It’s OK for CPAs to ‘Get a Life’

 – January 4, 2012
It’s OK for CPAs to ‘Get a Life’

Perhaps you’ve heard the CPA facts of life, as passed from one generation of CPAs working in public accounting to the next: Expect to work from dawn to dusk. Expect to miss family events and skimp on vacations. Be prepared to work, work, work.

Sure, life in public accounting is rewarding – but it requires long hours and a great deal of dedication. Outside interests – even family life – probably have to take a back seat to workday interests.

That was then.

The truth is, it might just be the best time ever to be a young CPA working in a public accounting firm. The NJCPA spoke with three young CPAs who will be handing down a different version to the next generation of CPAs.

The leaders of many CPA firms today are very conscious of their employees’ need for “work life balance.”  In some ways, there may even be a “race to the top” going on in public accounting, with firms vying to provide the best approach to helping employees meet the demands of the profession and clients while still giving CPAs enough time and latitude to enjoy their lives outside the office. In addition to changing attitudes in the corner office, there have also been changes in how work is done and office technology that are facilitating employee friendly policies.

Firms Are Changing Policies to Meet Young CPAs Needs

Anthony Mezzasalma

“I’ve been a CPA for a year now,” says Anthony Mezzasalma, CPA, a senior audit associate at Johnson Lambert & Company LLP., in Red bank. “My firm specializes in auditing insurance companies and employee benefit plans– I believe being involved in these niches has allowed me to develop a special skill set that is extremely valuable to our clients.”

Before he started, Mezzasalma had a pretty good idea about what was expected of a CPA in a public accounting firm. Both his father and older brother are CPAs.

Mezzasalma is also newly married – in July of this year – so naturally he is well aware of the importance of work/like balance.  Fortunately his wife, Josephine, is also an accountant so they have a mutual understanding of the nature of public accounting and how client deadlines can put a strain on personal relationships.

With my dad and brother being CPAs – everything here is pretty much what I was expecting. Pretty familiar.  I knew what I was getting into.”

Still, he is a little surprised and pleased with the approach his firm takes toward work hours.

“From Memorial Day through Labor day, the firm has half days on Fridays. That’s a very nice benefit,” he says. “And during our busiest time – February through May – we are expected to take three consecutive days of personal leave in conjunction with a weekend – so we end up with a full five-day break in the heart of busy season. It’s a great chance to refresh yourself and re-energize for the final stretch of busy season.” Additionally, Johnson Lambert offers five weeks of paid time off for all professional staff and two days to devote to a personal community service initiative.

As someone immersed in the accounting profession, Mezzasalma has a lot of advice to offer new CPAs just getting their feet wet in public accounting.

“Enjoy what you’re doing,” he says. Anthony also stated that “Given the demand for hard working accountants, you may find yourself with multiple job offers on the table”

If you find yourself in this situation, “be sure to look into the overall approach the firm takes to balance work and personal responsibilities.”

“Look into the programs it offers for supporting the staff,” Mezzasalma says. “It is important to consider these programs in addition to the overall compensation structure. A position in public accounting is a life style not simply a means to collect a high salary, therefore, the work/life programs are just as important as the starting salary.”

Technology: Does it Free You Up or Tie You Down?

Nina Chmura

Nina Chmura, CPA, describes herself as “one of those 2,000 chargeable hours” sort of people – up until a year and a half ago.

As a manager leading audit teams for WithumSmith+Brown, Chmura works primarily with clients in real estate, consumer products and non-profit sectors – plus some tax work. She left her first accounting job with a small firm in Massachusetts to join Withum about eight years ago, and she has worked her way up from “staff 1” to management .

But everything changed – at least a little bit – when her son Michael was born in the summer of 2010. She wanted to be a great mom. But she didn’t want to stop working.

“We developed a strategy that has allowed me to pull back and still keep up with my clients,” she says.

“I work four days a week, but no two weeks are the same. I have a mentor who warned me: ‘some days you feel like you’re a great accountant and a bad mom, and some days it’s the opposite. You look back at the end of the week and – most weeks – it all evens out.”

Raising a child and maintaining clients – it’s not easy. “As they say ‘it takes a village,” Chmura says. “My husband, my mom, cousins – and I have a sitter four days a week. Having someone who can constantly be with my son – that makes it all work better.”

And there’s another key to her success: modern communications technology.

“When I turn my computer on it’s as if I’m in my office. We have a VPN. I log in. I’m in my office wherever I am.”

And then there’s her Blackberry. “When you have audit teams in the field, you have to be constantly connected,” she says. They are working, even when I’m not. So I do have to be prepared to take calls – even when I’m unloading the groceries or taking care of my son.”

While the technology is essential to make her life work right now, she’s equally sure that support from the firm is equally essential. “The whole office at WithumSmith+Brown – they’re all in on it and they help make it work.  I couldn’t be as connected and committed if they were not available and willing to pitch in.”

Chmura’s advice to a young CPA in her position is to “take it week by week.  You will have good days and bad days – in the end you’ll have more good than bad.”

She also encourages selectiveness. “I couldn’t say ‘no,’” she says. “That has been a learning process for me.”

“Overall though, with support from your family and friends, having a family and a career at the same time can work out,” she says. “You can be successful.”

Getting Life and Work in Harmony

Jaime Campbell

Jaime Campbell, CPA, made a huge career change when she entered the accounting profession. She had spent five years as a music educator in Florida. During that time, she performed choral works from the Renaissance through contemporary works with an a capella singing group in major venues throughout the Southeast including the Spoleto Music Festival.

She knew that kind of activity would be over when she joined Bartolomei Pucciarelli, LLC in Lawrenceville.

“I had a preconceived notion of the business world,” Campbell says.” I thought it would be 18 hours of work a day – and I was ready for it.”

“It almost came to me as an affront when my managing partner came to me and said “we only want you to work 40 hours a week.’ That’s not what I had envisioned.”

Outside tax season, her firm encourages 40-hour work weeks. The challenge to the CPA is to stay on top of client needs – be sure all work is timely – and still provide yourself with time for a personal life.

“It also helps that our office is largely paperless,” Campbell says. “All I need is an Internet connection and I can be ‘at work.’”

“We don’t have required business hours.  The policy is: “get the work done to service your clients’ but it doesn’t lock you in.  If I need to start at 6 am and end my day early, I can. We’re trusted to use our professional judgment.

“If I need to be at home and something comes up at work, I can take care of it.”

What all of this means for Campbell is that she can pursue a wide array of interests outside the workplace.

Music still takes a central place in her life; performing in several choirs, teaching guitar and piano. She does volunteer work with the Boy Scouts; has taught courses at the adult school in Princeton and worked as an adjunct professor at Kean University; pursued language studies that helped her gain fluency in Spanish and develop a foundation in Mandarin Chinese; and helped two people earn their US citizenship.

She has also pursued person professional development earning seven professional certifications. And Campbell volunteers on the board of the Mercer Chapter of the Society – serving as treasurer this year.

“I’m most fortunate,” Campbell says. “I have a rich life – very balanced – and that’s much to the credit of the leadership at my firm.”

Young CPAs coming into the professions should avoid being surprised.

“Be aware of how much you have to contribute to the future you wish to create,” Campbell says. “Pick a firm that helps you reach your vision: for your firm, for your community, for yourself.”