Public accountants and public accounting firms are individuals or a group of individuals who have obtained their Certified Public Accountant License(s) and as their name suggests, provide accounting services to the public. Public accountants have many responsibilities including financial statement audits for corporations, individual and corporate tax returns, provide general accounting services, as well as serve as general business and wealth advisors. Although they perform a wide variety of tasks, public accountants still function as a discourse community, and are even part of the larger accounting discourse community. Public accountants are highly specialized and meet all six of John Swales’ characteristics of a discourse community.Becoming part of the public accounting discourse community is not an easy feat. It requires perseverance, patience, diligence, time, money, and a plethora of more qualities and resources to become a part of this group. To become a Certified Public Accountant, one must earn their Certified Public Accountant License. Although requirements may vary by state, licenses are transferrable between states. According to the Accountancy Board of Ohio, earning your license has three requirements: 150 semester hours or college credit, 30 of which must be in Accounting, and 24 of which must be in business. Once these requirements are met, the candidate must sit for the Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination, consisting of four parts and a pass rate below 50 percent. When a candidate passes the exam, they are required to have one year of work experience under a licensed Certified Public Accountant. All of these requirements culminate with a candidate earning their official certification, allowing them to provide accounting and tax services to the public, and represent clients to the Internal Revenue Service. There is an incredibly difficult barrier to enter this community, and only those who are willing to put forth the time and effort that it takes are able to become a part of it.
Licensed accountants as well as candidates still pursuing their licenses, often find themselves employed by a public accounting firm. These firms are structured in a hierarchy, at most firms ranging from Intern, Staff Accountant, Senior Staff Accountant, Manager, Senior Manager, and Partner, in order of seniority. Interns are typically students still in college, while partners have often been employed by the firm for decades and own shares of the firm itself. According to former KPMG intern and transitioning Staff Accountant, Jack Wiegandt, interns stick out like a sore thumb. “My first couple of months was fairly difficult”, Wiegandt said., “It was tough to grasp a lot of the concepts, but thankfully full-time staff always offered their help before I could even ask”. Interns typically have little to no real-world accounting experience, and this can show in their initial work. However, most firms have many levels of staff working together on the same project, so finding assistance is never a problem. Although seeming completely harmonious, some conflicts do arise when working on a team. “There were times when there were disagreements between staff members and managers, regarding certain accounting policies, but they were typically resolved by referring the question to a partner or someone with more seniority.”, said Wiegandt, “These kinds of things would happen every so often, but it never showed to be a major issue.”
The primary obligation for a public accountant or a public accounting firm is to their clients, and their services that they provide for them. If the client is happy, all is well. As previously mentioned, Swales’ first characteristic of a discourse community is common goals. When looking at public accounting, their common goal is to provide their client with outstanding services and guarantee satisfaction. Regardless of the client, or difficulty of a situation, this will always be a primary goal in public accounting. Another main goal that is shared by public accountants is the maximization of revenue for their firm, coming in the form of client acquisition. In business models where revenue is solely from service contracts with clients, this goal has critical importance in the industry, and everyone working in public accounting is united by it.
Certified Public Accountants employ many tools and lexis when communicating within their community, as well as with the public. There are many different forms of communication, however the most important ones come in the form of engagement letters, email correspondence, workpapers, financial statements, and tax returns. According to Wiegandt, “Everything would start with the engagement letter, which was basically a service contract. Then on an audit, we would use workpapers to complete tasks, and they would culminate with audited financial statements”. This letter is incredibly important, because it outlines all of the tasks that the public accountant or firm will be completing, as well as the fee that the client will be required to pay for the services. This document clearly sets expectations with the client to avoid any conflict or disagreements later on. When an audit begins or work on a tax return begins, interns all the way up to managers and partners will work together on a project. “We would usually communicate using IM, and occasionally email, if it was late.”, said Wiegandt, “We would also have the senior [accountant] or manager take a look at our workpapers so that they could verify that the work we did was correct. Sometimes we would even hop on a phone call and run through a workpaper together.” These workpapers consist of the tests that auditors perform to ensure that different accounts are accurately represented at year end, as well as information that is necessary to complete tax returns, so they are crucial to communication between staff members at a firm. Once the work on an audit or tax return is complete, the audited financial statements are released, or the final tax return is submitted to the internal revenue service. “For different clients, these financial statements would typically include the balance sheets, income statements, and statement of cash flows.”
The balance sheets provide a snapshot of assets, liabilities, and shareholders’ equity at year-end. Income statements show how much revenue a company has earned during their fiscal year. Statements of cash flows show amounts of cash that are coming in an out of a company. These forms of communication are the ways that the public accounting discourse community communities with the public or people outside the community. Investors often use audited financial statements of public companies to make decisions about buying or selling certain stocks. They can have significant importance to financial markets in the United States. The audited financial statements in conjunction with completed tax returns are crucial to communication with government agencies such as the Securities Exchange Commission as well as the Internal Revenue Service. If significant errors are found on these documents, an individual or corporation may be subject to an audit, or “a review/examination of an organization’s or individual’s accounts and financial information to ensure information is reported correctly according to the tax laws and to verify the reported amount of tax is correct” (2018, p. 1) according to the IRS. When communicating with each other, public accountants or members of a public accounting firm have a specific lexis, or jargon that is used within the community. “When I first started at my firm, I heard all kinds of terms like SALE (pronounced as “SAL-E”), PAJE (pronounced as PAJ-E), and footing”, according to Wiegandt, “I later learned that these just referred to “same as last year”, “passed adjusting journal entry”, and to foot was to essentially make sure every number in a column added up. These are terms that public accountants will all understand, regardless of their firm. Public accountants are also familiar with basic account names such as accounts receivable, meaning money that is owed to a company, or inventory, meaning products intended for sale that are possessed by the company. “It took me a little while to work out what a lot of these terms meant, but once I did, it made communicating with team members a lot easier.”, said Wiegandt.
Within the public accounting community, members are evaluated in two major ways. One being within their firm, and another being a firm evaluating another firm. “At my firm, we are evaluated annually each Spring or Summer to see if we are ready for promotion to the next level, according to Wiegandt, “They will typically look at the clients that we worked on and our seniors’ [accountants] and managers’ feedback throughout different client engagements. If we demonstrate proficiency at our current position and display skills required for a higher position, we will be promoted. If there is work to be done, we will usually stay at the same position until next evaluation.”. According to the Ohio Board of Accountancy, a public accounting firm is required to be subject to a peer review every three years. There are two different types of peer reviews: system reviews and engagement reviews. According to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, in a system review, the operations of a firm are reviewed and procedures performed include: interviews with staff, making sure licenses are up-to-date, and testing some higher profile or high-risk engagements. In an engagement review, certain engagements are reviewed to make sure that they are in-line with professional accounting standards. These reviews look at financial statements and other applicable data to an engagement (2018, p. 6). Individual review processes are in place in regards to career progression, and peer review processes for firms are in place as a way to regulate professional accounting standards.
Public accountants are a diverse, yet highly specialized community. There are high barriers to entry, but once licensed, one is able to carry the title of Certified Public Accountant. Once licensed, public accountants are often employed by firms, which have a hierarchal structure, although members with different levels of seniority collaborate regularly. Public accountants and public accounting firms share the common goal of delivering outstanding service to their clients, while using a wide array of tools and specialized terminology to communicate with each other, their clients, and people outside the community. The public accounting community has checks and balances in place to ensure that their goals are met, and that their obligations to the law are met as well, in the form of peer reviews. Overall, these characteristics of the public accounting community classify them as a discourse community, based on characteristics described by John Swales.