” [FN1]
As just discussed, many law school graduates are up to their ears in educational debt, but can’t land — or don’t want — Biglaw gigs. If they aren’t interested in working as contract attorneys, what other options are available to them?
To help answer this question, we’ll be doing a series of open threads on career alternatives for attorneys. If you have a suggestion for one, please email us (subject line: “Career Alternatives”). Please include some information about the alternative career path you’re nominating — e.g., how to get into the field, pros and cons, how much it pays, etc. — so if we use your suggestion, we have some material to kick off the conversation.
Today’s career alternative: working for an accounting firm. The Big Four accounting firms hire a fair number of J.D. holders. One popular specialty for lawyers at such firms is tax, where a legal education, although not essential, comes in handy.
If you’re curious about this possible career path, read more, after the jump.

The correspondent who brought this to our attention, a rising 3L at a top 20 law school, wrote:

Because of the weak economy (or perhaps because of my non-stellar grades), I was unable to get a summer associate position in Biglaw. I did, however, recently start an internship with a Big Four accounting firm.

My experience so far has been great (and has included three-hour lunches at expensive restaurants). The thing is that the salary is a joke compared to Biglaw.

I was wondering if you could do a thread about lawyers who began their careers at accounting firms, and their experience in moving up the ranks at those firms, lateral opportunities, salaries, etc.

Tipster, consider it done; here is the thread that you seek.
We were curious about the tipster’s reference to “a joke” of a salary. He informed us that over the summer he’s being paid $30 an hour — not the $3,000+ that summer associates get, but certainly enough to live on.
As for full-time employees, our source tells us that if he were to return to this firm post-graduation, he’d be paid around $70,000 — less than half of a first-year associate’s salary at a major law firm, but more than what many government or public-interest lawyers earn. In addition, some accounting firms offer signing bonuses, in the range of $5,000 to $10,000, and bar bonuses, paid when you pass the bar exam. The bar bonus, according to our source, amounts to about $10,000 — “it pays for Bar Bri and bar fees, with very little left over, especially after tax.”
Pay improves with seniority, of course:

[O]nce a person makes Manager (four to five years of experience), they make $150K-$175K. That’s still not Biglaw, but it’s closer. In a perfect world, I’d like to leverage my law degree to be considered as if I have one, two, or even three years of experience, so I can start at a higher level, make more as a first year, and be eligible for Manager sooner (like after two or three years).

Update / Correction: Please see the comments. Many readers view the tipster’s $150K-$175K estimate for a Manager as grossly overinflated. They suggest $100K as a more accurate figure.
Our source mentioned that the other participants in the accounting firm’s summer program come from a wide range of backgrounds: “MBAs, JDs, Masters in Tax, Masters in Accounting, and even some undergrad students. I don’t think there is any one credential that is absolutely critical, just a basic understanding of and interest in tax.”
This triggered curiosity on our part. Does he do audit work? Is a J.D. degree even necessary to get this job?

The audit and tax groups are separate, so I wouldn’t be doing any audit work. However, you are correct in that people can definitely get into Big Four without a JD.

[My firm] basically requires either the CPA or bar admission. Therefore, an undergrad would need to be in school part-time while working for the Big Four in order to get enough credits to be eligible for the CPA (people are generally given some time within which to get either the CPA or bar admission).

We also asked about the nature of the work he’s doing, and the balance between legal and accounting work. The line appears a bit unclear:

With regard to the actual work — legal or accounting — I’ve received a lot of advice from different people. It seems to boil down to trying to find a balance. Some people told me to refuse to do any accounting work and to insist on only doing legal work. Besides the obvious problem with that approach, the lines between the two can be blurred. Other people told me to do whatever I am told because it is all part of the learning experience and becoming an expert in tax. Most people told me to do something in the middle: ask for legal work, and try to focus as much as possible on legal work, but be open to doing non-legal work from time to time.

It seems like it is very easy to get sucked into being “an accountant who just happens to be a lawyer,” and do all accounting work.

If you have any information or opinions about going to work for an accounting firm, please share, in the comments. Thanks.
[FN1] Speaking of the new writer position, we’re in the process of winnowing the applications down to a set of finalists. Recently we sent out emails confirming receipt of applications. If you sent in an application and didn’t receive a confirmation email, please resubmit your application, preferably from a different email account (to avoid any possible spam filter problem). Thanks.

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