The Structure of Accounting Firms and What Firms are Looking for in Candidates


A couple weeks ago, we introduced you to Bennet Tchaikovsky, CPA, a professor of accounting at Irvine Valley College whose second passion outside of teaching is helping accounting students jump start their careers. We’ve partnered with Mr. Tchaikovsky who will be lending his expertise and advice in a series of articles to help accounting students gain an advantage when it comes to landing their first internship or entry-level position. Mr. Tchaikovsky starts off the series by talking about how accounting firms are structured and what they’re looking for in an ideal candidate. 


After having almost the same conversation with many different students, I wanted to create a “starting point” for my students and others so that prior to asking questions about what needed to be done to obtain a position at an accounting firm (or business) students have a baseline to work with. 

The content of this this blog is not solely my own, rather embodies the feedback and thoughts that I have received and continued to receive from my students (Irvine Valley College (“IVC”) has the best students and this is my completely biased statement), professionals that have been kind enough to give their time to speak at IVC Accounting Society events, as well as student leaders from the University of California at Irvine and California State University at Fullerton. 

I want to thank you in advance for your time in reading this blog and also would appreciate your feedback to make this better for future students entering into the profession.

What are Accounting Firms Looking for when hiring?

Accounting firms are not just looking for a strong overall/accounting Grade Point Average (“GPA”). Rather, accounting firms seek students that interact well with others, involved with activities on and off campus, and can professionally present themselves.

As an accounting firm employee, you want to choose an environment where you will thrive professionally. You are choosing the accounting firm as much as the accounting firm is choosing you. However, before you have this opportunity, you need to first position yourself for hiring. 

Before preparing for the process, it’s best to understand how accounting firms operate and why a perfect accounting GPA is not the only thing accounting firms are looking for.

 The Accounting Firm Structure

Prior to seeking a full time position upon graduation, understand the type of organizational structure that you are entering into, this will give you the mindset as to how and what to prepare for. The structure of an accounting firm looks generally like an triangle (pyramid references are for Ponzi schemes/multi-level marketing organizations): the partner is at the top, with several managers reporting to the partner. Several senior associates report to each manager and staff accountants report to the senior associates. Although there may be additional layers and different titles within firms, the basic structure remains the same. 

Why this form of structure? Would you want a partner with an extremely high billing rate assisting an entry-level associate with how to audit receivables or should that partner be going out and obtaining new business while a senior associate mentors the entry-level associate?
However, when it comes to interacting with clients, the triangle is inverted. The associates generally spend all of their time at the client, senior associates toggle between the office and client location, while managers and partners are predominantly office based. If partners were to spend all of their time at one client, they could never be successful. Why? A partner and/or manager’s goal is to obtain as much new business as possible while ensuring a high level of service to their existing clients. A firm could not survive if the partner were to stay at one client all day.
Therefore, as an entry-level associate, you will have the most direct client interaction. An Accounting Firm has to trust that you will positively represent the firm while at a client treating client personnel from the administrative assistant to the Chief Executive Officer with dignity and respect. During pitch meetings for new business, Accounting Firms are sometimes asked to bring their associates as potential clients may want to interact with the associates that will be spending the most time with them.
How do you develop yourself socially to ready yourself for client interaction?

On Campus Involvement – Getting Started

Community colleges and Four Year schools offer many different avenues for social development including student government and clubs (collectively “Student Organizations”). If you are shy at first, attend meetings as a member and get to know your fellow students. Run for a leadership position. If you don’t get a leadership position, volunteer for everything. If you are present, the Student Organizations will more than likely put you to work. Do you need to be in the Accounting Society or Accounting Association? No. Find Student Organizations where you will want to be involved and lead. It’s more important to be in a leadership position than to be a wallflower. 
My former student served as the treasurer for student government. Was it great experience for him to get in front of faculty and ask how they were spending student allocated funds? Yes. Being in these types of positions not only enhance your social skills, but boost your self-confidence and improve your ability to work with others. Remember, when working on an audit, you work collectively with others on a team and are not flying solo (hopefully not United either). 

Also, social mistakes while working at Student Organizations are much more forgivable as opposed to workplace blunders. If you are caught texting or looking at your phone at a Student Organization meeting, your fellow students may dismiss you undedicated. If texting in front of a client, you may be fired or reprimanded.

I have no free time to be in a Student Organization as I’m working full time

If you are working full time and unable to participate on campus, this can also be an opportunity for your social development as well. For example, working at a restaurant or other customer service positions, accounting firms value these skills as they reflect on your ability to interact with others. However, make sure that your resume reflects that hours you were working while going to school.
If you are doing nothing aside from living at the library, consider going to medical school. Working at an accounting firm requires an ability to interact with others and you need to be developing these skills now.

Interacting with Entry Level Accounting Students 

Aside from developing your developing your social skills through on campus involvement, try to position yourself where you will have a significant interaction with other accounting students. Summer Leadership Programs (“SLP”) and Internships are often given to those that hold positions within the accounting society, Beta Alpha Psi, and/or serve as teaching assistants/tutors to other accounting students. Why? 

SLP’s and Internships is used by accounting firms to recruit future students. The intern become the firms’ representative on campus and therefore given to those students who have or will have  a significant amount of student interaction. After completing their internship, interns will come back and evangelize their intern experiences with other students: attending a conference in Chicago, going to Walt Disney World (Florida in summertime), and staying at a hotel for two weeks while receiving training. Upon graduation, you will come back to recruit new students as a firm representative at your Alma mater. The more accounting student contact you had, the more desirable you will be to a firm as you know more students.
Notice that I am saving the overall/accounting GPA for last. Why? Your social development is one of the most important components for your long-term success in business.

Overall / Accounting GPA

 You need to put the time into your accounting studies. While at the University of California at Santa Barbara, one of my best friends was my 6th edition of the Kieso Intermediate Accounting textbook (the gold standard for Intermediate Accounting). The more time you put into your studies now, the less time you will need to put towards studying for the CPA exam.
If your overall/accounting Grade Point Average (“GPA”) suffered due to the fact that you were working 40+ hours a week to put yourself through school or you were playing a sport while in college (this is more than a full time job), please be sure that this information is clearly reflected on your resume. Although great for social media, attending classes on Del Playa Drive or El Nido Lane while attending UC Isla Vista is not an acceptable excuse for a poor GPA.

GPA- Special note for Transfer Students

If you are transferring to a four- year university, you are at a disadvantage going into the fall recruitment process for internships. Why? You have no transcripted courses that were earned at the four-year school you just transferred to.
One of my students recently obtained an internship offer for this coming summer at a Big 4 accounting firm. How were they able to do this? In addition to joining the accounting society/business honors society at the four-year school, the student took an accounting course over the summer at the four-year school and received a very high grade. With this grade on their transcript, the student was able to walk into the recruitment process showing firms that the student not only performed academically at a high level at the community college level, but at the four-year level as well.

Other requirements/suggestions:
Firms want to know when you meet your State’s educational requirement, your CPA eligibility and when you plan on taking the CPA exam. Firms want to see their staff licensed as quickly as possible and will often limit promotion those without a CPA license.

Thank you for reading this initial posting . Our next post will be the interview process for Accounting Firms. Please feel free to leave your comments below!

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