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Tax Practice Management

Training in the modern tax practice.

March 2008
by Stephen Trenholml/The Tax Adviser

Training in the 21st century public accounting firm is very different than it was 30 years ago, when many of the baby boomers who are now in management positions, began their careers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, much of the training that staff received was on-the-job training or "baptism by fire." Continuing education, at least for small and medium-sized firms, was obtained either through outside seminars given by the state CPA society or the AICPA, graduate degree programs or self-study training programs. National firms generally had their own specialized training programs. The landscape of the profession has changed greatly over the past generation and so has the concept of "training" and the implementation of training programs.

Training Methods

Professional staff training can take many different forms. For example, if the firm is small and deals almost exclusively with high net worth individuals, the training of staff and partners would concentrate on topics dedicated to serving the wealthy. Most small to medium-sized firms have a general practice and staff and partners must be proficient in taxation, accounting and auditing issues.

Generally firms with fewer than 100 staff members do not have completely dedicated departments in which staffers work exclusively in either taxation or accounting and auditing. In these cases, it is especially important that the more experienced staff mentor the younger staff and provide them with the proper training. Ideally, each member of the firm below the position of manager should have a mentor and a training and continuing education plan, including ethics, which is now a requirement in many states.

Each professional staff person in the firm, including partners, should have a continuing professional education (CPE) goal sheet as well as a tracking mechanism to record all applicable CPE and indicate how it applies to the goals of each staff person. When developing a training program and a CPE goal sheet for staff who have not yet completed the entire Uniform CPA Exam, you should remember that they must be well rounded in all aspects of the profession in order to pass the exam.

There are various types of in-house training methods. Formal training programs can focus on specific topics. Some firms have begun to hold monthly "lunch and learn" presentations. Ideas for tax topics are solicited from the staff and the gatherings may include a more in-depth discussion of, for example, dependent rules and education credits or Form 6198 and at-risk limitations. Not only is this effective in teaching the staff, it can also provide an opportunity for the staff to socialize. Even a sole practitioner with only a few staff members can benefit from a lunch-and-learn program.

There are various ways to obtain training without developing it in-house and many are very cost effective. Both software and service vendors provide many free CPE courses. The AICPA and the various state societies provide useful and timely presentations as well. There are also podcasts, Web-based seminars and traditional self-study courses. Traditional self-study courses have been the professional standard for many years. Podcasts and Web seminars can be an excellent and inexpensive way of keeping up with many topics without leaving the office. Conferences are good opportunities for individuals to improve skills, discuss professional issues with their peers and interact with their peers in other firms and gain knowledge and support from outside the office.

Training Topics

The new generation of professionals, primarily from the millennium generation, has grown up with completely different standards and expectations. The old process of reviewing a client's box of canceled checks, invoices and bank statements, then manually posting to a general ledger and preparing a trial balance, financial statements and a tax return has been replaced by an automated process using computer-generated general ledgers, trial balances and even working papers.

These computer-based systems require more careful step-by-step instructions and a great deal of guidance from older, more experienced professionals. Changes in technology have created the need not only to train professionals in the use of the various software programs and hardware but also to ensure that newer staff understand the output that is generated, whether it is correct and if it makes sense.

Today, with most calculations being done by a computer, it is very easy to become dependent on these computer calculations and not recognize that the output is incorrect because the input was not correct. Experienced tax professionals must train staff so that they understand the output, know that it is accurate and can provide a professional explanation to the reviewer and the client.

Technology training should be for all staff and even clients. Administrative staff, even in very small firms, must be trained to use the firm's technology, with frequent refreshers. Administrative staff can also be used to instruct professional staff on certain software applications and its use of practice management software to track the firm's time and billings.

Technical training is another important part of a staff training program. For firms below the national level, all staff should be updated at least annually on tax law changes.

Staff at all levels, including partners, must be knowledgeable about the laws that affect how advisers practice, communicate with clients and handle client information. Other key elements of a staff training program include (1) accounting and auditing training (for firms that issue financial statements for their clients); (2) updates and training on how to use a firm's various software applications (the vendor will often supply this at no cost); and (3) training covering firm policy. The staff training program is important not only for initial instruction but also to periodically reiterate policies that should help the firm as a whole run more smoothly.

Other Training Benefits

In-house staff training serves purposes other than the primary one of educating staff members. It also improves the presenter's technical, writing and public speaking skills. In-house training presentations can be used as part of a public relations and client development program by adapting some of the presentations for a non-CPA staff audience.

Firms should also try to personalize training to include any specialized training a staff may need to be able to participate in the community. Many CPAs are chosen to sit on boards of directors of nonprofit organizations that seek them out for their financial expertise. Because the staff member's performance reflects on the firm, it is in the firm's interest to provide him or her with in-depth training on nonprofit accounting and to outline what is expected in that role.

Conclusion

Training methods and frequency of delivery have changed as the millennium generation enters the workforce. Partners and managers must recognize these changes. Training can no longer be thought of as a bonus; it should be considered a requirement of each position within the firm, along with providing a salary and benefits. Well-rounded and technically competent staff are the future of the public accounting profession.

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Stephen P. Trenholm, CPA, MST, Rucci, Bardaro & Barrett, PC, Malden, MA, is a member of the Tax Practice Improvement Committee. Trenholm is a contributing writer for The Tax Adviser. His views as expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the AICPA or The Tax Adviser.