What it means to specialize

Here are some of the top benefits of becoming a specialist.

It’s common to hear that CPAs are stressed out attempting to stay current with all the changes to regulations and accounting and assurance standards. Some practitioners have responded to this pressure by getting out of the auditing business altogether and focusing on review or notice-to-reader engagements because of the time involved in studying the new rules, understanding them and figuring out how to apply them.

The shift has been a boon for MNP LLP, a firm that makes specialization a strategic priority. "If you only do one or two audit engagements, for example, you’ll never recover the investment of time and effort to stay on top of the rules," says Joe Bates, a partner at MNP in Markham, Ont., specializing in the credit union and not-for-profit sector. "You increase risk and reduce recovery.

"It’s kind of a no-win situation. We have picked up many engagements from firms that didn’t want to do audits anymore. As a result, the audit side of our practice grew."

In many ways, the move to specialization in the profession mirrors the same trend in business. In order to compete and grow, businesses are consolidating and focusing on core competencies. Of course, when it comes to accounting, beyond industry, CPAs can also specialize in terms of technical expertise, such as tax, audit or IT.

For clients, working with an industry or technical specialist means they are dealing with a subject matter expert, someone who understands the nuances, challenges and best practices of a specific area and can bring relevant experience and knowledge of trends to their file.

Bates shares the top benefits of becoming a specialist.

Expertise. One of the advantages of becoming a specialist is the opportunity to have in-depth involvement in a specific area while still having an overall knowledge of the ever-growing list of accounting standards, regulations and policies across industries and sectors.

Efficiency. Having this expertise also means you are much more efficient in your area of specialization because you are so focused on it and have all the research and experience readily available when you need it.

Risk management. Clients increasingly expect firms to demonstrate a track record specific to their industry. They are turning to specialists in order to help manage their risk rather than working with an adviser who is not as well versed in their unique type of business and needs.

Business development. As a specialist, there is little risk from a business development standpoint because your fee quotes and time estimates are based on past experience. As well, generalist advisers may come to you for help with specific issues in your field, opening up additional business opportunities.

For these reasons, Bates anticipates the trend to specialize will only grow. "You gain efficiency as a practitioner. You do good work and you do it faster because you know the industry and the issues. From an external standpoint, the clients appreciate the value you bring. There’s really no downside, so long as you enjoy your focus area."

In order to ensure you do, he recommends gaining exposure to a number of specializations to help you decide which areas you like most.

Work with partners in the specialty you’re interested in to learn firsthand what it’s like on a day-to-day basis. "Once you find your niche, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Bates. "The more work you do, the more value created, the more referrals, the more the business grows."