Accounting Considerations for Attorneys

Attorneys are known for their attention to detail (and for being litigious), so they’re not someone whose books you want to mess up. Fortunately, we work with many attorneys, and have gained a lot of experience in identifying potential danger areas in their financials.

If you’re an attorney just starting out, keep the following items in mind.

Trust Accounting

lawyer taking a callThe bar requires you keep a record of your monthly three-way trust reconciliations, and a quarterly reconciliation report reviewed and signed by a lawyer. When a practice is small and the number of clients with trust balances is few, this can be a very simple process that can be done just on a standard form, using the bank statement and client records. However, as a firm grows, utilizing trust-specific software, such as Trustbooks or Clio, can greatly assist in ensuring accuracy of trust reconciliations and in decreasing the time involved each month.

Apart from the reconciliations themselves, it’s very important to ensure that you are following all regulations for maintaining client funds in trust. Like the majority of states, North Carolina requires that funds be held in an IOLTA account. It is the attorney’s responsibility to make sure that earned revenue is transferred from trust appropriately and that no commingling of funds is occurring. Additionally, even if a bank or financial institution offers an IOLTA and is on the list of approved institutions, the attorney is responsible for ensuring that bank fees and interest earned are being handled correctly by the bank. (We have actually seen instances where banks failed to separate interest out from IOLTA accounts.)

Be hyper-vigilant when you begin to receive client funds in trust, and ensure you have proper systems set up in advance.

Practice Management Software

pointing at laptop screenIf clients are not on retainer, billing and receiving payment can be a major challenge in a law firm. (Even if clients are on retainer, ensuring that hours do not exceed the retainer before it can be replenished can be an issue.) There are also the matters of tracking client costs, tracking billable time, and ensuring that any flat-rate services are not suffering from “scope-creep”. Again, early on, something like a spreadsheet may suffice. However, sooner rather than later, most attorneys benefit from utilizing a client management software with built-in features for time-tracking, billing, and managing client account balances.

Choosing the right software early on will save the headache of a conversion later. Something to consider is whether you want an all-encompassing accounting and practice management software (like PCLaw), or separate systems (like Xero for accounting and Clio for client management). If you have separate systems, it is also important to consider whether there is integration available between the softwares, and how that works. In some cases, integrations can actually cause more complications, and the systems are better kept separate.

Partner Compensation

dollar bills planted in soilAdditional points of tension can arise as you take on partners. The “eat what you kill” trend is growing among law firms, and can be a strong motivator for revenue generation, particularly in the short-term. However, long-term revenue can sometimes be lost in the pursuit of immediately billable fees, and the overall brand and health of the firm can suffer. Planning a revenue generation strategy that is motivational for all partners, but also supports the long-term goals of the firm, is a crucially-necessary early discussion.

As with any other business, early planning and careful construction of internal financial systems will increase a law firm’s chances of success. Fortunately, most attorneys possess the focus and attention to detail to make those early decisions, and put the right structures in place. And if they need assistance, professionals like us are always available to help.

Accounting Considerations for Realtors

I’ve been housebound for nearly a week with the flu. While no one enjoys the flu, being stuck at home alone, when I already don’t feel well, is torture for an extrovert like me.

Of course, unless you already know Craig and I, most people don’t think of accountants as extroverts. No, the most famous extroverts of the small business world would probably be realtors.

But although realtors are known for being outgoing, high-energy, good-looking charmers, there is actually far more organization of paperwork and attention to detail involved in their job than most people realize. And though their bookkeeping can generally be fairly straightforward, there are always certain issues which can pop up to cause unexpected complications.

Needless to say, given our location in one of the most rapidly-growing metropolitan areas in the country, we work with a ton of realtors. Over the years, we’ve identified a few areas of their accounting which require a close eye.

Tracking Expenses

graph expensesThe real estate market giveth, and the real estate market taketh away. Few people can make money as quickly as a realtor in a booming economy. However, when times are slow, that fountain can dry up completely. That makes having a great system of tracking expenses of crucial importance.

Now, there are varying schools of thought on how one should go about paying for things but the argument largely boils down to: paper or plastic.

Since marketing and networking are two of the primary expenses in real estate, it can be easy to overspend, particularly as lunches, coffees, and referral fees add up. Those who study the psychology of spending advocate paying in cash or writing checks, as it has been proven that you spend less money doing so (because you physically observe the money leaving). However, cash and checks are an accounting nightmare.

Cash requires that you keep and organize receipts, which are prone to get lost, torn, smudged, or, in a best-case scenario, dumped in a box for your beleaguered accountant to sort through later.

Checks are not much better. For starters, realtors are busy people, and their handwriting reflects that. (I say this as someone whose own handwriting resembles an EKG readout.) It can be difficult for a bookkeeper to interpret to whom a check is made out (though you eventually learn how to translate your clients’ handwriting over time). Furthermore, both cash and checks come with 1099 implications (should the vendor meet the other criteria).

On the plastic side, debit and credit cards offer the benefit of easily tracking expenses, and cutting down on time and manual entry for bookkeeping purposes (without having to save stacks of receipts). Also, you get the benefit of avoiding the 1099 dilemma. However, for an undisciplined spender, swiping the card can be a far too easy, frequent reflex.

In my opinion, the best solution is to make use of debit cards, but to keep a close eye on your financial reports, and to analyze trends from month-to-month, so overspending can be corrected.

Paying Yourself

toy house and coinsAs we mentioned, the real estate market can be unpredictable, making it hard to pay your #1 employee (you). Many agents, particularly if they work independently, opt to structure their business as a sole proprietorship (sometimes with an LLC), and pay themselves only with Owner’s Draw. This works very well for simplicity’s sake, but you still have to pay quarterly estimated self-employment taxes (to avoid a hefty tax bill at filing). And these can be very hard to measure because, again, of the “estimated” part. Pay too little, and you’ll have to pay more at the end of the year. Pay too much, and you may be cash-poor until you get that tax return several months later (particularly if the housing market experiences a downturn).

To protect against this, some realtors establish an S-Corp and pay themselves as employees. This has the benefit of allowing you to pay in withholdings all year whenever you’re paid, and allows your salary to be treated as an expense of the company (as opposed to solely balance sheet activity). However, it does necessitate a payroll service (we strongly discourage filing your own payroll, for time and liability’s sake), and there is a balancing act in finding the right amount to pay yourself in salary as opposed to distributions (and different tax implications with both). It also means that, instead of a simple Schedule C, you’ll need a corporate return filed in addition to your personal return.

Generally, when your business begins to net roughly $50K per year, it’s wise to look into an S-Corp conversion.

Branching out in Real Estate

realtor giving keysProbably because so much “go-getter” spirit is required to succeed, most of the established realtors I know are entrepreneurs at heart. And since real estate is already in their blood, many try their hand at other areas of it, such as investment properties, property management, and land development.

The problem, of course, is that all of those have much more complicated accounting.

In particular, property management can be dangerous, as it involves trust accounts, and the strict rules which surround them. Not only must careful accounting be done to show proper revenue recognition and relief of trust liabilities, but the physical money itself can’t be left in interest-bearing accounts, nor co-mingled with other funds. (If you were to compare a real estate commission audit to a home inspection report, commingling of funds would be along the level of black mold.)

Obviously, I don’t say this to imply you shouldn’t expand your portfolio of services. However, it’s very important to understand the financials of the business you’re building in advance of building it, so you can have everything set up ahead of time. That way, you can protect what you have already worked so hard to grow.

Some of the most caring, hard-working people I know are realtors, and, like all business owners, it’s so very important that their financials are managed well. If you know of a realtor who could use some of this advice, please feel free to share it with them. (After all, who doesn’t know at least ONE realtor?)

hard hats

Accounting Considerations for the Trades

The finances of trade services seem like they should be simple: You have a leaky faucet, you call a plumber, they fix it, you pay them. From the customer’s side, it appears an easy transaction. For small business owners in the trades, however it’s much more complicated.

As though ladder falls, electrical fires, and rusty nails weren’t enough to worry about, skilled tradespeople also face the dangers of Department of Revenue audits and high-volume aged receivables. So for our month of industry-focused accounting, we’re focusing week two on accounting considerations for those in the trades.

Concern #1: Getting paid.

construction workerPerforming a job, particularly if parts have to be purchased, can be a costly endeavor. If employees have to be paid for extra hours or extra help brought on, it can be even more expensive. So when customers don’t pay, you, the owner is severely put-out.

There are ways for business owners to protect themselves and prevent slow/no-payers. The first, most obvious step, is to take a deposit, at least enough to cover parts and materials that must be purchased. This way, even if the job is cancelled, you’re not stuck with the costs of materials you don’t need.

The second is to establish clear terms of invoicing and payment, and to make sure both sides understand and agree to them. This can be particularly important when doing commercial work, as businesses often have more rigid rules about how they are invoiced, how POs are issued, and how payments must be approved internally before being remitted.

The third is simply having a system in place by which you follow up on overdue invoices. We do accounts receivable work for some of our clients, and you would be amazed how much money can be collected by simply calling and reminding customers that a payment is overdue. Though there are exceptions, of course, most people do want to pay their bills in a timely matter, and are happy to make right on an overdue account.

Concern #2: Job-costing.

mechanicIn the prior entry, we referenced the costs associated with an individual job, such as labor and materials. However, there is also travel time to be considered, as well as overhead allocations (how you proportion out fixed costs to specific jobs). Though it can be a lot of work to set up an effective job-cost tracking system, the data it provides is invaluable for business planning and expansion purposes, and for determining profitability of different types of jobs, and for pricing strategy.

In particular, tracking mileage and other travel costs can help immensely in determining how jobs are scheduled efficiently. Fuel costs alone can be significantly reduced with more strategic scheduling, as well as labor costs associated with travel time. Even things such as travel to vendors with preferred pricing can be optimized. However, if that data is not being tracked, it can’t be studied nor put to use.

Concern #3: 1099s.

construction workersIt’s common in the trades, more than any other industry, to hire short-term help for only a single job or handful of jobs. Without proper preparation, this can be very dangerous for a business owner when it’s time to file 1099s. Essentially, the IRS requires that a 1099 be filed for every contract worker who received more than $600 in cash or check for services in a calendar year. (And there are steep penalties at both the state and federal level for failure to do so.)

To file a 1099, you have to have a W-9 from the worker. If you paid someone for a single job in February of the prior year, it can be hard to track that individual down several months later to get a W-9 (especially if they know it means you’re trying to report their income to the IRS). We strongly recommend collecting W-9s (and Certificates of Insurance, where applicable) from contractors prior to paying them.

Concern #4: Sales tax.

carpentryNorth Carolina Department of Revenue shook things up a few years ago in 2016 when they began requiring sales tax be collected on additional services. Under the change in law, sales tax is now charged on repair, maintenance, and installation of “tangible personal property”. This means that, for example, someone installing an HVAC unit would have to collect and remit sales tax on not only the unit, but on the installation service as well.

Where this becomes complicated is that the sales tax expansion does not apply to services on “real property” (i.e. homes or other buildings). However, to protect themselves, tradespeople performing services on real property should obtain Affidavits of Capital Improvement in order to confirm that sales tax is not applicable on each specific job. (This is particularly true for general contractors performing remodels, or their subcontractors.)

Because there is so much variability and “gray area” within financial accounting for the trades, we recommend you speak to your accounting professional regarding any questions you might have for your business’s unique situation. If you don’t have an accounting professional, we might be the right people for the job.

Contact us to schedule a free 1-hour consultation; we’re happy to answer your questions.

marketing typewriter

Accounting Considerations for Marketing Agencies

Over the last several months, I’ve had the honor of serving as the Treasurer of Triangle AdFed. It’s a volunteer position, and a lot of work at times, but it’s given me the joy of getting to hang out with some of my favorite people: marketers.

Despite the fact that I’m in a typically uncreative industry, I do love the enthusiasm and energy of professional creatives, and I greatly admire their work. A good number of The Bookkeeper’s clients are marketing agencies or professionals, and I consider many of them close friends outside of work.

I learn so much from my marketing friends, and the only advice I can offer in-turn is related to their financial management. So, to kick off our series, I thought it would be fun to write an article about the things marketers need to take into consideration when viewing their accounting systems.


wallet with hundred dollar billsFew industries can be as volatile and unpredictable as marketing. Trends change, Google adjusts algorithms, and marketing clients don’t always recognize the back-end work that goes into their return-on-investment. Add in high costs and challenging margins, and marketing agencies can face cash-flow problems from month-to-month.

However, there are a few strategies which can be put into place to mitigate these issues. Cash-flow is really comprised of two main components: Accounts Receivable and Accounts Payable.

On the Accounts Receivable side, there are steps marketing agencies can take to keep money coming in. The first is to have a plan in place to handle delinquent client accounts. A documented series of steps for contacting clients with overdue balances can help separate the emotions from collections practices, and can help overcome the fear of “not wanting to make a client mad”. And, particularly when clients are slow-to-pay, it is good to examine not just the on-paper profitability of the client, but the cash profitability of the client. That’s because, in marketing, a large part of Accounts Payable is tied to client activity.

On the Accounts Payable side, marketers will often have high bills (for ad spend, website design, etc.) tied directly to client projects. Ideally, you would have a client paying for these costs directly, or paying for them in advance, to improve A/P cash-flow. However, in situations where that might not be feasible, it can be wise to utilize credit for some of those large purchases, and pay the balance off in-full from cash each month. This way, in the event of a non-paying client or other emergency, there is a bit of a “cash cushion” to sustain the business for fixed expenses such as rent and payroll. There is also no shame in partnering with vendors to find a monthly payment schedule which works for the regular flow of your business; so long as they know when to expect their payment, most vendors will be happy to accommodate your preferred payment date each month.


women at conference tablePayroll is so important because it is the one thing you can absolutely never be late on. If you have employees, they are the most valuable resource of your business. And marketing companies often walk a fine line in determining when to work with employees, and when to work with subcontractors.

Now, we know I can write an entire article on FLSA compliance, so I won’t bore you with reminders to pay employees as employees and vice-versa. However, for budgeting and expense-management purposes, choosing which type of worker to use can be a crucial part of a marketing agency’s growth.

Subcontractors typically come at a higher hourly rate, but can be used as often, or as sparingly, as is needed. Also, it’s easy to track client-specific costs when paying for work on a per-job basis.

Employees often come with a lower hourly rate, but they also come with employer tax liabilities, and might not be as motivated for high production efficiency if their hours are set. Also, if the market turns and sales drop, you can be put in the awkward position of having to cut hours and/or staff.

A good solution is to perform a break-even analysis of adding an additional employee vs. paying a subcontractor. You can use this to determine exactly how many hours of work necessitate additional part-time or full-time staff; you can also take into consideration such factors as production bonuses and/or commissions or profit-sharing for employees (to encourage strong work and efficiency).


calculating invoiceMany industries struggle with pricing, but marketing has come unique concerns. Many clients contract marketing agencies for both project and ongoing retainer work, and tracking the associated costs for those clients (and billing accordingly) can be a major challenge.

The first step is to clearly define the parameters of retainer hours and service projects, and to monitor those closely to prevent “scope creep”. This will help you to keep costs down, and will also help prevent large, unexpected bills for clients. For clients who are paying a flat monthly fee, either have a provision in the agreement for going over hours, or regularly review client hours to see whether a retainer needs to be increased.

It is also important to have a clear definition of what clients you want to serve. There is a fine line to walk in pricing competitively and remaining profitable; recognizing that you can’t serve every client model and identifying your target market can help you walk that line.

Because marketing is such a large field, there are many other niche problems which can arise. (For example, 1099s for inf marketing, or currency conversion for international marketing.) So for marketers in particular, it’s important to work with finance professionals who understand your company and its unique needs fully. Don’t be shy about asking your bookkeeper, tax preparer, or CFO how they would address some of these issues.