Art of Accounting: Becoming a Specialist – Types of Specialties

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IMGCAP(1)]I was not a specialist. In some respects, I am the last of the “expert generalists” and generalists are fast becoming extinct.

In this age of specialization and niche expertise, being a generalist is a negative to most people, indicating a lack of competency in their area. I tend to think of the old general practitioner physicians versus the modern-day specialists. No one looks at the whole patient.

Well, I was the guy who looked at the whole client and I think this is so for most practitioners at smaller firms and some partners at larger firms. However, when you profess to be an “expert” in an area, the image of “knowing everything” is counterproductive to establishing your competency.

I believe most public accountants today need to choose a specialty. I will explain why and how in this and next week’s column.

Choosing a specialization cannot be done in a vacuum. You need to do some self-assessment about your interests and choose something that could be beneficial to your firm. It should also be portable, should you stop working at that firm. Discuss your ideas with the partners and identify where there is a role you can fill. You will also need the partners’ ongoing support. While they may say you should do something, they need to demonstrate they will provide the time, resources and opportunity for you to pursue the specialization. A preliminary plan should be worked out for pursuing the specialization and your growth.

That being said, you need to start the process of deciding what might lead you on a lifelong professional path. First, there are five different types of specialization:

1. Industry
2. Service
3. Size
4. Geographic
5. Practice management

Industry means you become an expert in an industry or industries, such as construction contractors and manufacturing.

Each of these has many subdivisions. With manufacturing, you could become adept with cost accounting, lean manufacturing, inventory controls and management, supply chain management, logistics and transportation, or overall systems and controls.

Service specialization refers to the type of accounting services. This covers accounting and auditing, quality control, internal control and systems, external auditing services, taxation, financial planning, valuation, forensic and litigation support services, damage claims, mergers and acquisitions, estate and succession planning, etc. As with industry specializations, each of these has many subdivisions. Taxation alone has over 40 subdivisions that I have identified, with each needing dedicated specialists.

Size refers to client sizes. Servicing small, medium and large clients requires different areas of expertise and client relationships. It can also include client liaison and administration. Size can also refer to high net worth individual clients and those who might require family office and concierge services.

Until the past few years, a geographic area was a specialty, and it might be for some people in some areas. But the cloud and telecommuting have greatly extended geographic areas. There is nothing like a one-on-one relationship with clients, and proximity makes that a lot easier. For smaller firms that want to be dominant in an area, the practitioners and partners need more of a generalist background. I have recently recommended to some who want to start their own practices that they should consider opening a visible office around where they live and become active in local organizations, particularly their church, and become an approachable presence.

Larger firms can also do this. It is less important for each partner to become a generalist since specialties can be spread out. A strong social media presence and deliberate client mining can give you, and have you get, leads. In many instances, done properly, geography might not matter at all. But it might! Things are changing, and sometimes not changing at all.

Practice Management
Practice management covers all phases of running the business of being in an accounting practice. It includes marketing, sales, human resources and training, license and independence tracking, scheduling, project and time management, new services development, pricing, billing and collections, budgeting and projections, organizing retreats, and possibly succession planning for the practice.

Industry and services specializations can be identified more fully from the websites of many accounting firms where they not only list their areas of specialization and expertise, but provide pretty detailed descriptions. Especially look at your firm’s site.

Once you decide upon a specialization, you need to go about making yourself an expert. I will expand upon this in next week’s column, so stay tuned…

Edward Mendlowitz, CPA, is partner at WithumSmith+Brown, PC, CPAs. He is on the Accounting Today Top 100 Influential People List. He is the author of 24 books, including “How to Review Tax Returns,” co-written with Andrew D. Mendlowitz, published by and “Managing Your Tax Season, Third Edition,” published by the AICPA. Ed also writes a twice-a-week blog addressing issues that clients have at Art of Accounting is a continuing series where Ed shares autobiographical experiences with tips that he hopes can be adopted by his colleagues. Ed welcomes practice management questions and can be reached at (732) 964-9329 or

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