Art of Accounting: Rethinking expert generalists

Register now

A few months ago I suggested that becoming an expert generalist as a niche was a possible career track for someone in a larger firm. I received a lot of feedback that caused me to rethink the column, and I have. Here are some of my thoughts:

Sole practitioners pretty much need to become generalists. However, once a small practice takes on partners or higher-level staff, they can divide up the areas of expertise. While each owner or partner would need a great range of knowledge and experience, they can lessen the responsibility of having to keep current on everything.

In a larger firm there is much greater opportunity for specialization. That is where staff can set themselves apart by becoming a go-to person in one or more areas. But I now believe that by becoming expert generalists, they would limit their opportunity to become a go-to person, which would inhibit their growth opportunities and value to the firm. They could be excellent go-to diagnosticians, but I do not believe that would have a high prestige level or value within a large firm, even though it would be the firm’s loss.

I also know from my own experience that keeping up to date in multiple areas is difficult. The way the profession is changing, it might even be near impossible going forward. The volume of accounting changes has accelerated, with daily looks at the news update services becoming almost a mandatory first stop each morning. Tax specialists have always done this. Now, with the complications of the tax laws growing even more rapidly, specialization within taxes has become necessary. Technology has become like added personnel, requiring almost daily updates, nurturing, training and smart use of tech. Added to technology are artificial intelligence, robotics and similar applications that need to be learned and incorporated within the practice. Consulting has become much more competitive and difficult, with clients having real-time access to the same data we do, while just 10 years ago it was our exclusive “property.” Practice management has also become much harder. Many not so large firms are bringing in professional management to run the practice on a day-to-day basis.

Things change and the idea of making a specialty of being an expert generalist in a larger firm is not as good an idea as I thought it was, or as it used to be. I posted other columns on how to choose a specialty, and I refer you to read and consider what I wrote. Unless you are in a very small practice, ignore what I posted on being a generalist.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, click here.
Practice structure Consulting Tax practice Ed Mendlowitz