How did the shift to remote work affect your clients, and in turn, your business?
One of the ways small businesses can compete with larger businesses is to keep up with technology. My CPA practice has always used a portal, where clients and I can exchange documents securely without worrying about phishing, scams, or identity theft, which can happen when people exchange documents with social security numbers or confidential, financial data through email. CPAs have a recordkeeping requirement for certain original documents and client deliverables; my office has always been “paperless,” in that I scan everything to PDF and use two archival systems as well as my current computer drive to ensure compliance while keeping client data and information secure. There were very few things I needed to do differently during COVID. About one-third of my on-going clients never come into the office; we always work remotely. They might be located out of state or they might be technologically well-connected nearby. Other clients have a different story, though. About two-thirds of my clients have not had the need or desire to stay up to date with the latest and greatest in cybersecurity or other technology-based systems. So, when the quarantine happened, many people were scrambling to be able to work remotely. In October of 2020, we received COVID grants from Cumberland County to make our home offices “COVID-Safer,” which we used exactly for that purpose. This allowed us to convert what was once our laundry and gardening room to our new client area.
Why did you pursue a law degree, and what is the value added to your business?
I had always wanted to go to law school, but I couldn’t afford it when I graduated from Penn State in 1992. I decided to move to California, establish residency, and then attend law school at the in-state rates. I chose to live in San Francisco because there were four law schools within an easy commute. I had not realized it would take working one full-time and two part-time jobs just to pay my rent to continue living there.
I had worked at KPMG in San Francisco and when I moved back to the area, I worked at KPMG’s Harrisburg office, in their consulting division. Consulting is a really nice accounting job and I really enjoyed it, but I wanted to get back into tax. I went to Reznick, Fedder, & Silverman, now Cohn Reznick, in Baltimore, where they have a very strong partnership taxation practice. I enjoyed my time there, met some fantastic colleagues, learned a lot, but meanwhile my favorite aunt had gotten some bad news regarding a cancer diagnosis. I decided to go out on my own, professionally, and spend as much time with my aunt as possible. Literally one month after leaving my job, my aunt passed away. Joy and life, loss and sorrow, these are the lessons you keep close to your heart. But, crisis and opportunity are sometimes the same thing. I was able to get some tax clients and I supplemented the tax season work by hiring myself out to larger companies to do audits or whatever they wanted outside of tax season. However, at one point, I was having trouble developing new tax clients so I thought I should get back into public accounting, but I didn’t have anything new to offer, so I decided to actually go to law school and have that as my new thing. I applied to Dickinson School of Law, which is exactly one mile from my home, and, after acceptance, was able to cobble together payments based on grants, loans and a home equity loan. Dreams aren’t cheap, but they are often worth it.
Going to law school was illuminating in ways I would not have expected. Because I took so many business and tax classes in addition to having had a 20-year financial career before law school, these classes have added dimensions to my CPA practice. When people tell me their stories, I see not just the current tax year issues, but the issues that might be appearing as time moves forward. Issue-spotting is a key component of law school, in addition to the voluminous reading and writing. I believe law school has helped me in boundary-setting and in both planning and contingency planning for future problems, all of which are key to the future success of my CPA practice.
What is the most challenging part of your work?
The most challenging part of my work is completing client deliverables, while keeping up on administrative tasks, while training staff, and meeting deadlines set by outside third parties, typically the IRS, Pa. Department of Revenue or local taxing authorities. This past tax season has been the most difficult, but it has also presented the biggest opportunities. I know now I need to have several private offices, rather than one big, open area; we are moving to fix this problem. I need to hire an office manager, there’s no way I can continue doing everything. Too many projects take too long to complete and then nobody’s happy.
KPMG gave me a really good model for how to operate a CPA firm, from client acceptance to cybersecurity to efficient workpaper production to client deliverable formats, but they had an apparently unlimited budget and thousands of personnel on-staff to help one another. I try to adhere to their model, but since it’s mostly just me, my results aren’t where my goal is, at least not yet. Once our move is complete Friday, I’ll be lining up tax information and other on-site and remote classes, getting educational videos together, and hiring/training staff for next tax season.
About Karen Simons
Karen Simons, 58, founded her own accounting practice – which moves into a new office this week – in 2004. She has been in the public accounting field since 1995.
Simons earned a bachlor’s degree in accounting from Penn State and a juris doctorate from the Dickinson School of Law.
She and her wife, Gail Hills, live in Carlisle “in a fabulous 1890s farmhouse we are slowly, lovingly restoring,” and are guardians to two rescue cats, George and Jake.