The day of a staff accountant will vary significantly based on the time of year, type of work being performed and the status of the work being performed. The length of the day can vary from eight hours a day when on an engagement with time to spare to a 20-hour day on engagements with tight time constraints.
In order to really understand the life of an auditor, you have to understand the audit cycle and the times that are the busiest for accountants. The length of the day and week and the stress level of those days will vary greatly depending on the client, the time of year and the audit team.
The Typical Public Accounting Project Cycle
Young accounting staffers with dreams of making boardroom presentations to clients should postpone those dreams for a while. Typically, work for young staffers remains administrative. Partners and senior managers handle the delivery of the “pitch” to clients and prospective clients. Once a firm lands a client, the partners of the firm will form an engagement team for that particular job. Industry experience and schedule availability are the main criteria for selection for a particular engagement. Depending on the length and complexity of an assignment, multiple managers and a senior may be selected to complete the work.
During the initial stage of the work, a project is usually referred to as a “first time through,” and firms will expend extra effort to understand a client’s business and offer them improvement points on their current work processes. This step is especially interesting for the younger professionals, since it gives them much more of a chance to dissect a company’s operations and gain a better understanding of how the work products of different departments flow together. This is the stage when accountants and consultants produce books outlining the client’s procedures. This documentation is used in subsequent years and only updated for any changes that may have taken place in the company’s operations. These briefing documents reduce the workload on subsequent jobs for recurring clients.
The analytical techniques used during an audit don’t differ in their application, but the extent of their application will depend on how knowledgeable an auditor is about a particular client’s operations.
During a first-time audit, an accountant will employ many more statistical tests. The culmination of the audit process usually results in the issuance of an audit opinion on a client’s financial statements. The auditors will also make a presentation to the audit committee of the company’s board of directors. During this meeting, the opinion will be presented, along with any management recommendations the public accounting firm has. Usually, only the manager and partners attend such meetings, although it is not unusual for very experienced seniors to attend on occasion. In reality, the partners usually use the meeting as a chance to highlight other potential services that they could be selling a company.
Day in the Life – Auditor Intern
Following is a description of a typical day as experienced by an intern at an auditing department at one of the Big Four firms:
9:00 a.m.: If I’m unassigned, go to the office to check e-mails and phone messages. If assigned, arrive at the client site (but days usually start around 8 a.m.). At the client’s office, I’ll be meeting the client on a new job (usually the controller, other accounting personnel or pension plan administrator), getting to know where the files are, networking my laptop with my coworkers’, and getting to know the job. I’ll also find out the first account I’ll be working on – usually equipment, accounts receivable or attributes testing for pension plans. My senior will usually sit down with me for about a half hour, and walk through most everything I’d be doing on the account (using the audit program and last year’s work papers).
10:00 a.m.: Still working through my first account or attribute test. I stop lots to ask questions, which is encouraged. Sometimes the answer to my question has to be found with the client, and sometimes I’m sent by myself to approach the client. This helps in building a relationship with the client (if I end up working here full-time, I’ll definitely see them the next year), confidence skills, and analytical skills in learning to ask the right question.
11:00 a.m.: Probably still working through the same account. Some larger accounts, like accounts receivable, take days and days. Around 11:30, one of my engagement team members will mention lunch and that will be discussed for a while.
12:00 p.m.: Lunch! A lot of variety here. I’ve eaten at everything from fancy places to fast food. Usually, if clients or partners are involved, lunch is taken care of. This is the time to get to know your team on a more personal level, which is always enjoyable.
1:00 p.m.: Back to work. Get some caffeine to fight off the after-lunch slump. There’s a possibility that I might be starting something new at this point, and thus the cycle of explanation begins again.
2:00 p.m.: Still working though the accounts. If unassigned and in the office, there’s a good possibility I’ll be picked up on a small in-office job. These jobs usually consist of photocopying, typing and pulling files. It isn’t bad to work these types of jobs; I enjoy the exposure I get to people I would not work with otherwise, like those in our tax department. If unassigned and not on a job, I’ll be working through an online tutorial, surfing the Web, writing e-mails or chatting with friends. Unassigned time can get pretty boring, but I luckily don’t have too much of it.
3:00 p.m.: Audit, audit, audit. I try to take lots of notes on my work towards the end of the day so I’ll be set when I come in the next morning.
4:00 p.m.: Making sure all my work papers are organized, understandable, and that the notes make sense. If at the end of an engagement, I will always sit down with my senior and explain exactly what I had finished, where I left off, and what still needs to be done. I try to always write out all of that too, just so the message got across.
5:00 p.m.: I’ll usually leave pretty close to 5 p.m., definitely by 5:30. On a few jobs I had, I left as early at 3:00.
6:00 p.m.: Fighting the traffic home or to an intern event.
Day in the Life – Tax Staff
Following is a description of a typical day as experienced by a tax staff professional at a Big Four firm.
8:00 a.m.: I like to get in a little earlier than others (most other people in the office get in around 9:00). This gives me a chance to check e-mail and voice mail, take care of administrative tasks, check my open items from the previous day and make a general plan for my day. If things are slow, this is the time I read The Wall Street Journal or other periodicals for news regarding my clients.
9:00 a.m.: The office is jumping and the phone calls are starting to come in. At this time, I often have meetings with my manager and senior to discuss work in progress. These meetings will usually touch on the following: list of open (i.e., unfinished) items on tax returns, general tax matters for clients, tax technical issues requiring further research, and client management issues and administration. My manager will generally prioritize these items and the senior and I will form a plan of attack.
10:00 a.m.: As the tax staff, I’ll most likely address the tax return open items and perform any research on technical tax issues; the senior will deal more often with general tax matters and client relationship items. Preparing a corporate tax return is relatively straightforward. While corporate tax returns can be quite complex, you can more or less prepare a corporate return line-byline, same as an individual return. The primary challenge in preparing a corporate return is ensuring that you have complete, full and accurate information from the client. This is more daunting than it sounds. Information necessary to complete a tax return can come from numerous sources within a company, not just the accounting and tax departments. The larger the company, the more potentially difficult it is to get all of your information. As a result, most of the hours I bill on tax return preparation projects are spent not on actually preparing the return, but on tracking down all of the necessary information. I’ll generally put together an information request that, after a brief review by the manager, I will e-mail or fax to the client. Tax research is generally more straightforward than tax return preparation. The firm has every possible tax research tool and source, from print to electronic to online to human. The ironic thing is that most of the research items you get at this level are ones for which answers are already known. Managers give you these research items pretty much knowing what the likely outcomes will be: you just confirm the suspicion with actual Internal Revenue Code sources, tax court cases or other citations. Sometimes you’ll get a unique and challenging assignment, but the new topics are usually researched by groups within the firm that specialize in that technical area. In any case, these activities could easily take up the rest of my day, depending on how cooperative the client is or how difficult the information is to get.
1:00 p.m.: Lunch.
2:00 p.m.: Another e-mail and voice mail check, after which I’ll resume my activities from the morning. At this point, I probably will have spent a good amount of time on the phone with client personnel trying to track down information. In the best-case scenario, the client will have sent me back my information request with at least some information; realistically, the information request will get back to me no earlier than two or three days after I send it. I’ll most likely spend some time making sure that the information we do have is correctly entered into the tax preparation software our firm uses. And at this point, I’ll hopefully have some answers or information regarding the research I performed on the tax issues. If so, I’ll try to schedule some time with my senior and/or manager later this afternoon to discuss my findings. Throughout the day, I’ll be gathering and organizing my work papers for inclusion in the client’s file.
4:00 p.m.: If all goes well, I’m having a brief meeting with my senior and/or manager discussing the research I performed. This discussion will hammer out how this issue could affect the tax return. Often, this discussion will result in my drafting of a technical memorandum that outlines the issue and our findings. These memos are pretty interesting because they represent more strategic and interpretive thought than plugging numbers into a tax return. The research and memos feel like the real meat of tax work.
6:00 p.m.: Finishing touches on my draft memo (the manager always has modifications), organizing my work papers, checking off my open items for tomorrow, and preparing my timesheet for the day. This will all probably take me 30-40 minutes, and then I’m off home. Incidentally, I should note that I’m usually working on multiple tax returns and other projects at one time. So there’s usually a lot of juggling going on, putting a premium on my time management and organizational skills. And if this was busy season, my leaving time wouldn’t be anywhere near 6:00 p.m. – it’d probably be closer to 11:00 p.m.
Did you see the different? Did you learn how they start and end-up the working day?
During busy season, most audit firms have a rule that no one is allowed to schedule any vacation, regardless of the reason. So don’t schedule your wedding during busy season, and don’t plan to go skiing a lot if you’re working on public clients with a December 31 fiscal year. Plan on saying goodbye to your friends and family, home-cooked meals and relaxing afternoons on the porch. Plan to catch up on your social life as the busy season ends. After busy season, work will slow down significantly; you may even have some time when you’re not assigned to a client. Enjoy that downtime while you can.