Accounting vs. Law: An Overview

Both accounting and law careers attract many college students because both of these fields offer strong income potential, upward mobility, and a multitude of career paths. Accountants can work for large firms doing public accounting, or they may perform internal auditing services for smaller, private companies. They can also prepare tax returns for individuals and businesses.

Law school graduates are flush with potential career paths as well. Many young attorneys prefer to go into fields such as criminal defense, personal injury law, and international law, although corporate law is also very popular because of the income potential.

An accounting career generally has less extensive educational requirements, but law tends to pay better.

Key Takeaways

  • A career in accounting has fewer rigid educational requirements than a career in law.
  • Becoming a lawyer requires a bachelor's degree plus law school, the equivalent of seven years of full-time study.
  • On average, lawyers make more money than accountants, particularly right out of school.
  • Attorneys require a broad base of skills that can vary depending on the field they enter.

Accounting

You can get an accounting job with a bachelor's degree or even less, but the "Big Four" accounting firms (Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG, and PricewaterhouseCoopers) want Certified Public Accountant (CPA) candidates who are eligible to sit for the CPA exam. The "Big Four" is the nickname used to refer collectively to the four largest professional services networks in the world. In order to be eligible to sit for the CPA, candidates must have completed 150 hours of post-secondary education, which is more than a bachelor's degree (but it doesn't necessarily require completing a master's degree).

However, some colleges offer streamlined Master of Accountancy programs that allow you to bypass a bachelor's degree and receive the necessary credits for CPA eligibility in a minimum of four years.

Accountants must be skilled at working with numbers. The career is often stigmatized as being boring and a haven for the socially maladjusted, but many accounting fields require strong diplomacy skills. Public accountants spend the majority of their workweeks at various third-party client offices. These professionals must be capable of assimilating into diverse corporate cultures.

Law

Becoming a lawyer requires a bachelor's degree, plus law school—seven years of full-time study. Attorneys must also pass the bar exam in the state where they want to practice, while an accounting job doesn't necessarily require mandatory CPA certification.

Attorneys require a broad base of skills that can depend on the field they enter. Corporate law necessitates long hours and demanding job duties, and it requires a tireless work ethic. Trial lawyers must be eloquent and persuasive, and they must be able to think on their feet. You should have a keen understanding of various cultures and speak multiple languages if you want to practice international law.

Accounting vs. Law Example

On average, lawyers make more money than accountants right out of school. As of 2019, the starting range for Big Four accounting associates was $45,000 to $68,000. Meanwhile, the most recent data from the National Association for Law Placement's Associate Salary Survey revealed that the median salary for a first-year law associate was $155,000 in 2019.

Overall, lawyers can expect to earn a median salary of about $122,960, according to the 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. Half earn more than that, and half earn less. Comparatively, accountants earn a median salary of just $71,550. Many young accountants and attorneys blaze their own career paths and, as a result, they're not confined to the salary ranges of the big firms.

Many accountants and attorneys who go into private practice struggle at first until they build a client base, but can be earning a six-figure salary within the first year.

According to the BLS, the number of accounting jobs is expected to grow by 6% between 2018 and 2028. This estimate includes auditor jobs as well.

The expected job growth rate for lawyers between 2018 and 2028 is also 6%, according to the BLS. The biggest problem for the field of law is supply and demand. For decades, a law degree was considered a guaranteed ticket to a high-paying career. As a result, law school enrollment soared, producing a huge number of law school graduates that, at times, have struggled to find job placements.

Special Considerations

The "Big Four" accounting firms and corporate law positions require long workdays, few full weekends off, and even less vacation time. The work schedule can lighten as you gain seniority, but the first few years can be difficult. The burnout rate is high for new associates in both fields as a result.

You can have a career in accounting or law without it taking over your life, but these jobs pay nowhere near the salaries you can make working for a "Big Four" accounting firm or a corporate law firm. Government jobs offer 40-hour workweeks and excellent benefits but pay significantly lower salaries.