Law: Small firms give time for life: Roger Trapp meets an accountant who left the risks of the big time

There is nothing new about accountants jumping from public practice to commerce and industry. Indeed, until the latest recession it was so common that the larger firms allowed for it in their recruiting policies. Many would-be captains of industry feigned a short-term interest in number-crunching in the belief that they were obtaining some sort of business school qualification.

But there are signs that those who would not previously have considered the move are doing so. It had generally been assumed that the rewards of partnership excluded a move into commerce, except for the rare audit partner plucked from the relative obscurity of practice to try to sort out some corporate muddle. Not any more, it seems.

Recruitment consultants say that partners in the Big Six firms are increasingly prepared to take finance roles in the corporate world - and not just in London.

Many are accepting positions - either voluntarily or after being pushed out -in companies based in the regions for much less pay than they had previously enjoyed, simply because they want a change in lifestyle.

As a former audit partner with Coopers & Lybrand, Francis Booth knows more than most about the factors behind this change. Earlier this month he became finance director of the financial and legal recruitment consultancy Robert Walters Associates.

Public disquiet about the role of accountants in the spate of financial collapses that followed the end of the 1980s boom has changed the nature of audit. 'Increasing regulation makes for a slightly less dynamic environment with the client,' he says. 'You have to dot the i's twice and the t's three times.'

The firms claim that the rise in litigation is going to make one of them go under. They want the Government to amend the law that makes them liable for the whole of a loss in a financial failure even if they are only slightly to blame. One of Mr Booth's former partners and the head of the taxation department at Coopers & Lybrand, Peter Wyman, has painted a gloomy picture of partners and staff thrown out of their jobs, possibly never to work again, if the law is not changed.

It is a spectre that many have taken to heart, claiming that it is driving bright recruits away from audit and even away from partnership in any part of a big firm.

Meanwhile, redundancies among partners at several firms are doing much to alter perceptions of partnership among junior members of staff. The old idea that a few years' hard work would leave the fortunate few set up for life has been replaced by the acknowledgement that a job for life is unrealistic.

Mr Booth puts it more prosaically, although just as effectively. Reflecting that people tend to enter business with the intention of finding it interesting, making money and having fun, he says that in a large firm's audit practice the latter two factors 'are moving in the wrong direction'.

Moreover, as a keen cricketer who has played for the MCC, Mr Booth resented not being able to spend as much time as he would have liked at the game.

'What I wanted to do and what seemed to be available in Coopers were moving away from each other'. Just coming up to the age of 40, he felt the time was right for a move.

He is optimistic that Robert Walters - established only nine years ago, when its founder broke away from Michael Page - will make enough of a success of its global expansion plan to satisfy the money factor. But he is sure that his new role will have the right amount of fun.

Having been one of hundreds of partners at Coopers for seven years, Mr Booth is looking forward to being involved in a smaller management team. Under a new senior partner, Coopers is - like many of its rivals - set on becoming more businesslike. But Mr Booth says the organisation is so large that 'it is difficult for any management team to make things change fast'.

At a time when IBM and other big clients of the large accounting firms are responding to the need to be swift on their feet, it is curious that the likes of Coopers still operate under the 'multi-disciplinary and multinational umbrella', he says.

At Robert Walters, where there has not been a finance director for a while, he will have the opportunity to make a genuine difference. One of his main tasks will be to ensure that the company can build sustainable growth, even though recruitment is inevitably a cyclical business. He does not want to 'go berserk in the good times and suffer in the bad ones, but to handle it in a structured way'.

And although he is essentially changing sides from adviser to client, he is not unaccustomed to this new role. He was one of the first accountants to be seconded from practice to the public sector, where he led the internal audit team at the Department of Energy for two years. More recently, he led a team conducting a value-for-money study for a leading public sector institution.

Such experience has taught Mr Booth, above all, about the need for clear communication. Because the public sector had other interests besides the financial, explanations had to go beyond the effect on the bottom line, he says.

This broader outlook is relevant in his new position, he says, because service industries are about 'understanding clients' needs and getting them to articulate them'.

(Photograph omitted)

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