Accounting and the law are both professions that attract many college students. Each field offers strong income potential, upward mobility, and a variety of career paths within the profession.

Accountants and attorneys can find positions in the public sector (a federal government agency, state, or municipality) and the private sector (businesses and nonprofits). Within private practice, there are two basic types of employment environments: “external”—at a firm, composed of other accounting or legal professionals, that services a variety of outside clients, and “internal”—at a particular company or organization. Accountants and lawyers can work independently as well.

While both types of professionals can deal with business matters for companies and individuals, they specialize in different things: attorneys with points of law and legal procedures; accountants with numbers, tax regulations and codes. Both fields require additional, specialized study beyond a general college degree, and the passing of an exam to receive a state license to practice (not mandated for all accountants, though strongly recommended).

An accounting career generally has less extensive educational requirements. On the other hand, the law tends to pay better.

Key Takeaways

  • Accounting and the law are both fields in which professionals can work either at a firm of fellow professionals, serving various clients, or “in-house” at a single company or organization.
  • Both professions require specialized study and offer specialized degrees, but a career in accounting has fewer rigid educational requirements than a career in law.
  • Becoming a lawyer requires you to pass a state-sanctioned bar exam, which gives you the license to practice legally.
  • Most, but not all, accounting jobs require you to be a certified public accountant (CPA), earned by passing a state-sanctioned exam.
  • On average, lawyers make more money than accountants, particularly right out of school.

Accounting

An accountant can work for firms that do accounting and auditing work for various external clients; these are known as public accounting firms (not to be confused with public service—that is, government or civil service). Or they can work in-house, overseeing the books and financial records as part of the staff for an individual public corporation or a smaller, private company. They can also prepare tax returns for individuals and businesses or work for the government.

Accountants must be skilled at working with figures. The career is often stigmatized as being boring and is a haven for math wonks and number crunchers, but many accounting duties require strong people and 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.

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 one. In addition, they want either certified public accountants (CPAs) or candidates who are eligible to sit for the CPA exam.

The “Big Four” is the nickname used to refer collectively to the four largest accounting firms in the U.S. Aside from auditing services, the Big Four offer tax law, strategy and management consulting, valuation, market research, assurance, and legal advisory services.

Becoming a CPA

Many states or jurisdictions now require 150 semester hours of education for obtaining the CPA license—even to sit for the exam. Colleges and universities in these states/jurisdictions determine the curriculum for pre-licensure education of CPAs; it typically features a good balance of accounting, business, and general education.

Many colleges and universities offer bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in accounting. To obtain 150 semester hours of education, students do not necessarily have to get a master’s degree. They can meet the requirement at the undergraduate level or get a bachelor’s degree and take some courses at the graduate level. 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.

Law

Law school graduates are flush with options as well. Many young attorneys prefer to go into a private law firm, where they can specialize in fields such as criminal defense, labor law, and international law. Others go the in-house route, serving as corporate counsel within a particular company—especially if they think that they would like to transition into business management. And some work for the government or for nonprofit organizations.

Becoming a lawyer requires a regular bachelor’s degree, plus a bachelor of law degree from a law school—seven years of full-time study in all. To practice law legally, attorneys must also pass the bar exam in the state where they want to work, be it for a law firm or a company. In contrast, the CPA designation isn’t required to work in accounting within a company, but it is for a job at a public accounting firm.

Attorneys require a broad base of skills that can depend on the specialty that they enter. Corporate law necessitates long hours, demanding job duties, and a tireless work ethic. Trial lawyers must be eloquent, persuasive, and 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. Tax law and other specialized legal fields may require additional training beyond law school.

Key Differences

On average, lawyers make more money than accountants right out of school. As of 2021, 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 biennial Associate Salary Survey revealed that the median salary for a first-year law associate was $165,000 as of Jan. 1, 2021, up $10,000 (6.5%) from 2019.

Overall, lawyers can expect to earn a median salary of about $126,930, according to 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data. Half earn more than that, and half earn less. Comparatively, accountants earn a median salary of just $73,560. Many young accountants and attorneys blaze their own career paths and, as a result, are not confined to the salary ranges of the big firms.

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

According to the BLS, the number of accounting and auditing jobs is expected to grow 4% from 2019 to 2029—as fast as the average for all occupations. The expected job growth rate for lawyers is also 4%.

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 who, at times, have struggled to find job placements. Also, the prestige of the law school that someone attends can have a huge influence on the jobs and salaries that they are offered.

Special Considerations

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. As a result, the burnout rate is high for new associates in both fields.

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

For example, the median federal government attorney salary in 2020 was $152,220—over $10,000 less than first-year associates at private firms, and far less than the seven figures that full partners typically make.

For accountants, the gap is a little less: The median salary for government service was $72,260. That’s not so bad compared to entry-level jobs at the Big Four, but far less than the six figures that managers pull in and nowhere near the $1 million-plus that partners command.