How to Survive and Thrive During Your First Years at an Accounting Firm | Part 1: Get Your CPA License & Develop the Proper Mindset


Congratulations! You are now working full time at an accounting firm…what’s next? Or, if you haven’t gotten that full-time offer quite yet but are looking forward to it in the near future, it’s never too early to learn how you can survive and thrive once you do.

Throughout my career, I have made mistakes and will continue to make them. However, my mistakes can hopefully benefit you professionally and assist you in avoiding the same pitfalls. In part 1 of this article series, we’ll talk about the importance of obtaining your CPA license and how to prepare yourself psychologically for success. 

First and foremost: becoming a CPA is the most important goal that you should have and your accounting firm should be fully supportive of that endeavor.

Odds are that the job you are starting will not last as long as the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) license that you will be carrying throughout your career. Becoming a licensed CPA will give you a significant boost financially for all future employment opportunities. Therefore, make sure that you are aware of all of your particular state requirements in order to become licensed. Including, but not limited to, passing the CPA Exam, work experience, accounting education requirements, and ethics examinations (for example, California requires an ethics exam within 2 years after submitting an application). For the work experience, review the steps required in order to receive the sign off from your employer.

Accounting firms want you to become a licensed CPA, reimburse for your review course and issue bonuses if you pass within a certain period of time. In fact, most will not promote you beyond a Senior Associate unless you have the license.

Do not let employers try to intimidate you by not signing off on your work experience.

Some of my current and former students have shared with me that their current or former employers were being difficult signing off on their work experience. CPA’s and CPA firms who engage in this practice may face disciplinary action. Per the California State Board of Accountancy: 

“[Firms are required to complete the form] Upon the applicant’s request. Failure to submit the Certificate of General Experience – Public Accounting is viewed by the Board as an attempt to impede the applicant’s certification and may result in disciplinary action.”

If you have completed your work experience and are encountering difficulties, I would suggest being as aggressive as possible (especially if you have one foot out the door) and refer your employer or your former employer to the language on the website. My student who I advised this to received her signed experience forms pretty quickly.

Take the pressure off of yourself and develop a “consultant’s” mindset.

You’ve been recruited, spent time with firm members socially, maybe completed an internship and now it’s time to begin. Naturally, sImilar to your first day of school, first game of the season, going on a first date, it’s natural to feel nervous when starting your full time job. Thoughts of “Will I get along with everyone, what clients will I be placed on, etc.” may overcome you as you are starting your first job. 

A way to detach yourself from the political area is to treat the job and every job as a “consultant”. A consultant is generally brought in to do a task and upon task completion goes to another job. The consultant is an outsider to office politics, focusing on getting the work done as quickly and efficiently as possible. Therefore, if you come into your firm, learn what you are supposed to do, do your job well and go home, it will be challenging for a supervisor to find fault with you. Office politics are a part of every single job that you will have throughout your career. When entering the office arena, being a detached observer and objectively look at the interactions between partners, managers, senior associates and staff members will give you more insights than a new staff member immediately immersing themselves into the political office arena. 

Having a consultant mindset is not give you a bad feeling towards your co-workers, rather giving you impartiality as situations arise. For example if you discover fraud at a client or uncover an seemingly illegal practice at your firm,  it’s important to not make an overly emotional first reaction. Rather assess the situation and decide what you need to do to move forward.


Although this is not a Sylvester Stallone film, remind yourself that as an employee of an accounting firm, and, as with any business, you can be terminated at any time with or without cause. Accounting firms are right now in a state of rampant hiring, especially at the more senior levels.

However, during past economic downturns much like other industries, larger accounting firms would engage in “Easter Parades” whereby staff would laid off in April after the larger December 31st year-end audit engagements were completed and work could not be found during the summer months to keep them busy. Firms do not want to have “Easter Parades” as the cost to lay off firm employees is high: poor reputation (via Yelp, Glassdoor, and word of mouth) and most importantly, training.

Accounting firms spend a lengthy time training professional staff: audit / tax methodology and documentation procedures. When staff leave, they take this training with them and therefore it does not behoove accounting firms to lay off staff. The cost of hiring new staff is also high. If an experienced senior associate is being referred by a recruiter, the fee can be 30% of the first year’s salary.

Wait, wasn’t I told that while interviewing that they were looking to hire me as a partner?

During recruiting some accounting firms will tell you they are looking to hire partners and some firms are truly genuine about that statement. All firms SHOULD take this approach as they want every person to positively represent the firm as a partner would.

In reality, the odds of making partner at the larger firms are slim. Of my start class, about 2 of the 70 professional staff, made it to partner in the downtown LA office. The road to a partner is a long one and the amount of time it to become a partner at a large public accounting firm can be well over 10 years after many years of very hard work. To be successful financially, accounting firms operate in the pyramid structure, and therefore not every staff accountant starting out will not necessarily become a partner at that firm.

Stay tuned for Part II of this article series: Client Knowledge & Time Budgets, which will be published next week! 

Other articles you may be interested in 
The Importance of Having Your CPA License
How the CPA License Can Boost Your Career to the Next Level
The True Definition of Career Success

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