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A late fifteenth-century Italian monk, Luca Pacioli, is credited with the earliest written evidence of double-entry bookkeeping. Today it is possible for a company to keep a complete and coordinated record of all its transactions using a double-entry bookkeeping system. Companies then generate financial statements from this summary of transactions.
The Industrial Revolution began in England in the mid-eighteenth century and spread to the United States during the 1800s. Industrialization required huge amounts of capital and initiated the rise in importance of the corporation as a form of business. The need for a more standard set of accounting rules and regulations that would allow stockholders to compare and evaluate the operations among several companies gave special impetus to the field of public accounting. Public accounting is the area of accounting that is specifically concerned with the preparation and presentation of financial statements in a fair and consistent manner for external use by investors, creditors, and analysts.
Today’s accountant is as much a business executive as a technician. The whole nature of the work done by the public accounting profession has undergone some significant changes in recent years, and the changes continue. The requirements for those entering the profession continue to be demanding. The rewards, in terms of remuneration and self-satisfaction, are increasingly attractive.
There are four major areas of work within the public accounting field: (1) accounting and auditing, (2) taxation, (3) management consulting, and (4) entrepreneurial services. In large firms, these areas are separated into different departments. In the smaller firms, the areas may not be formally divided because the same person may perform more than one of these functions.
Accounting and auditing are the basic functions of most public accounting Auditing firms and in most large firms still generate a large portion of the firm’s revenues.
An auditor’s job is to determine whether the economic activities of an organization are fairly reflected in its financial statements. Certified public accountants (CPAs) examine clients’ financial statements and express an opinion as to whether these statements fairly present the financial condition of the organization.
Auditors need to go beyond the numbers of a company and look at the operations from a businessperson’s perspective. Understanding the total business operation leads to a well-planned and well-executed audit. This includes learning about the company’s long-range objectives, strategy, and operating environment, then the systems and procedures that make up its controls, and finally how its people interact with the business and its control systems.
Auditors need to review a company’s internal control system. Internal control requires mastery of the methods and procedures that govern the authorization of transactions, the safeguarding of assets, and the accuracy of the financial records. Good internal control aids in maximizing efficiency. It also helps guard against waste, unintentional errors, and fraud.
Auditors examine financial documents and other records. In the past, many pieces of paper had to be examined during the audit, but sophisticated computer systems and advances in technology have forced auditing firms to use state-of-the-art, microcomputer-based automated techniques to perform many of the audit functions.
Even though many of the functions are computerized, the auditor still needs to confirm bank balances, verify and value ending inventory, check the existence of plant assets, and examine depreciation schedules. The audit involves reading minutes of vital company meetings; studying contracts; and conferring with management, directors, and outside counsel about company operations.
The auditor then reaches a conclusion, using information gained from analyzing the company and from overall knowledge of the business climate. This conclusion is the culmination of the audit work and is called the audit report. The independent auditor’s act of reporting his or her professional opinion on the fairness of financial statements has come to be known as the attest function.
The audit report has a standard three-paragraph format when the statements are fairly presented in conformity with “generally accepted accounting principles.” It is as follows:
Independent Auditor’s Report
Stockholders and Board of Directors AU Company
We have audited the accompanying balance sheet of the AU Company as of December 31, 19X2, and the related statements of income, retained earnings, and cash flows for the year then ended. These financial statements are the responsibility of the Company’s management. Our responsibility is to express an opinion on these financial statements based on our audit.
We conducted our audit in accordance with generally accepted auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain reasonable assurance about whether the financial statements are free of material misstatement. An audit includes examining, on a test basis, evidence supporting the amounts and disclosures in the financial statements. An audit also includes assessing the accounting principles used and significant estimates made by management, as well as evaluating the overall financial statement presentation. We believe that our audit provides a reasonable basis for our opinion.
In our opinion, the financial statements referred to above present fairly, in all material respects, the financial position of AU Company at December 31, 19X2, and the results of its operations and its cash flows for the year ended in conformity with generally accepted accounting principles.
Able, Baker and Charlie February 15, 19X3
The phrase “generally accepted accounting principles” (GAAP) refers to a common set of accounting concepts, standards, and procedures. This set of accounting rules has become generally accepted by agreement and usage.
The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) is a professional organization of CPAs, many of whom are in public accounting practice. This organization has been the dominant organization in the development of accounting standards over the last 50 years. From 1939 through 1959, the AICPA Committee on Accounting Procedures issued 51 Accounting Research Bulletins (ARB) recommending certain principles or practices. From 1959 to 1973, the Accounting Principles Board (APB) issued 31 Opinions that CPAs are required to follow. In 1973, the APB was replaced by an independent, seven-member, full-time Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB). The FASB has issued numerous Statements of Financial Accounting Standards and interpretations of those standards. The FASB is widely recognized as the major influence in the private sector in the development of new financial accounting standards.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), created under the Securities and Exchange Act of 1934, has the authority to prescribe accounting and reporting practices for companies under its jurisdiction. This includes virtually every major U.S. business corporation. Rather than exercise this power, the SEC has adopted a policy of working closely with the accounting profession, especially the FASB, in the development of accounting standards. The SEC indicates to FASB the accounting topics it believes should be addressed. External pressure by the SEC and a concerned public continue to make the FASB a responsible body.
Taxation is a complex and challenging area of the accounting profession because of constantly changing tax policies, the growth of multinational firms, and the greater complexity of business in general. Tax-related work forms a significant segment of the practices of both large and small accounting firms. The tax consultant is a crucial resource for businesses and individuals.
The CPA specializing in the tax area offers a broad range of services. These services include tax planning and advice, the filing of tax returns and supporting documents, representation of clients before government agencies, estate planning, and other assistance to clients in regard to complying with tax laws.
The rapid expansion of the complexity and impact of tax problems has increased the demand for tax professionals. Tax advisers often spend much of their time on consulting matters. They are involved in helping executives plan a company’s business activity and advising them on personal financial matters.
Typical tax consulting projects include:
- Advising a client on acquisitions and mergers.
- Guiding a reorganization of a client’s international operations to reduce taxes.
- Evaluating tax aspects of various leasing agreements.
- Counseling corporate executives on minimizing personal taxes.
Since tax laws change often, the tax professional must be a lifelong student in order to remain current and responsive to clients’ needs.
Management Consulting Services
The role of management consulting professionals is to help clients define the information needs of their organization and to identify and assemble the data needed to create the information. An important function of management consulting services (MCS) is to help with a company’s financial planning and control. Equally important is the area connected with information systems and electronic data processing. Other areas usually handled by MCS are pensions, benefits, and compensation; executive recruiting; operations research and quantitative analysis; and industrial engineering.
The background of the management consulting professional represents a wide range of disciplines, not limited to accounting. Many entry-level consultants have degrees in computer science, general business, or liberal arts (with a quantitative focus on a subject such as math, economics, or statistics).
Some of the largest management consulting organizations in the world operate as departments within accounting firms. Demand for consulting services is international. MCS are used by virtually every industry. Examples of consulting projects by CPA firms are:
- Advised a stock exchange corporation and developed a computer system that improved the speed and accuracy of settlement among brokers.
- Assisted New York City in implementing a new integrated financial management system covering all major agencies and programs.
- Helped several major railroads with comprehensive resource planning, costing of major operating segments, and rate settlements.
- Aided the U.S. Treasury Department in its evaluation of Chrysler Corporation’s appeal for financial assistance through financial modeling and a review of financial, marketing, and operating data.
A career in management consulting offers the opportunity to work with a company’s executives in applying the concepts of modern management and information technology.
This is a fast-growing and dynamic practice area that has been formed in Services of most large firms in the last few years. The person working in this area deals with the special requirements of a startup or growing company. Professionals in this group are involved in counseling and advising the emerging or middle-market company that may lack the in-house resources to successfully handle strategic planning, cost control, attracting capital, going public, or choosing the right information system or compensation plan. Audit, tax, and management consulting skills are all used to satisfy the needs of an emerging business.
TYPES OF FIRMS
CPA firms are divided into categories, according to such criteria as number of employees, number of offices, or total dollars of billable revenue. Using these criteria, a firm is sometimes classified as small, medium, or large; and local, regional, national, or multinational.
A group of giant multinational CPA firms is known as the Big Six because six firms comprise the group. This group of CPA firms was known as the Big Eight until the late 1980s, when two mergers were announced among its members. While it is not uncommon for firms to grow through mergers, in the past the mergers had involved a Big Eight firm and a regional firm or foreign firm, rather than among the Big Eight firms themselves. The Big Six firms audit the majority of companies represented in the Fortune 1000. These firms are:
- Arthur Andersen & Company
- Coopers & Lybrand
- Deloitte & Touche
- Ernst and Young
- KPMG Peat, Marwick & Company
- Price Waterhouse
These CPA firms have offices in many U.S. and Canadian cities, as well as other major cities throughout the world. Addresses of the national headquarters of these firms are listed at the end of this chapter. These six firms have instant name recognition within the accounting profession. Some of the reasons given for choosing a Big Six firm for employment are (1) higher salary, (2) prestige, (3) diversity of clients, and (4) valuable experience. Disadvantages for some people are (1) out-of-town travel, (2) overtime, and (3) large impersonal atmosphere.
A regional firm has offices in several states and is well known in the region it serves but may not have the instant national recognition of a Big Six firm. The types of services a regional or middle-sized firm performs and the clients it serves vary greatly, depending on the individual firm.
The category “local firm” usually implies either a single office or a few offices located in neighboring areas. A local firm usually serves small businesses in the town where it is located and those in surrounding areas. A small business may not need the total services required by a large corporation. A company whose stock is not publicly held is not required to secure an audit report certifying that the financial statements are in conformity with GAAP. A compilation or review may be substituted. When an accountant performs a compilation, no opinion or any other assurance of the statements is given. During a review, inquiries and analytical procedures are performed, so the accountant has a reasonable basis for expressing limited assurance about the statements.
When asked the advantages of working in a smaller firm, accountants name diversity of work, less travel, greater independence, better location, and flexible working hours.
LEVELS OF RESPONSIBILITY AND SALARY
Positions of staff rank and levels of responsibility within a typical CPA firm, in ascending order, are (1) staff accountant, (2) senior accountant, (3) manager, and (4) partner. A staff person may work in any of the functional areas of operation: audit, tax, or MCS. Usually, the longer a person stays with a firm, the more specialized his or her knowledge becomes.
The staff accountant usually has up to three years experience in a firm. The senior accountant represents a range of experience from two to six years. Senior accountants generally supervise several staff accountants.
When an accountant progresses to the level of manager, it means the firm feels the person has the potential to eventually become a partner. The manager level is the first real management position in most firms. Managers often have between 5 and 10 years of experience.
Only about 5 percent of all persons entering CPA firms reach the level of partner. It typically takes 10 to 12 years for a person to be promoted through the various position ranks to partner. Both responsibility and compensation are increased at this level.
Salaries in accounting firms vary depending on the level of education, locality, size of firm, and whether an accountant has a CPA certificate. The figures in Table 1.1 are excerpted from a 1996 national compensation survey conducted by , Inc. There are more than 130 Robert Half offices in the United States and Canada.
Certification in an area, a law degree, or a master’s degree may increase the salary figures by 10 to 15 percent. Salaries will also vary according to geographic location.
Certified Public Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is a title conferred upon accountants who meet specified requirements. In the United States, the licensing of accountants is a state function. New York, in 1896, became the first state to sponsor legislation in this area. Now all 50 states and Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Washington, D.C., have boards of accountancy. These boards administer the Uniform CPA Examination, given twice a year on the first Wednesday and Thursday of May and November. (Contact AICPA for dates and times.) The Board of Examiners of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) is responsible for preparation of the Uniform CPA Examination and the Advisory Grading Service. The primary objective of the Uniform CPA Examination is to test the candidate’s professional competence in the discipline of accounting. It also tests the ability to apply knowledge skillfully and with good judgment and an understanding of professional responsibility. Approximately 70,000 candidates sit for the test each year. The sequence of the examination sections and their times are as follows (the two parts of accounting practice constitute a single section for grading purposes):
The content of the Uniform CPA exam is divided into several sections as explained in AICPA’s booklet Information for Uniform CPA Examination Candidates (May 1997 edition).
Four main areas are covered in this section:
- Evaluate prospective client and engagement (40%)
- Obtain and document information (35%)
- Review the engagement (5%)
- Prepare communications (20%)
Financial Accounting and Reporting Section
This section covers the following three areas:
- Concepts and standards for financial statements (20%)
- Recognition, measurement, valuation, and presentation of typical items in financial statements according to GAAP (40%)
- Specific types of transactions and events in financial statements (40%)
Accounting and Reporting-Taxation, Managerial, and Governmental and Not-for-Profit Organizations Section. This section covers the following six areas:
- Federal taxation-individuals (20%)
- Federal taxation-corporations (20%)
- Federal taxation-partnerships (10%)
- Federal taxation-estates and trusts, exempt organizations, and preparers’ responsibilities (10%)
- Accounting for governmental and not-for-profit organizations (30%)
- Managerial accounting (10%)
Business Law and Professional Responsibilities Section
The seven parts of this section of the test cover the following:
- Professional and legal responsibilities (15%)
- Business organizations (20%)
- Contracts (10%)
- Debtor-creditor relationships (10%)
- Government regulation of business (15%)
- Uniform commercial code (20%)
- Property (10%)
Since each state has its own board of accountancy, examination standards and licensing requirements vary. Requirements include education, years of experience, state residency, application filing dates, and fees. All states require a prospective CPA to pass the Uniform CPA Examination, although no state requires that all parts be passed at one time. See the list at the end of this chapter for further information on specific requirements for each state. An ethics exam is required in many states after the four parts of the Uniform CPA Examination have been passed. Usually the ethics exam is an open-book test and is not difficult to pass. There are reciprocity agreements between states so that a person who has passed all or part of the CPA Examination can be given credit if the person moves to another state.
Beginning in May 1994, the Uniform CPA Examination was restructured to eliminate redundant coverage of subject matter and make more efficient use of examination time. Previously 60 percent of each section consisted of multiple-choice items with essay or problem-type questions comprising 40 percent. Increased use of objective questions and the use of handheld calculators have shortened the examination from two and one-half days to just two days for the restructured exam.
Under the new format, the accounting and reporting section covers not-for-profit, government, managerial, and taxation accounting. The auditing section has been lengthened by one hour and continues to cover generally accepted auditing standards. Content relating to professional responsibilities, such as the Code of Professional Conduct, have been transferred from the auditing section to the business law professional responsibilities section. For the first time, selected answers are graded for writing skills.
The auditing section of the exam tests the candidate’s familiarity with auditing standards and procedures. The test examines (in a hypothetical example) a case history of an audit engagement. The candidate has to weigh the risks and make sure the firm can do the work, and decide whether to accept the job. Taking into account the client’s operations and financial records, the candidate decides on the objectives of the audit and sets up a program of action, covering all the major contingencies of an actual audit situation.
The financial accounting and reporting section requires knowledge of how businesses are run and applies public accounting skills to a series of questions on the subject.
The section for accounting and reporting-taxation, managerial, and governmental and not-for-profit organizations covers key topics in these other sectors of the economy, based on what a public accounting firm would need to know to do an adequate job for the client.
In summary, the revised Uniform CPA Examination covers the following sections and time periods:
Most states expect CPAs to attend lectures, seminars, or other types of training sessions as a requirement for renewing their licenses. The number of hours of continuing professional education (CPE) needed in each state is listed at the end of this chapter. One hour of CPE is earned for every 50 minutes of approved programming attended by the CPA.
A booklet called Information for Uniform CPA Candidates is published by the AICPA. A free copy can be obtained by writing the AICPA Order Department at P.O. Box 2209, Jersey City, NJ 07303-2209. One can also order past CPA examinations from the AICPA for a fee. Each volume contains the complete text of a recent CPA examination along with unofficial answers and study references. The past examinations have proven to be good study guides.
Information concerning the requirements for a specific state can be secured by writing or calling the board of accountancy of that state. The address, telephone number, and web site of each state board are listed at the end of this chapter.
Certification is an important goal of many people graduating from college with a major or concentration in accounting. Advantages of certification frequently include (1) increased professional status, (2) extra compensation, (3) promotion, and (4) personal satisfaction.
A licensed CPA has the option of joining the AICPA, the national organization of CPAs. Each state, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia, has its own society of CPAs, which a licensed CPA may join. The professional organizations provide CPAs a chance to grow professionally and meet new people. State societies offer continuing education programs to update knowledge. (See Appendix A for a list of names and addresses of national headquarters of accounting-related organizations.)
Public Accountant In 1997, ten states specified certain requirements in order for a person to be licensed as a public accountant (PA) or an accounting practitioner (AP). These states are:
There may be public accountants licensed and practicing in the other states, but “dying-class laws” are in effect-for example in Ohio. This legislation mandates that those persons in public practice before or at the effective date of the law are eligible to practice as public accountants. There is no provision in those states for the continued licensing of qualified practitioners as “public accountants.”
At this time there is no uniformity from state to state for the test for PA or any of the other requirements. Each state is responsible for setting its own criteria. In the ten states listed above it is unlawful to use PA or AP without the proper license.1
‘National Society of Public Accountants, Synopsis of State Laws Regulating the Public Practice of Accountants, 1010 North Fairfax Street, Alexandria, VA 22314.
Licensing requirements for a PA or AP are not as rigid or as difficult as for a CPA license. The continuing professional education (CPE) requirements for PAs or APs vary from 0 to 120 hours every three years. Courses that qualify for credit are similar to those for CPAs, and most states require CPA for renewal of a public accountant license.
Information on being licensed as a public accountant may be obtained from the appropriate state Board of Accountancy or the National Society of Public Accountants. See the list at the end of this chapter.
The following advertisements are typical of those that appear in the Wall Street Journal or other business publications.
Management Advisory Services-Consulting Positions
A growing and dynamic public accounting firm is looking for experienced consultants for several of our Midwestern, Rocky Mountain, and Southwestern locations. To help us accomplish our ambitious goals and meet the needs of our clients, we need highly motivated self-starters with excellent interpersonal and communication skills. Candidates should have a strong orientation toward client service and desire to provide clients with substantive business advice. Requirements for these positions include:
- 4-6 years of consulting experience in a major CPA firm.
- Knowledge of general accounting and EDP systems.
- A bachelor’s degree in accounting or related business area; CPA and advanced degree a plus.
Salary depends upon background and experience, plus full benefits and an environment conducive to personal and professional growth. Relocation assistance is available.
Send resume with current salary and location preference to: [Address]
A growing and dynamic public accounting firm is looking for experienced staff accountants for several of our Midwestern, Rocky Mountain, and Southwestern locations.
If you have an interest in joining our select team of experienced professionals providing accounting, auditing, and tax compliance services to a widely diversified clientele, we may have an opening for you. Candidates must have:
- 2-5 years of experience in auditing with large public accounting firm.
- Degree in accounting; CPA and advanced degree a plus.
- Excellent communication and interpersonal skills with a strong orientation toward client service.
Our firm has the resources of a large organization yet offers the small firm environment that is conducive to personal and professional development. If you are highly motivated and a self-starter, you can help us achieve our ambitious goals and meet the needs of our clients. Send your resume to: [Address]
A national CPA firm is seeking highly motivated and technically qualified CPAs to expand our tax services area.
Our growth plans require professional tax consultants for senior, supervisor, and manager positions. Candidates should have a minimum 3-6 years of broad tax experience and a desire to work with our diverse clientele.
Our training programs, professional environment, and diversified tax services offer you the opportunity to reach successively higher levels of professionalism. We also offer a highly competitive compensation and benefits package.
Send resume, including salary history and location preference, in complete confidence to: [Address]
A national CPA firm is seeking individuals at all levels with current or recent public accounting experience to join its rapidly expanding coast-to-coast practice. Interested applicants should be committed to public accounting as a career and partnership as a goal. Excellent opportunities are available.
Ours is a broadly diversified national and international clientele. Our people learn through close association with the firm’s top professionals and by participating in our extensive continuing professional education program. We provide top fringe benefits and an income level that recognizes your talents. We would like to introduce you to an exciting future. Please write to us in confidence giving full details, including salary history and desired locations.
Local CPA Firm
Local CPA firm which is expanding into a regional firm has an opening for a strongly motivated individual with 2-5 years’ experience in public accounting. Excellent partnership opportunities are available as a result of our growth and our in-house CPE program. Send resume to: [Address]
Most firms look for the same qualities in a prospective employee: technical ability, motivation, leadership skills, and personality. Much time and money are spent on recruiting by most accounting firms.
Accounting firms will usually have representatives on campus to recruit interested students. The initial interview may only last half an hour. Approximately 20 to 25 percent of the students interviewed on campus will receive invitations for a more extensive interview at the CPA firm’s office. About half the office interviews culminate in a job offer.
The college placement office is probably the best source of information about the interviewing and recruiting process of the CPA firms. Of course, it is always appropriate to write directly to the specific firm in which you are interested.
The AICPA publishes an annual study on the supply of accounting graduates and the demand for public accounting recruits. The 1996 survey revealed that in 1995 over 61,220 bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting were awarded. Universities expect this number to rise, at the master’s level especially. Graduate degrees make up about 10 percent of all accounting degrees awarded.2
Twenty-six percent of the accounting graduates with bachelor’s degrees and 51 percent of those with master’s degrees were hired by public accounting firms. The survey results indicated that CPA firms hired 15 to 20 percent more graduates per year in the 1990s than they did in the ’80s. They hired an average of about 22,000 a year, with about 8,000 of those joining the biggest firms-the Big Six and those firms with 200 or more employees and partners. It is not an unlimited field, but students serious about entering public accounting should be able to obtain one of the jobs available.
STATE CPA EXAMINATION CONDITIONING REQUIREMENTS
The Uniform CPA Examination is administered in four sections: Business Law & Professional Responsibilities; Auditing; Accounting & Reporting- Taxation, Managerial, and Governmental and Not-for-Profit Organizations; and Financial Accounting & Reporting-Business Enterprises. Each section is graded separately, but a candidate must pass all sections with a score of 75 or higher in order to be eligible to become a CPA.
Because the examination is so rigorous, few candidates are able to pass all sections the first time they take them. However, boards of accountancy may award credit to candidates who earn passing grades in some sections while failing to qualify in others. Under such circumstances, the board is said to grant the candidate “conditional” status. The rules for earning conditional status are known as conditioning requirements, and they vary from state to state. The chart below summarizes the conditioning requirements for each jurisdiction.
In general, most boards require candidates to pass at least two sections before they can achieve conditional status, although a few boards grant conditional status to candidates who pass only one section. In addition, many boards also require candidates to earn a minimum grade in the sections failed in order for the candidates to receive credit for the sections passed. Candidates with conditional status are usually given a specific number of additional opportunities to pass the remaining sections, after which conditional credit expires and candidates must retake those sections. In most jurisdictions, candidates are required to take all sections of the examination for which credit has not been awarded, so candidates taking the examination for the first time must take all four sections.