There is no typical day in the life of a public accountant. If you go into this profession, what your workday looks like will depend on the size of the firm you work for, where you are in your career, the aspects of accounting you specialize in and whether it's tax season. In this article, we look at the workdays of two experienced CPAs to give you an idea of what it might be like to pursue a career as a public accountant.
Amy Zhang, CPA, Affinity Fund Services
Amy Zhang is the founder and a managing member of San Francisco-based hedge-fund accounting firm Affinity Fund Services, started in 2010. Zhang holds both a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in accounting. Earlier in her career, she worked for 10 years as an auditor and accountant for two companies, PricewaterhouseCoopers and a regional accounting firm. "To pursue my dream of becoming that go-to person for accounting professionals in the alternative investment space, I am building up my career path from Big Four to regional firm to now my own," she says.
As a business owner, Zhang's experience as a public accountant is different from that of a public accountant employed by a firm. In addition, her daily tasks differ depending on the time of month and time of year.
During the first week of each month, she spends 90% of her time on month-end closing activities for her hedge fund clients. These activities include downloading monthly bank and broker statements, reviewing capital transactions, calculating management or performance fees and performing reconciliations of net asset value. After her clients approve these draft accounting records, she sends them official final copies along with an invoice.
During the last three weeks of the month, Zhang's workload changes significantly. Her first task of the morning is to check for emails from clients or from the service providers who work with her clients. Next, she dedicates one to two hours to technical training, which consists of reading industry news such as CalCPA Daily Clips, HFMWeek and FINalternatives. She shares interesting news through her business social media accounts. She also attends continuing education classes for accounting.
Zhang typically dedicates another two to four hours of her day to marketing and public relations. She attends hedge fund seminars and conferences to meet with prospects at least once a week and has coffee meetings with existing clients and referrals at least once a month. She also speaks at industry conferences such as the Alternative Asset Summit in Las Vegas.
Monthly, Zhang attends board meetings of the San Francisco chapter of the California Society of CPAs, and every other month she hosts a financial entrepreneurs forum in the city's financial district. These volunteer activities help her stay in touch with her accounting peers since she's no longer with a large firm. These occasions also offer an opportunity to brainstorm with fellow entrepreneurs on operational strategies, business development and related issues.
While Zhang works regular hours during the week, she also works weekends, which she says is her choice as a business owner. She responds to all client requests for advice or assistance within 24 hours. "Most of my clients are start-up fund managers, and I want to make their already hectic life as easy as possible," she says.
Despite working weekends, Zhang says she has a great work-life balance since she can work from anywhere as long as she has her laptop, phone service and Internet access. She once spent a month overseas for family events while continuing to work for her clients.
Tax season is a different story. This hectic time of year requires her to work 10 to 12 hours a day on weekdays and another five or so hours over the weekend. She spends 90% of her time on audit and tax projects, where her daily tasks consist of collecting information, performing audit and tax procedures and preparing financial and audit reports. Administrative issues, like project planning and billing, take up additional time.
Zhang says that in a firm environment, staff accountants are usually allowed to take a long vacation after tax season, especially if they have accrued paid time off from working overtime. She says accountants may still have audit or tax projects during the rest of the year, but one-third of their time may be spent attending trainings and conferences, recruiting on campus and in office, performing internal quality reviews, engaging in marketing activities, such as visiting clients, and attending office functions such as picnics, ballgames and charity activities. Different firms have different practices and priorities, and whether you are staff, senior staff, a manager or a partner will determine how you spend your work hours, she says.
Zhang's job allows her to work with various clients and teams – such as auditors, tax preparers, lawyers and prime brokers – while remaining focused on one key skill set, accounting. "I love my life as a public accountant," Zhang says.
A Day in the Life of a Public Accountant
Richard A. Melancon, CPA
Richard Melancon runs his own CPA firm in Metairie, La. He has been a CPA since 1985 and started his firm in 1989. His company emphasizes helping small and mid-sized companies to grow and establish themselves in the market. He has also helped start-ups with business plans, loan applications and venture capital funding. Along with business tax planning, financial planning and income-tax preparation, his firm offers business training, consulting services and computer security assessments. He also teaches and speaks about personal money management and is a professional member of the National Speakers Association. He earned bachelor's degrees in management and accounting and holds an MBA.
Melancon typically works from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m, Monday through Friday, except during tax season when he also works Saturdays. But as a business owner and someone who has reached an advanced level in his field, each day is different.
"Most people think that accountants perform the same activities every day in the office," he says. "This can be true for entry-level positions and for paraprofessional positions." Repetition builds experience, skill and efficiency in new employees, he says. But once an employee becomes experienced, their daily skills become more diverse as they develop skills to address their clients' needs.
Practitioners who develop a strong focus on tax planning will become the first resource for clients with tax challenges, Melancon says. "Other CPAs in the industry will develop skills in the area of management consulting, fraud investigation, litigation support or financial auditing. Within each of these disciplines, the daily activities will be dictated first by the tickler system in place at that firm and then by the telephone calls received from clients each day," he says.
Melancon's daily activities include answering numerous phone calls from clients, salespeople, prospects, peers and other people in the community. He always makes time for these calls because they either lead directly to more paid work or they lead to greater community involvement, which may lead to more paid work in the future. He also tries to stay on top of the 100-plus emails he receives each day. In addition, some days Melancon will attend a meeting for one of the outside organizations he is involved with, such as the local chamber of commerce, a trade organization or a community nonprofit. These meetings might extend his workday past 5 p.m.
Once a week he processes payroll, and monthly he closes payroll and prepares sales tax returns. When clients submit financial documents to his firm, he performs bookkeeping services for them within two days of receipt. Another recurring, but not necessarily daily, activity is business development, also known as sales. He also has quarterly and annual tasks related to payroll.
"No CPA will become an expert in all areas, so each practitioner will develop a unique practice in the market," Melancon says. A firm can offer a range of skills in several industries by adding partners with different areas of expertise and each firm will be unique because of its skills, size, location and target market, he says.
"For those who are considering a career in public accounting, I strongly believe that the industry holds an opportunity for almost any area of interest that you may have. There are CPA experts in any industry that you can name," Melancon says. One should not assume that accounting is limited to adding numbers and compiling tax returns, he adds. "CPAs are often requested to perform services that are not readily associated with accounting." These include verifying research results, confirming product quality standards, substantiating historical renovation compliance and assessing computer security risk. "While each engagement is unique and may require different procedures, the profession provides a standard environment and approach to ensure the quality of the finished product," he says.
The Bottom Line
Like many financial careers, a career as a CPA offers numerous possibilities for the types of industries and companies you can work for. "There are no other professions, trades or licensed occupations that are as flexible and structured as the public accounting profession," Melancon says. Public accounting does typically mean long hours during tax season, but it can also mean greater freedom the rest of the year. Since your workday can look quite different depending on where you work and what you specialize in, if you aren't happy with your public accounting job, you can make a significant change without starting over in a new career. Finally, a CPA can be self-employed, which brings additional responsibilities but also additional opportunities for even greater flexibility.