Monday, September 21, 2009

10 Rules to Surviving Your First Year in Public Accounting

The first year for a public accountant can only be described as extremely difficult. (It sucks!?!?!?) An over-acheiver with excellent grades and superior intellect is the type of person that is going to land in public accounting. And then they are going to find out that they don’t know much. And they are not going to like that part. And even if they are doing really well for a first-year professional, they are going to become depressed, stressed and angry. They will question their intelligence, their career choice and the sanity of all these other idiots who have somehow risen to the top of this “profession”.

While the profession is attempting to change the “hazing” of the first year, unfortunately there are people like me. My heart is in the right place, but unfortunately, in the middle of busy season (aka tax season), there will be a stressful moment. And in that stressful moment, I might revert to how I was taught. By screaming, irrational idiots who didn’t think I knew anything. Hey, it made me good at what I do, didn’t it? No excuses, it is just tough to turn that ship around and behave better in the heat of the moment. Sorry.

Which brings me back to my original point. You have decided to enter the public accounting profession. Maybe you are just here to get a license and get out. Maybe you think this is your career. Maybe you have no idea why you are here and you are looking for a quick exit. The stress, drama and trauma your head and physical body are experiencing may be helped by taking some time to understand the term professional. You are in a world that requires a lot of education AND a lot of experience. You have the education part done and done well and we are truly excited to have you in our profession, but now you have to dig in and get the experience. You will succeed if you learn how to get along with who you are working for and who you are working with and work will be rewarding. Both spiritually and financially.

Here are 10 rules that will help you to not only survive your first year of public accounting, but to succeed:

  1. Use last year’s workpapers. If they found the number last year, you can find it this year. (This rule will be reversed in a later year.)
  2. Do not try and finish the whole project perfectly. This is an unattainable goal and will only keep it from ever getting finished.
  3. Do EVERYTHING you know how to do, even if there are other items on the very same workpaper that you don’t know how to do.
  4. If you have reached a question that is stopping you in your tracks, let your in-charge know. Trust me, if you can get a hold of 50 friends at any moment in time, you can get a hold of your in-charge if you are truly stopped.
  5. If you have reached a question that is not stopping you in your tracks, put it on a list.
  6. Check in every day and let someone know what is going on.
  7. Do not check in with every single thing that you do.
  8. If you have questioned a client on a complex accounting transaction or some such item, document it immediately. You will not remember it in one week or even the next day. You will not have time to write it next week or even the next day.
  9. Shut up and listen when someone with more experience is sharing information. Sorry to be so blunt, but over-acheivers are usually pretty bad at this one, myself included.
  10. If that person is telling you something and you have absolutely no idea what it has to do with anything, write it down! You will need that information later.

I believe these 10 rules will get you through the first and most of the second year in public accounting. Before you know it, 3 or 4 years will have passed and you too will be the idiot who somehow managed to rise up through the ranks to make life miserable on first years. Hopefully, you will do a better job than I am doing. And hopefully I am doing a better job than those who came before me.

A final note (warning): If you do really well or even kind of well, you will not get an A as you are accustomed. No, you will only get more work. Good luck!

NOTE: Originally written in October 2006.


  1. Youe advice is based on the assumption that the audit client is not engaged in fraud and previous audit work was satisfactory. Those rules don't help if the client is a criminal and previous audits missed the fraud. Back in the day, my college accounting professor taught me to "never assume anything." As a criminal, I took advantage of auditors that did not learn what my college professor taught about assumptions.

    1. Sam, I believe I heard you speak at a Forensic accounting class at YU. It is to this day the most memeroble speech I witnessed related to accounting. Your story and the humility it was told with still inspire me. Never got the chance to say thanks.

  2. OK, so I understand what Sam is meaning. my audit prof had always told us to review previous year workpapers as part of the process of getting informed with the entity and its environment -- but I see what you mean about not assuming past workpapers are materially unflawed.

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  4. Dude, this is so true. All of you who are still in school and don't have any public accounting experience, read what's above and take it to heart because this person's advice is as true as it gets. Take it from a former straight A student who entered public accounting clueless.

  5. Sam is correct that some of these rules could hide the presence of fraud. However, I would like to point out that this was written to 1st and 2nd year accounting professionals, and I would like to think that someone is supervising and reviewing their work. It is the more experienced professional that would never rely on the prior year work, but would use judgement and skepticism when reviewing/auditing a company's financial position. These rules just expound on the reality of how to be successful in a large accounting firm when you don't really know what is going on yet.

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