Career Advice: Accounting Vs. Law

Career Advice: Accounting Vs. Law

Accounting and law are careers that attract bright college students with their strong income potentials, upward mobility and multitudes of career paths within these much broader fields. Accountants can work for huge firms doing public accounting; perform internal auditing services for smaller, private companies; or prepare tax returns for individuals and businesses. A host of additional jobs also exists for trained accountants.

Similarly, law school graduates are flush with potential career paths. While corporate law is popular because of the income potential, many young attorneys prefer to go into fields such as criminal defense, personal injury law and international law.

Frequently, bright college students are attracted to both accounting and law, and they face difficulty choosing between the two. Both careers offer a lot of potential rewards. If you are facing this choice, the following analysis lays out the differences between accounting and law, and sheds light on what types of young professionals are best-suited for each career.

Educational Requirements
A career in accounting has fewer rigid educational requirements than a career in law. While you can obtain an accounting job with a bachelor's degree or even less, the Big Four firms, Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers, want Certified Public Accountant (CPA) candidates, people who are eligible to sit for the CPA exam. This requires 150 hours of post-secondary education, which is more than a bachelor's degree but does not necessarily entail completing a master's degree. Some colleges offer streamlined Master of Accountancy programs where you bypass a bachelor's degree and receive the necessary credits for CPA eligibility in as few as four years.

Becoming a lawyer requires a bachelor's degree plus law school, and there is no flexibility in that requirement. The average time it takes to complete the education required to practice law is seven years.

Skills Needed
Whether you plan to become an accountant or an attorney, you should have an unflappable work ethic and strong problem-solving skills. Apart from these traits, the skills profile of a successful accountant often differs from that of a successful attorney.

Accountants have to love numbers and be skilled at working with them. Those who hate math or struggle with it should look elsewhere for a career. The career is often stigmatized as boring and a haven for the socially maladjusted who hate working with people, but that could not be further from the truth. Many fields of accounting require strong skills in diplomacy. Public accountants, for example, spend the majority of their workweeks at various third-party client offices. These professionals must be capable of assimilating into diverse corporate cultures.

Attorneys require a broad base of skills that can vary depending on the field of law. Corporate law, which necessitates long hours and demanding job duties, requires a tireless work ethic. Trial lawyers must be eloquent and persuasive, and they have to think on their feet. To practice international law, you must have a keen understanding of various cultures and preferably speak multiple languages.

Starting Salary
The salary range is broad for both beginning accountants and attorneys. On average, lawyers make a lot more money than accountants right out of school. As of 2015, the starting range for Big Four accounting associates is $50,000 to $55,000. Meanwhile, large law firms pay new associates between $100,000 and $160,000.

Many young accountants and attorneys blaze their own career paths and, as a result, are not confined to the salary ranges of the big firms. A person who starts his own practice in either field can make six figures the first year if he markets well and develops a strong reputation in his local area. Conversely, many accountants and attorneys who go into private practice struggle at first until they build a client base.

Job Outlook
Both fields suffered contraction during the Great Recession. The recovery for accounting has been more robust than for law, which remains plagued with deeper issues than the broader economy. Economists project a 13.1% job growth rate for accounting between 2015 and 2022; this is slightly above average for all career fields in the United States.

The biggest problem for the field of law, other than nationwide economic woes, is supply and demand. For decades, a law degree was considered a guaranteed ticket to a high-paying career. As a result, law school enrollment swelled, reaching dizzying numbers during the 1990s and 2000s. The number of job openings for attorneys failed to keep pace with the number of graduates law schools were churning out. The unemployment rate for new lawyers began to soar as a result. During the 2010s, amid widespread coverage of young attorneys' employment woes, the law school boom abated somewhat, and job prospects are now improving for recent graduates. Still, the situation is nowhere near ideal. Nearly 40% of 2014 law school graduates failed to secure employment in the legal field within one year of graduation.

Work / Life Balance
The Big Four accounting firms and corporate law positions, the most common paths for ambitious graduates, require long work days, few full weekends off and even less vacation time. The work schedule lightens as you gain seniority, but the first few years can be brutal. For this reason, the burnout rate is high for new associates in both fields.

You can have a career in accounting or law without it taking over your life. Government jobs, for example, offer 40-hour workweeks and excellent benefits. If work / life balance is important, consider becoming an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) or a defense attorney in your local public defender's office. Be aware, however, these jobs pay nowhere near the salaries you can make with a Big Four accounting firm or corporate law firm.

Which One to Choose
Your specific skill set, educational goals and desired income level determine whether accounting or law is more ideal. Choose accounting if you are great with numbers, want to start working soon after obtaining a bachelor's degree and do not mind a lower salary during the first few years.

Law is a better choice if you love problem-solving but are not crazy about math, do not mind an extra three years of school and you want to make a lot of money right away.

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