What the AICPA and NASBA could learn from other professions.
By Donny C. Shimamoto, CPA.CITP, CGMA
I’ve been watching NASBA and the AICPA communicate the need for a change to the requirements to be CPA. While at a surface level their rationale makes sense, when I think further about the bigger picture of the accounting profession, I’m not sure I agree with their direction. I do however think that the accounting profession needs to be more cohesive and inclusive, and perhaps that is the better solution to pursue, rather enabling more non-accountants to be CPAs.
One of the major premises of their rationale is that CPA firms are hiring an increasing number of non-accounting graduates so we need to enable more of these people to be CPAs. Well, just because they work at a CPA firm, does someone have to be a CPA? Or just because they help with a tax return audit, or consulting project, do they need to be a CPA?
Take a look at the medical profession. Not everyone that works at a hospital or clinic is a doctor. Yet the technicians, nurses, physician assistants, pharmacists, and many others involved in patient care are considered part of the medical profession. All of these other roles support the work of the doctor and the provision of care to patients, but in the end, it’s the doctor that makes the final diagnoses and writes the prescription for care.
Wouldn't that be analogous to people from other disciplines being a part of a CPA firm and providing services to the firm’s clients? In the end, though, it’s the CPA who renders the final opinion (audit), finalizes the financial plan (tax), or delivers the recommendation (consulting/advisory). It’s the CPA who synthesizes the insights from the information provided by the other disciplines and works with the client to validate the final outcome or direction.
If we look at other professions like engineering, architecture, education, and law, we see the same parallels. None of these professions are moving to enable those that support the work of the core professional to be able to be licensed as equivalent as the professional themselves. So why would we do that in accounting?
The CPA-Centric Mindset in Public Accounting May the Problem
As I tried to figure out why we would want to enable more non-accountants to be accountants, I realized that this is really only an issue for the public accounting industry (not the accounting profession as a whole). The public accounting industry is the only aspect of our profession whose work and organizational structure is directly impacted by CPA licensure.
So I had to ask myself, what is it about the public accounting industry that would make them want to enable more non-CPAs to be CPAs? The only answer I could come up with is the CPA-centric mindset in public accounting.
I’m going to be a bit heretical and call out the elephant in the room: many CPAs in public accounting look down upon those who are not CPAs. In fact, I might even also be able to say that CPA partners in accounting firms look down on other CPAs who are not partners. Yes, I know this is a broad generalization and it is not true in every firm, but I’ve definitely seen this mentality myself as well as had others who have left public accounting share stories about this superior mentality issue. If this is indeed a core issue, then the fix would be to confront the egos of CPA firm partners.
Instead, all partners and employees of a CPA firm need to be treated with professional respect regardless of whether they aspire to be a partner or whether they decide they would rather be a career senior. This would also solve one of the other issues in public accounting: the up-or-out mentality. (But that’s an entirely different topic for another article.)
Diluting the CPA Could Weaken the Integrity of the CPA Firm
Another potential issue with allowing more non-accountants to be CPAs is that it could result in a weakening of the integrity of the CPA firm itself. As public servants, we must remain vigilant to ensure that our audit options are always independent and that we remain unbiased in the recommendations that we make to our clients. To help ensure that the firm always took this into consideration, the requirement that CPAs have majority control of public accounting firms was written into the Uniform Accountancy Act, which has been generally adopted by all of U.S. states and territories.
If we allow more non-accountants to become CPAs, these non-accountants would be included in the “CPA” count for ownership. The net effect of which would be that a majority of firm owners may not be true CPAs. I’m not saying that these others are necessarily less ethical than CPAs, but will they hold themselves to the same high standards that we do in ensuring the integrity of our profession?
As CPAs we are invested in the accounting profession, the chances of us leaving it are low since it is the core of our skillset. We are less likely to do something that would put our reputation or our firm’s reputation at risk. However, it’s much easier for a professional from another field to simply decide they are going to leave the firm and go back to their field where they won’t be constrained by independence and could take advantage of situations where they could make more money.
Let’s Make Public Accounting More Inclusive
Instead of diluting the CPA, let’s instead work to make public accounting more inclusive. And by inclusive, I’m not referring to gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity—I’m talking about professional expertise and respect. As CPAs, we need to recognize that our work is moving beyond just finance and that we need to collaborate more with other professionals to deliver the best solutions for our clients, or to render a valid audit opinion.
By recognizing that we need the help of other professionals to best serve our clients, and by treating them as equals that are an integral part of the firm, we can both increase the attractiveness of our firms as a place to work, as well as increase our ability to retain non-CPA professionals in the future. This means that our human resource functions need to learn to create career paths for non-accountants, and that compensation plans need to be revisited to ensure that these professionals have the opportunity to earn as much (if not more) than a partner themselves. This may also mean revisiting traditional hierarchies and authority structures in a firm.
I recognize that this is not an easy change, and there are a lot of barriers to this change in partnership agreements, retirement compensation, and a lot of other traditional firm structures. However, if you’re really looking at the future relevance and sustainability of the firm, you need to figure out how to be more inclusive without diluting the integrity of the CPA itself.