Ask a senior tax practitioner at any sizable accounting firm how they manage busy season, and you may get a puzzled look and a response like this: "What busy season? We're busy 12 months of the year."
People outside the profession can hold on to the myth that come the stroke of midnight on April 16, the year's remaining eight-and-a-half months are a time to kick back and relax. But most freshly minted tax practitioners quickly learn that while the year may have peaks and valleys of activity, there's no such thing as an end to busy season: Advising and working for clients in a tax practice is a year-round job. The calendar is marked by a procession of key deadlines throughout the year, and the planning to meet the deadlines never lets up.
Here are tips from veteran tax practitioners for taking care of yourself and doing your best work at crunch time, no matter when that falls on the calendar.
Take a deep breath and stay focused. "The first thing I do as a leader, and I know many of my colleagues do at my level as well, is we like to make sure we set the tone," said Bina Patel, CPA, managing director and individual income tax national competency leader with Deloitte Tax LLP in Costa Mesa, Calif. When new people at any level of their careers arrive at the firm, she said, she tells them, "The work will always get done, no matter what happens. Just take it one step at a time."
Pace yourself. It's a fact of life for tax practitioners that there's a steady stream of deadlines and busy periods from January through December. "We consider it a marathon, not a sprint — steady yourself throughout the year," Patel said.
Jamie Klosterman Sanders, CPA, a tax partner, private client services, for RSM US LLP in Houston, said clients will sometimes ask after a major deadline like April 15 or Oct. 15 if her team now has time to relax. The question usually makes her laugh.
"We're still going full force because there's a ton of year-end planning," Sanders said. "What we really do is focus on making sure the compliance is accurate, that we're managing risk for our clients, and that we're understanding the new tax law."
Much of her responsibility for managing staff workload throughout the year depends upon planning with clients as the year winds down, and it continues through early January. Sanders makes sure the members of her team are directly involved to give them a sense of ownership in the deadline schedule.
"To the extent that we can move work out of busy season and move it into slower periods, by doing preplanning, or by moving that into the summer, then let us work efficiently so we don't have all these crazy highs and lows," Sanders said.
Communicate with clients. Patel said it's important that practitioners understand they need to be in regular contact with the client if they're going to have a smooth and orderly process for preparing the client's returns accurately and on schedule. In addition to sending engagement letters and requests for tax and financial information, practitioners should be mindful of the importance of talking to clients directly, Patel said. "The more you talk to your clients, the more information we get from them," she often reminds her staff. Face-to-face is best, but when that isn't possible, phone calls are the next best mode of communication, she said. The goal is not only to get the information that's needed for preparing the return, but also to develop and nurture a broad financial and tax consulting relationship with the client.
"Yes, we are tax advisers, but we're also here as your trusted advisers for any other questions you have, such as how to manage cash flow concerns in various business and personal scenarios," Patel said.
David Herzig, J.D., a principal in Ernst & Young LLP's Private Client Services practice in Dallas, said that after filing deadlines have been met, most of a tax practitioner's time is going to be spent on advisory work and helping clients with their finances and managing their tax liability.
"That's not dependent on one specific date," Herzig said, explaining that regular communication with the client is crucial for advisory work. He makes himself available to team members and clients as much as possible to share information about tax developments and gather details that might be helpful. The frequent contact encourages clients to submit information for the tax filing with a limited amount of prompting, saving everyone time and effort in the end.
"You don't have to ask for information because people are thinking about it," he said.
Communicate with your manager and colleagues. "You need to understand how you work best," RSM's Sanders said. "Do you do your work for longer hours for smaller amounts of days and then need a day or two off to function the best? Or are you someone that maybe can't work quite as long, but you'll do it for more days of the week?"
Sanders said when her staff is candid with her about their productivity, that provides her with a firm grasp of the strengths and preferences of each member of her team, and it helps her plan the year-round workload.
Knowing how each employee works best can help managers distribute work over departments and time to make sure it gets done at top efficiency and quality. "We really focus from an office standpoint, each of our offices, on creating a culture that people want to work, that they are ready to come in to collaborate to get the best product, and the best return for the client," Sanders said.
Don't let yourself be consumed by the job. "The biggest thing people need to remember is that your career is going to last a lifetime," said Traci Kratish Pumo, CPA, J.D., LL.M., partner in private client services in BDO USA LLP's National Tax Office in West Palm Beach, Fla.
"Right from the get-go, you need to carve time out for yourself. If you have a hobby, you need to make sure you're managing your weekly schedule and plan for that hobby, even at the busiest times of the year, be it going to the gym, cooking, or going for a walk," she said. "Anything that helps you get into that good frame of mind daily and release stress. If you can do that, you'll enjoy a very long career in public accounting."
Tax Season Resources for CPAs: Visit aicpa.org for busy season alerts and updates.
Joseph Radigan is a freelance writer based in New York. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, a JofA associate director, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.