Why do we do CPE?
By David Peters, CPA, CFP, CLU, CPCU
“I am just trying to get my credits in.”
I have heard these words uttered by many CPAs – usually during a required ethics seminar or on the last session of a long conference day. I always find these words to be a bit disappointing. CPE should be more than just putting in time. It should be more than just a requirement. It should be something that enhances us as professionals and helps us to grow.
Accounting always has been a profession of constant learning. Other professions have CPE requirements. For example, CFP professionals are required to obtain 30 hours of CPE every two years. Attorneys and insurance agents have similar requirements. Simply having CPE is not unique. However, the sheer amount of CPE required in the CPA profession IS unique. Most states (with some variations) require 40 hours of CPE per year. Aside from this, many states have sub-requirements to make sure that we not only meet the number of hours – but also that we are getting CPE in the right areas. For example, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, those who practice in audit or attest must take a certain number of credit hours in these areas. Some states limit the number of self-study hours with the understanding that the learning level may not be as high when one is by him/herself (as opposed to being engaged in a topic with a room full of one’s peers). Regardless of whether you feel these requirements are the right ones or not, I think one thing is clear – our profession takes education seriously! When you pass the CPA exam, your education as a professional is not done. On the contrary, it is just beginning!
Why so many hours though? While some of this may be our industry’s own fault due to the Enron and Worldcom scandals, I would actually point to a different reason. In the AICPA Code of Professional conduct, it says the following:
0.300.010.02 - “These Principles of the Code of Professional Conduct of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants express the profession’s recognition of its responsibilities to the public, to clients, and to colleagues. They guide members in the performance of their professional responsibilities and express the basic tenets of ethical and professional conduct. The Principles call for an unswerving commitment to honorable behavior, even at the sacrifice of personal advantage.”
In short, CPAs are called to a higher level of behavior. We have an obligation to the public, clients, and colleagues, because they depend on us. Passing the CPA exam does not relieve us of anything. We take on this responsibility when we pass – a greater responsibility than we would have otherwise. The Code of Conduct describes these obligations further:
0.300.020.02 – “As professionals, members perform an essential role in society. Consistent with that role, members of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants have responsibilities to all those who use their professional services. Members also have a continuing responsibility to cooperate with each other to improve the art of accounting, maintain the public’s confidence, and carry out the profession’s special responsibilities for self-governance. The collective efforts of all members are required to maintain and enhance the traditions of the profession.”
The obligation is not a light one. It is not to simply do no harm to the public. It goes further than that. We are required to improve our profession. We are supposed to take it to the next level. In the midst of an evolving and ever complex world, we are required to actually make the profession better. How do we do this? I think this gets into the second item listed here – maintaining the public’s confidence. You improve the profession by making sure that the public at-large trusts you. The public expects us to be the voice of reason. They expect us to be the CFO that remains unbiased when looking at financial data, the auditor that refuses to give in to management’s unreasonable demands, and the tax accountant that will only take positions on a return that are in-line with the laws. In short, the public expects us to be objective – even if it would be a whole lot easier to not be. Our code talks a lot about objectivity:
0.300.050.02 – “Objectivity is a state of mind, a quality that lends value to a member’s services. It is a distinguishing feature of the profession. The principle of objectivity imposes the obligation to be impartial, intellectually honest, and free of conflicts of interest. Independence precludes relationships that may appear to impair a member’s objectivity in rendering attestation services.”
Objectivity is not just a term we use, it is a “distinguishing feature of the profession.” The cornerstone of our profession is objectivity. If we lose that, we have nothing. Our opinion means nothing. Our integrity means nothing. I don’t just mean for auditors either. Does a tax accountant’s signature on a return mean anything if he or she never pushes back on a client? Does a CFO who simply adjusts the numbers to meet shareholder demands really have a spot in our profession? Of course not. Our profession demands objectivity because the public needs us to be objective.
What does all of this have to do with CPE? Everything. These are BIG demands on us. The goal of CPE goes beyond just simply learning new audit standards or new tax law. The reason we do these things is so we can adjust our objectivity to the ever-changing world around us. The way you continue to be objective is by keeping up with what is going on – and adjusting your lens of objectivity as you learn more. CPE plays a vital role in this. It plays a vital role in our profession. For this reason, we shouldn’t attend or support “CPE sessions” that are actually glorified sales pitches for products. We shouldn’t attend CPE sessions that are devoid of content. We should strive to attend CPE sessions that challenge us to be better.
I don’t think this necessarily means that you always have to learn something new either. Sometimes growing intellectually means understanding an old topic in a new way. It could also mean simply being reminded of something. Being objective is hard. CPE can sometimes be just a reminder of what we should be doing.
Many of you know that I have had the pleasure of teaching and speaking all over the country to CPAs for a number of years. However, I would be the first to tell someone that if my course does not resonate with you, you should take a different course. Our profession needs us to grow. That’s most important. Find courses that help you do that – regardless of the provider or the subject matter. Whatever you do, don’t just put in hours. Make your CPE something that helps build you as a professional.