May 2003

On Reviving the Profession
By Stuart Kessler, CPA, Goldstein Golub Kessler LLP

Although badly bruised, I don’t believe the accounting profession is on life support just yet. Bad things happen to all professions from time to time, and we can all remember problems that have put the medical and legal professions under the gun

Actually, the accounting profession has needed a shot in the arm for years, and although many ideas and programs were tried, they met with little success. Perhaps recent negative publicity provides a new opportunity to restore the public confidence in the CPA, a professional that has traditionally held the top rung.

On the whole, our clients still love us, and despite what has gone on, we remain their trusted professionals. It is the “other” CPAs our clients think of as being scoundrels, “not my CPA. My CPA is great—always available to help me.”

I am a strong believer in tradition, but there is something to be said about untraditional thinking as well. Making an impression on the unimpressionable requires new paradigms. We should openly share with the public and the media our many positive sides, including the diversity within our profession and the variety of our practice, including the many niche areas in which firms can serve their clients. Untraditional thinking should also lead the CPA to be more involved in public service.

More CPAs should become involved in public service. Our numbers in government, however, are few. We need more CPAs in state legislatures, Congress, the Senate, and the governor’s mansions. We must encourage our fellow CPAs to take time to serve the public interest in these and other leadership capacities.

Above all, we need to change the public perception of the CPA. CPAs need to speack out on controversial issues. I have been a long-time proponent of a television program—not a sitcom—about a CPA firm or a group of CPAs that would demonstrate our concern for the public interest. Imagine a “West Wing”–style subplot on the alternative minimum tax (AMT) and its ludicrously unfair impact on middle-income Americans. Let’s have a CPA finding fraud, representing a spouse in a contentious divorce, assisting an elderly client. Good writers could conjure up interesting plots that would resonate with the viewing public and demonstrate the CPA’s commitment to the public interest.

A television drama about CPAs has always seemed farfetched, but when I speak with student groups, they love the idea. Medical and legal settings have been a staple of television for decades, with some surprising twists. For example, the early 1990s series “Northern Exposure,” with a main character of a doctor, gave the state of Alaska a tremendous boost, and funeral directors got their image polished in “Six Feet Under.” Why not CPA heroes?

CPAs should be proud of their profession and communicate that pride. Wearing a CPA pin to demonstrate this pride is a great conversation starter, and wonderful things can happen when people notice it and learn even just a little about what it stands for.

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