Can consultants move back into practice?

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Mark Lee
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Mark Lee looks at how career opportunities and priorities are changing for ambitious accountants.

When I first qualified as a chartered accountant in 1982 my overriding ambition was to make it to the top and become a partner. I recall one recruitment consultant encouraging me to aim for my “name on the notepaper”.  It’s what we all wanted in those days – older readers will remember seeing all the partners’ names on their firm’s headed paper.

Even in the 1980s it was assumed that once you became a partner you would stay with the firm for the rest of your career. These days partners are far more mobile and frequently move from one firm to another.

We’re also seeing more ex-partners strike out on their own to become consultants. They may have done so because they didn’t want to stick around after a merger (or weren’t wanted). Their old firm may have ceased to trade through no fault of their own. Or perhaps they simply chose to move away from conventional practice work, as did I in 2001 – although it wasn’t until 2006 that I decided to give up offering tax advice myself.

Not everyone is cut out for consultancy work. Others make a good living from it and a fair number decide after a while that, on balance, it would be good to get back into practice. They have new skills to offer but no conventional client following.

Thirty years ago no one would have countenanced the idea of ex-partners returning to practice.  These days the value that such consultants can bring if they rejoin the profession is immense. In many cases they may be the only senior person to have worked outside accountancy. Their perspective and experience will add something valuable to what the firm offers. They may also help enhance the way the firm itself is run – depending upon how arrogant the current partners are.

Mark Lee is chairman of the Tax Advice Network and consultant practice editor for

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24th Aug 2010 12:39

The modern clashes of choice?

Good article Mark!

I'll come at this from a recruitment perspective first - its what I know - but in many modern professional careers paths (not just accountantcy), the need to change paths and be flexible due to career duration is resulting now in more choice of options, which are being taken up more regularly.

Many of what are termed rain makers (mostly sub-partner level people) are seeing these options now, and thinking: 10years to partner and all that hassle, or out on my own/with a select group of colleagues and some existing clients, and I can do it now? Hence competition for talent comes not only from competitors, but also from the ambition and perspective of the individual. The result is a large growth in medium scale professional businesses which focus on niche areas (geography or specilaity), and have a far more flexible approach to working as opposed to the old style "solid brick and column" firms. This hence accelerates the perspective of making the later far less attractive as places to work, and makes their ability to retain talent beyond "training + a couple of years (to build a client book)"  more difficult.

The result? The old firms are having to change to retain talent. Construction due to its project based/time scale nature is the leading profession in addressing talent retention and engagement, where by the big firms are well financed bidding fronts for the provision of service, while the actual delivery - although undertaken under that big corporate brand - in actual fact is sub-contracted to various specilaist providers. This means that the corporate retains its brand and scale delivery capability, while also being able to engage and retain the best/most appropriate talent.

Could accountantcy move this way? I think there are other client driven pressures which are providing the emphasis on the portfolio of services shift, in that more SME scale organisations are emerging, who are far happier to engage one organisations across a multiple of disciplines, not only from book keeping and wage roll, but also to financing and development. As these new areas all impinge on the area of accountantcy, its either wait and see how your client base is eatten away, or get in and offer the service.

The one thing that clearly limits the scale of both service delivery and the amount that can be out sourced or sub-sourced are the legalities of the profession. The previous rush to financial services meant that many of the resultant "Chinese walls" of operation have now resulted in two companies often with different names and management. The advantagesof scale and service beset by legal guide and prudence.

However, lets come back to your core article point. In this new more client driven world where talent can be lost because it sees a way to seize the new client enviornment, then old goals of partner and name on the letterhead will be elss attractive as drivers of career then personal fulfillment and great working enviornment. When those are aligned on both an indvidual and organisational basis, then who needs the title? Secondly, wise organisations would be daft not to retain the best talent for delivering their business targets via improved client services, where ever that professionals carere has taken them. It's no longer about the "ideal" career path, but the value offered on which the rest of the employment world now hires.

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