The Job and What's Involved

Accountants working in a private practice provide a fee-paying service to commercial and public sector organisations, as well as individuals. As management accountants or consultants, they provide financial advice and use their experience and knowledge to help clients improve business performance. Virtually every business requires an accountant, whatever its size.

Accountants deal with a great range of cases.

In smaller practices, they usually deal with all aspects of accountancy, including preparing year-end accounts, filing tax returns and informing clients about tax benefits they are entitled to claim. They also give advice and answer queries throughout the year.

In the case of larger commercial clients, accountants can be involved in large-scale reorganisations, implementing strategies to improve business efficiency and profitability. These accountants tend to work as part of a team specialising in certain areas:

Audit - inspecting the business, checking processes and that the financial affairs are in order.

Accounts - preparing monthly, quarterly and annual reports and helping with budget preparations, forecasting costs and helping divisions to manage allocated funds.

Tax Planning - recommending ways to structure finances to minimise payments, and making sure tax returns are completed and submitted to the Inland Revenue on time.

Corporate Finance - assessing potential merger and acquisition opportunities, calculating the value of deals, and raising funds such as equity to develop or expand the business.

Business Recovery and Insolvency - helping companies in debt to recover money owed or improve their cash flow: this may involve restructuring, selling assets or divisions or managing the business until it is sold.

Environmental Auditing - looking at how companies can reduce waste of energy and resources through recycling and internal controls.

Forensic Accounting - searching for evidence of fraud to help clients resolve legal disputes, and quantifying any losses arising from incidents like fire, accidents, floods or natural disasters.

Risk Management - identifying potential risks to a business, like health and safety, and introducing control measures to reduce business losses.

Management Consultancy - looking at all areas of the business to improve efficiency, such as introducing new IT financial reporting systems.

Some practices provide other services, including employment law, human resources, employee benefits, payroll and training.

Normal hours of work are 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. There may be peaks in the workload, often around the end of clients' financial reporting year, which can require some evening work and occasional weekends. Studying for exams can also increase workloads.

It is possible to work part time or job share. Temporary contract work may also be available.

Most accountants work from an office, but generally have to visit clients in their workplace. The work can mean traveling throughout the UK, possibly staying away from home, or overseas for extended periods when working on a large project.

Starting salaries may be £15,000 to £23,500 for graduate trainees.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are approximately 245,000 qualified accountants working in the UK, with a further 135,000 completing their professional training. Of the 127,000 accountants qualified through the ACA, approximately 30,000 work in private practice.

Private practice accountancy firms vary widely in size, from small partnerships serving a local area to large international companies. Their clients can also vary - from individuals and small businesses right up to multinational organisations with worldwide offices.

Experienced and qualified candidates are in short supply, especially specialists in tax.

Employment with the larger practices tends to be centred around the UK's major financial institutions, although trainees are often placed in regional offices. Roughly 50 per cent of the jobs are in London. Smaller practices are spread throughout the UK.

Most employers recruit direct each year. Check employer websites for details. Jobs are also advertised in sector publications, qualification-awarding bodies, specialist recruitment agencies and national and regional newspapers.

Education and Training

Applicants to trainee programme's are generally graduates. Students may need a UCAS tariff score of at least 240. Typically, recruiters accept any degree subject, but especially maths, accountancy, business studies, economics and finance.

Some accountancy degrees give an exemption from the first stage of the professional exams. Some areas, for instance forensic accounting, do list specific requirements, such as a degree in computing, risk management or law.

Entry requirements for degrees do vary, but are often at least:

  • Two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), including maths and English.
  • HNC/HND in accounting or a business-related subject.

Many firms also offer summer internship programme's and work experience placements to students.

With only GCSE's/S grades, it may be possible to train as an accountant with a firm, starting as an accountancy technician and moving on to full accountancy training after gaining experience. There are no set entry requirements for this post, but most employers expect four GCSE's/S grades, including English and maths. Candidates taking this route usually study for the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT) or Chartered Accounting Technician (CAT) qualification.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

To be classified as a professional accountant, trainees need to take professional exams and complete practical work-based training. Employers often decide which professional qualifications their employees will study for.

Trainees can complete their study whilst working by day or block release and evening classes, or by distance and open learning. Employers usually provide study leave and financial support.

There are six different training organisations which provide industry-recognised qualifications:

  • Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW)
  • Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS)
  • Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland (ICAI)
  • Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
  • Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA)
  • Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA).

By law, to work as a registered company auditor, an accountant must have an audit qualification provided by one of these organisations. Entry qualifications and exemptions are published by each one on their individual website and literature.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

An accountant in a private practice needs:

  • Strong numerical ability.
  • To be confident using computers.
  • A logical and analytical approach.
  • Good overall business awareness.
  • A keen interest in current affairs and the economy.
  • Excellent communication skills.
  • To be able to build and maintain rapport with clients and their businesses.
  • The ability to explain technical information clearly.
  • To be scrupulously honest and discreet when handling confidential information.
  • To work well under pressure and keep to tight deadlines.

Your Long Term Prospects

In a private practice, an accountant may progress to team leader, management and ultimately senior partner. If working for a firm with overseas operations, there are often opportunities for international placements. Some may choose to follow a specialism such as audit, risk management or compliance.

Even if an accountant trains in a private practice, all of the qualifications are recognised by public sector employers and commercial organisations. Qualified accountants have a marketable qualification that is in demand throughout the business world, including for director and chief executive roles.

Once experienced, there are also opportunities to become self-employed or work as a consultant. Some accountants set up their own independent practice.

Get Further Information

Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT),
140 Aldersgate Street, London EC1A 4HY
Tel: 0845 863 0802

Association of International Accountants (AIA), Staithes 3,
The Watermark, Metro Riverside, Newcastle upon Tyne NE11 9SG
Tel: 0191 493 0277

Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA),
26 Chapter Street, London SW1P 4NP
Tel: 020 8849 2251

Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA),
3 Robert Street, London WC2N 6RL
Tel: 020 7543 5600

Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW),
Gloucester House, 399 Silbury Boulevard, Central Milton Keynes MK9 2HL
Tel: 01908 248100

Institute of Financial Accountants (IFA),
Burford House, 44 London Road, Sevenoaks, Kent TN13 1AS
Tel: 01732 458080

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