Navigating a Life in Public Accounting

Apr 21, 2020

DigJrnlPubAcct_250x383A life in public accounting offers so many professional paths to follow and so many brilliant resources to tap into. However, when you are in the thick of it, expectations can be difficult to juggle and public accounting becomes difficult to navigate. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. This might be a typical schedule for a public accountant on some random day:
8 a.m. – Arrive at the office and engage in some small talk with a colleague while you refill your coffee mug (probably your second or third cup already). Or maybe it’s the middle of busy season, and you joke with co-workers: “What time were you here until last night?” or “Ha! Are you sure you didn’t sleep here?”

8:15 a.m. – Catch up on emails from the day before. (How could I get so many emails overnight?!)

9 a.m. – Check your to-do list, add some action items required from those emails you just read, reprioritize the to-do list, and add a task to the list and immediately cross it off. (So satisfying!)

9:15 a.m. – Work for Client A.

9:35 a.m. – Uh-oh. A fire drill from Client B!

9:50 a.m. – OK, back to Client A.

11:30 a.m. – Look at the clock. (How is it only 11:30?! Isn’t it lunch time yet?)

Noon – Time for a lunch-and-learn program on the new revenue recognition standard. (A free lunch and some CPE credit – yay!)

1:00 p.m. – Recover from lunch. (Getting back to work is hard!) Check that to-do list again.

1:15 p.m. – Make a personal phone call for that doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off for four months.

1:30 p.m. – Complete a few tasks for Client C. But also multitask and respond to Client B again, because, I guess, what was provided earlier wasn’t quite good enough.

2:30 p.m. – Pivot and start some work for Client D. (I need a break from Client C.)

4:30 p.m. – Look at clock. (This has been the longest day!)

5:00 p.m. – Catch up on some emails that came in throughout the day.

  • A banker you met the other day wants to grab coffee next week.
  • You haven’t heard from Client E in over a year, but they need something.
  • More emails from Client B – it looks like a conversation they are having internally, but you read through the thread to make sure you don’t miss an important detail.

5:30 p.m. – Time to go home, but first you enter your time for the day. If it’s busy season, you wonder if dinner is here? Then it’s time to put in a few more hours.

No matter how much experience you have or how long you’ve been in a public accounting role, there are always competing client deadlines, an endless number of administrative tasks to complete, extracurricular activities, and a personal life that needs to be balanced.

Client service is at the heart of what we do – whether that’s providing tax advice, auditing year-end performance, performing an enterprise resource planning implementation, or managing an entire accounting function for our clients. For firms to maintain profitability, billable hour targets are one of the most important metrics; as such, it is at the center of a traditional public accounting career.

But what about everything else? You need time for continuing education and firm trainings, professional development and career advancement, networking internally and externally; for entering time to let the firm know what you did that day; for managing client engagements; for building relationships, people development and training; and for socializing with the newest class of campus recruits. The list goes on and on. At the end of the day, do any of these other goals matter if billable hours are the most important aspect of our job? Of course they do!

Managing all of these things can get overwhelming. In fact, balancing your life will become a skill. But where do you start to begin developing this secret public accounting skill? Here are a few tips:

  • Understand the priorities at the time. During busier months, it is all right to deprioritize some of the administrative tasks or networking with external connections. On slower days, catch up on CPE credits, make time for relationship building with centers of influence, or participate in your firm’s social activities.
  • Reorganize your to-do list as often as appropriate. Sometimes, this may mean two, three, or four times a day. Work with your colleagues to determine which client tasks are more critical or which ones could be delegated. Communication with all the related teams is key because there are often many co-dependencies within an engagement.
  • Find a time-management and organizational system that works for you. To-do lists aren’t for everyone. Talk to your peers about what works for them.
  • Leverage new technology, perhaps a note-taking solution (such as Microsoft OneNote or Evernote) or a solution to manage tasks (such as BlackLine). Building in new technology to help with organization may be difficult to get used to at first, but it usually pays off in the long run.
  • Sometimes participating in things that are outside of your day-to-day role may require putting in extra hours in the week. Depending on the role within your firm, it may not be physically possible to work 35 billable hours per week, participate in nonmandatory training, and do some external networking all within a 40- or 45-hour workweek. If you are ambitious and want to do all of those things, it will require additional time.

Navigating a life in public accounting can be stressful for some. In addition to the tips above, it’s also important to find relief outside the office that works for you – yoga or happy hours aren’t for everyone. Personally, before the birth of my daughter, I used to dedicate one evening per week to volunteer at a therapeutic equestrian center. This was a huge stress relief for me because I got to work directly with children with mental, emotional, or physical disabilities while also getting to learn about and care for horses. I have heard examples of other CPAs setting aside one morning each week for breakfast with their parents or working out during lunch. It’s important to recognize the significance of having an outlet; and while most firms have programs to support their people, these programs aren’t always a one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes you have to think outside the box provided to you.

It’s also important to understand and appreciate the lessons that this career provides. Whether your end goal is to transition to a role in industry or to progress within a public accounting firm, the lessons are invaluable. Think back to all the mistakes you’ve made in your career, big or small: there is always something to be learned. Sometimes, better navigating the day can help you identify these lessons and apply new techniques for better results.

As your experience develops, your ability to navigate life in public accounting will develop too. Don’t forget to use the resources and support that is provided within your firm and embrace the growth your career provides. 


Lauren M. Lear, CPA, is a manager for RSM US LLP in Blue Bell and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. She can be reached at


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