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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

April 11, 2016

Would joining an accounting firm hurt my future legal career? I’m a 1st year and have an offer from Big Accounting for a tax associate job. Should I take it?

Julie Q. Brush

Years ago (15-20+), attorneys who selected a Big Accounting (also known as the Big Four) career path were at a competitive disadvantage when attempting to transition to a role in a law firm or corporate in house legal department. These lawyers tended to be pigeonholed and viewed as not possessing the type of experience that was as desirable as their traditional law counterparts. So lawyers steered away from this option if other more traditional legal choices were available.

But today, things are different. With diversification and an expansion of its business offerings, Big Accounting can offer lawyers more in the way of broader/more diverse legal experience and an above market salary to boot – making this an increasingly more attractive option for those in the legal profession. Consequently, an increasing number of JDs are choosing these jobs…not as a consolation prize, but rather as the winner among other competitors in the legal employment race.

You are a first year lawyer with an offer to join Big Accounting as a tax associate. Would accepting such a position be a wise move – or should you hold out for something more “legal” in prototype? In order to determine whether this is the right role to start your legal career, you’ll need to assess the following: (1) The quality of the experience/training you will receive; (2) the cache of the firm brand; (3) whether you want to pursue a career in tax law; and (4) your marketability for pure legal roles in the future [which goes to the heart of your original question]. Below is the analysis:

The quality of the experience/training you will receive:

As a tax professional, accounting firms offer an excellent platform and training ground for all things Tax. So as a first year lawyer, there will be opportunity for you to build a solid foundation in this substantive legal area. With this said, review the role you have been offered and assess the type of work it will entail and the clients you’ll service. Then compare it to other junior law firm/in house job descriptions for tax lawyers. From what you can glean, do they align or are they way off? This role does not have to track word for word, responsibility for responsibility, but there should be some commonality. In addition, if you have contacts in the tax world or academia and solicit their opinion. Get a sense as to where this role would fit in to a new tax lawyer’s training.

The accounting firm brand cache:

Strong employer brands give candidates professional credibility – as it is assumed that they are exposed to sophisticated work, work with good clients and receive excellent training. So the more cache the brand, the better. Those in the legal and corporate world know that accounting firms can produce excellent tax lawyers. Add a Big Accounting brand and you’ll preserve…and even build marketability for future tax positions.

Do you want to pursue a career in tax law:

Lawyers are notoriously reactive – and can be known for taking the career path of least resistance. Pursuing a tax practice will place you into the “niche” practice category, which can pigeonhole you as the years go by. So think about whether tax is truly the practice for you and an area that captures your interest…or whether you are just considering this role because this is your best option. If the former, your offer with Big Accounting is a solid one as you kick off your career. If the latter, assess your options for other roles in practice areas you prefer. If these opportunities are slim to non-existent and you decide to accept this offer, don’t stay in the position long. Build 1-2 years of experience and then seek to retool your expertise with your current or different employer.

Your marketability for future legal roles:

Given the environment in today’s legal profession, accepting an offer as a tax associate in Big Accounting will preserve your marketability for future, more traditional legal tax positions both in house and in the law firms. With this said, a long tenure in Big Accounting will create some challenges when seeking to make the transition – as employers may view the prolonged stint out of a traditional legal environment as too long. In addition, when interviewing for law firm positions, law firms will often require a seniority readjustment for purposes of partnership consideration. So a 1-3 year seniority hit is common and you should manage your expectations accordingly. If you were seeking to maximize your marketability for future legal options, the best time to accomplish this would be after 1-3 years in your Big Accounting position.

The career options for lawyers have expanded a great deal over the course of 20 years. Some take lawyers down a path where returning to more traditional legal jobs proves challenging. Others preserve candidate marketability and the transition is smoother. Working for a large accounting firm was once problematic for lawyers who strived for law firm or in house legal department membership – and marketability was compromised. But today, the stigma has softened. With expanding offerings and cutting edge legal issues, lawyers are not only developing excellent experience, they are also being recognized for it in the market. So if this offer is one that excites you and checks the boxes above, my advice is to accept it and not look back. Best of luck!

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