The road to making partner at an accounting firm is often a long one. It generally takes about 10 to 15 years for a CPA to get to partner, so most accountants won’t receive an offer until their late 30s or even early 40s–if they ever get one at all.
But at some firms, fast partner tracks that include training and mentorship programs can get you there sooner. If making partner young is important to you, you’ll want to consider these types of offerings when making your next career move.
We sat down with Carli McDonald, partner-in-charge of R&D tax credit services at Aprio, who made partner at age 32. We wanted to see how she pulled off such an unlikely feat–and how Aprio helped her along the way.
If you want to be like Carli and take advantage of the fast partner track opportunities available at Aprio, a full-service accounting firm operating out of Atlanta, scroll down to the bottom of this article to see a list of current job openings.
Education credentials for making accounting firm partner
Going Concern: So where did your journey toward making partner start? What’s your educational background?
Carli McDonald: I went undergrad for premed, and at some point along the way I was sitting beside a female neurosurgeon at a conference and she was telling me how she gave birth and took her finals in med school the next day. She said to me, “You’ll be a female doctor and you need to make sure you find a husband who will do everything at home because you’ll need to be available for work all the time.” I thought she was right and I thought that lifestyle wasn’t for me.
I ended up with an English literature degree at Vanderbilt and I got done a semester early and was having a crisis with not knowing what to do anymore. I took two years off essentially doing different jobs at a law firm, performing client service management at a voice-over IP firm, and doing fundraising for the Boston Children’s Hospital. During that time I took the LSAT and decided to go to law school.
I wanted to do immigration adoption law. I got into that and realized that it’s a very emotional job. You have to do things like give babies back to their birth mothers if they request it within 10 days. We had to facilitate three or four of those and I realized I didn’t want to actually do that.
During that time I was also taking tax classes and it clicked. I understood the numbers. The business part of it made sense to me. Accounting was something I could see myself doing for a career that didn’t have that emotional component.
In addition to my law degree, I got a Masters in Taxation. At that point I knew I didn’t want to work at a law firm. I was going the accounting firm route.
The first steps toward making accounting firm partner
GC: What was your accounting firm experience like, and why did you decide to move to Aprio?
McDonald: My path was unconventional. I started at an accounting firm in the R&D tax credit practice.
My job involved interviewing subject-matter experts and talking to the client a lot. It’s one of the very few areas in a CPA firm where you have to write a technical report and give it back to the client. And it also has that numbers component. I thought it was an area where I wouldn’t get bored because there are different tasks every day.
I was there for a couple of years, and due to various reasons, I decided to make a switch. One of those reasons being I was traveling all the time. When you’re traveling, it feels like a 70-hour week because you’re doing client dinners at night and then writing emails when you get back to the hotel. Part of the reason I moved to Aprio was because I wanted to have balance in my family life.
I saw the opening at Aprio as an opportunity to take control of my career and make it everything that I thought a job should be.
Going from accounting firm employee to manager to partner
GC: How did you make the transition into management and ultimately to partner?
McDonald: The director quit after I’d been here a little over a year. We were right on the precipice of being a high-gross team and I could feel the momentum. My supervisor asked me if I needed to hire someone else to fill the director position or if I could take it on.
There are these moments in your career where you make choices. I’ve talked about not being a doctor, deciding to go to law school, and deciding to go into the R&D field. I could have said, “Let’s just bring in someone else.” But I thought I could do the job. I think sometimes in life you have to take a leap of faith and trust yourself.
Probably a week before I decided I wanted to give the director position a try, I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I thought, “I’m not going to get this opportunity again, and I can do this. I can be pregnant and run this department.”
I got promoted to senior manager two weeks before I went on maternity leave. Then I got a midyear promotion to director, which is not traditional. And then two years later I made partner. That was after about six years total in the accounting industry and just four years working at Aprio. I never asked for these promotions either. Aprio was really good about proactively rewarding me.
We have grown exponentially every year since then. We are the top growing department in the firm. I’m really glad I decided to take that leap.
Guiding accountants on the partner track
GC: How did Aprio help you develop the skills you needed to be a partner and give you the confidence to take on such an important role at a young age?
McDonald: Aprio invests in training for their superstars and that’s something that I thought was really nice. I had mentors and sponsors at Aprio who saw things in me that I maybe didn’t see in myself. I work really hard, but part of the reason for my success is I have an amazing group of people here who really wanted me to succeed. They had an open door and open phone line policy with me. They’ve coached me on everything so that I would be ready and I wouldn’t fail.
I don’t think there are a lot of accounting firms like that. I think a lot of times what we see in the industry is that cutthroat component. The mentality of, “I might want you to succeed but not do better than I did.” I haven’t experienced that at all since I’ve been at Aprio.
In some places to make partner you have to bring in your own business. The other partners aren’t going to give you their revenue. But at Aprio, there’s a very collaborative environment. Partners will willingly give up their revenue to the up-and-coming partner. That’s very unique for an accounting firm.
The life of an accounting firm partner
GC: What’s a typical day at Aprio like for you?
McDonald: My days are so varied. This morning we had a massive tax practice group meeting. I also oversee the special ops division at the firm that includes international tax, tax consulting, and local consulting.
Running my practice area is a massive time commitment that includes technical review, the reports in the credit work, visiting with clients, and being here for my team so they can ask me questions.
Along with that there’s the HR component, including performance reviews and compensation decisions. We have over 25 people in my department, or 35 if you include special ops. I’m the first line of defense, and if someone has a complaint, they will come to me.
Business development is also something I do a lot of. I’m really involved in going to prospective client meetings and delivering proposals, and I run a couple of sales initiatives.
I do limit my travel to once a month now, with a max of four days on a trip. I make time for the things that are important to me, and Aprio is very supportive and wants people to do that. We have a very flexible work environment, and I give my team a flexible environment because I want one.
I write articles and do some research. I’ll get involved with acquisitions and educating prospective clients. Any day could have something from all these different things. My days are never the same.
How you can get to accounting firm partner fast
GC: What advice would you give someone who wants to join a firm and make partner quickly?
McDonald: Work very hard and don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve. Seek out tasks and activities that push the boundaries of your comfort zone because that’s where you’ll find growth. Ask people in the firm to mentor and sponsor you and make it be known that you want to be partner.
Get on the partner fast track at Aprio
Want to be like Carli and take advantage of Aprio’s career-nurturing culture and professional growth opportunities? Click on one of the links below to apply for an open position now.
Atlanta, Georgia accounting job openings
R&D Senior Associate (work with Carli!)