A Look at Different Accounting Careers: Tax

In the first of this three-part series, NCACPA member Mike Luistro, CPA, shares the ins, outs, and anecdotes about what it’s like working as a public accountant in corporate tax.

Please share a little more about your background as a CPA and how you got involved in your career path.

I have been a CPA for three years now and work at Hughes Pittman & Gupton, LLP (HPG), in Raleigh, specializing in corporate taxation.

I started out at UNC–Wilmington pursuing a degree in marine biology. Even while typing that just now, it feels so strange that I actually started with that in mind. After my first semester, I quickly realized that there just weren’t many job opportunities for marine biologists, even in Wilmington, and the pay wasn’t where I knew I wanted to be. I went home the following summer having taken an intro accounting class, and had a few conversations with my uncle, who was an accountant. I followed up that conversation with a little research and found that the accounting profession had everything that marine biology did not. There was always a need for accountants, and the starting pay was much higher than I anticipated as a new college graduate.

From there, I joined the internship program at UNCW and attended the Meet the Firms event. I found that HPG’s presentation resonated with me the most, as their culture aligned with how I envisioned my day-to-day life in the profession.

I was offered an internship by HPG shortly before graduation and have been there ever since, with about a one-year gap as I attended grad school after the internship.

Describe a typical day in your field.

Well, we typically spend 8-12 hours at a cube not talking or socializing with anyone…

If you have heard this, believe me…it is largely not true. Granted, in the beginning of your career as a tax professional, you likely spend a lot more time in the cube than an audit professional. However, as your career progresses, you interact with clients more and more, either at your office or theirs.

Even at my level, currently a senior tax associate, I find I spend a ton of time out and about. I’m involved in both recruiting and business development at our firm, so I frequently attend recruiting events at schools around the state, as well as networking events in Raleigh so I can be in a position to eventually bring in new business for my firm. Events like these frequently keep me out of the cube.

What is one thing you wish you knew about your field when coming out of college?

Coming out of college and starting your first “real” job is always difficult. You have to learn about the company’s culture, your new coworkers, the technical aspects of your job, and the systems used by your company. I felt like I was re-learning most if not all of the technical skills needed to complete a tax return. Luckily, this is quite normal. You are not expected to know any of those technicalities coming out of college.

One thing I am surprised I did not learn in school, however, relates to accounting software. At UNCW, we touched a bit on Peachtree, but I have never encountered a client who has used this. It is pretty standard for most clients to use Quickbooks now to keep their books, so it would’ve made sense for us to focus more on that. Additionally, all tax returns are completed electronically these days, of course, so to learn more common tax return software used at public accounting firms would have been advantageous.

What is one thing you heard about your field when coming out of college that you found not to be true?

In college, all I heard was that tax accountants were much more introverted than auditors. For me, someone who is extremely extroverted, this was a huge concern. To my surprise, I immediately found that (at least at my firm) this was not the case. There IS such a thing as an outgoing tax professional, and we are probably much more common than you think! Just because tax accountants tend to have less client exposure at the staff level does not necessarily mean we are all introverts.

What would you have done differently during the recruiting process?

Going into recruiting, I had no idea what I wanted, and I only had the experience of one tax and one audit class to base my decision. All of my friends were auditors and most of my professors were former auditors, so it only seemed logical to pursue auditing.

In addition, everyone from professors to friends who had started their accounting careers pushed Big Four. I was told this was the way everyone should start their career, and that it was the best resume-builder for when you inevitably burned out and decided to leave public accounting. I figured this was the only viable path forward. It wasn’t until Meet the Firms at UNCW that I was exposed to more options, such as mid-sized accounting firms as well as additional exposure to tax professionals.

What are different areas or specialties you can have in your field?

In case you were not aware, the government absolutely loves to tax people, and there are several layers of taxes based on jurisdiction (international, federal, state, city/local). Each of these is its own separate specialization. Also, the government will administer tax in several different ways, such as on income (most common), property, sales, etc., and each of these are their own specialty. Lastly, within income tax, a different return is filed for each type of entity, such as corporations, partnerships, individuals, gifts, etc. Needless to say, there are plenty of different areas to specialize in on the tax side!

When is your typical busy season and what is your busy season like?

Busy season is by far the most difficult part of being an accountant, regardless of whether or not you are in tax or audit. Busy season typically lasts from the beginning of January to Tax Day on April 15, with fluctuations in peak business dependent on your area of specialization. For instance, I specialize in corporate taxation and the deadline for corporate tax returns is now April 15. That means I am probably busier a bit later in tax season than someone who specializes in partnerships, which are now due March 15.

There is also a “mini busy season” that most tax professionals experience. This is typically from late August until October 15. This is because the extended due date for partnership and S-corporation tax returns is September 15, and the extended due date for corporations is October 15.

What is the best part about being a tax professional?

The best part about being a tax professional, to me, is unquestionably the freedom. You are not dependent on a manager or client to determine when your day starts and ends or when you are allowed to take a lunch break. Unless I have a meeting, I am able to start my day any time before 9:00 am, and depending on when I start work, I am able to leave any time after 4:00 pm. I also have the freedom to take a longer lunch, which I use to go to the gym. The benefit of this flexibility is magnified during tax season. I opt to have normal days throughout the week and come in on both Saturday and Sunday to account for extra hours.

Additionally, because you are in the office more as a tax professional, I feel like I’ve been able to form stronger friendships with my coworkers. Seeing them every day allows for much more interaction than if we all were shipped out to different clients. Also, we are essentially kept on similar schedules, making it easier to plan lunches, happy hours, etc.

What is the worst part about being a tax professional?

Busy season, without a doubt. It’s a three-month grind that can be overwhelming at times. Fortunately, you and all your coworkers are experiencing it together, which is nice because you can lean on each other for moral support. Our firm also provides homemade dinners every Tuesday, a snack cart that comes around to our cube/office every Monday and Wednesday, and several other little perks to help make busy season much more bearable.

How do you manage work-life balance in your area?

Work-life balance likely means something different to every firm and every accountant. It is important to make sure your definition of work-life balance matches that of your employer. For instance, you may think work-life balance means never working a 70-hour week, but your employer may not see it that way and expect those weeks during busy season and beyond.

Fortunately, my firm holds work-life balance in high regard, even making it one of their core beliefs. This has always made it easy for me to manage the balance between the two. However, it is still important to find ways to deal with the stress busy season may bring. My partner mentor at HPG taught me a great way to manage the stress. He said that no matter what, he tries to leave at 5:00 pm every Friday, even during busy season, and even if he was planning to come in for significant hours during the weekend. This actually stuck with me and helps me feel like I’m on a somewhat normal schedule during the most hectic months of the year.

Mike Luistro, CPA, graduated from UNC Wilmington with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting. Mike lives in Raleigh and works as a senior tax associate for Hughes Pittman & Gupton, LLP, specializing in corporate taxation. He can be reached at mluistro@hpg.com.