What Is the Difference Between a Tax Attorney and a CPA?

So we get asked this question a lot and a lot of taxpayers struggle in understanding what I do versus what a CPA does. In our firm we have tax attorneys who are both. We have tax attorneys who are attorneys and they are CPAs as well. Just to highlight why somebody would do that I want to draw the distinctions between what a CPA is and what a tax attorney is. So let's start with a CPA. CPA stands for certified public accountant and what a certified public accountant is by definition is they're somebody who is certified to provide financial statements and to the public that is what the term CPA stands for. When you go to accountant school and when you go through the process of getting your CPA license, the focus of your CPA license is naturally on reporting and preparing financial statements. It's taking information, translating it to a financial statement and having the public have confidence in that statement. So within that process the focus is really on compliance. Accountants make sure that things are filled out and that they're compliant so that's why you go to an accountant to prepare your taxes every year. The accountant is charged with taking your information, putting it on a tax return, making sure that tax return is accurate and turning it in and that's the basic function of what an accountant does. On the other side of things attorneys are focused on advocacy. When we go to law school, we learn about the law. We learn about how to argue, then learn about how to apply facts along and so there's more of a back-and-forth with an attorney then there is in a compliance setting. With compliance, you are just focused on getting the right answer. On the advocacy side, oftentimes there's not always a right answer so the two schools of thought are different between compliance and advocacy. Now that's not to say that CPAs don't advocate for their clients, although it's a very rare characteristic.

A lot of CPAs just focus on filling out the forms and getting it done and you'd be surprised - the CPAs that we work with in our firm have that advocacy focus, they're focused on saving their clients money. They're focused on taking a position on a tax return that's beneficial to the client and that helps the client out. There's a little bit of a gray area but the CPA is not afraid of the end result because they've got a reasonable position. Now that's not a way that a lot of CPAs focus. Consequently I can fill out a tax return but I am NOT the best preparation person in the world. I'd probably struggle my way through a corporate tax return right now. I'd get it done, but it'd be a challenge. So there are two separate schools of thought when it comes to taxes. If you're focused on compliance, go to a CPA. If you're focused on advocacy, go to an attorney. Now with that said, one of the reasons we're very good at compliance within the law firm is because we know the advocacy side of it. So when I give advice to a client about compliance issues, I give that advice knowing where they're going to get into trouble later. Make the distinction between the two categories and understand CPAs and attorneys share a common knowledge of tax law - in some cases, particularly on the technical side of things, CPAs are much better than attorneys because they deal with things all day long. If you're going to ask a very technical corporate law question, I would probably refer you to a CPA versus an attorney although I could figure it out but when it comes to tax procedure, when it comes to crisis management work, when it comes to taking positions and defending clients or advocating on their behalf, attorneys are much more appropriate for that role. I hope that the the parallel helps draw some distinction between the two and helps to clarify that.


Sam Brotman, JD, LLM, MBA

Owner and Director of Legal
Brotman Law