Interview Robert Flach, 40-Year Veteran Tax Professional

Robert Flach is the conversant author of The Wandering Tax Pro, the well-known blog that helps the average tax payer and The Tax Professional for the tax preparer. We were fortunate to interview Mr. Flach and gain from his self-propelled experience. Robert Flach also authors columns and contributes to MainStreet.com and theStreet.com. His every man approach to tax preparation and his frank and honest advice is a treasure for those entering the field of tax preparation. He is also a no-nonsense guru for the regular tax payer who is trying to make sense of what many view as an overwhelming amount of information to digest.

robert-flachHow did you begin your work in the tax preparation field?

I have been preparing tax returns for individuals in all walks of life for over 40 years. While for most of those years I worked in northern New Jersey, I currently work out of a home office in northeast Pennsylvania. Today my practice is limited to 1040 series returns only, and I do not accept any new clients. I write the tax blogs THE WANDERING TAX PRO, for the average taxpayer, and THE TAX PROFESSIONAL, for tax preparers, and also write on federal taxes for MainStreet.com and TheStreet.com.

My first encounter with income taxes came in February of 1972, when I was in my second semester as a freshman at a local Jesuit college. I had taken the first half of Accounting 101, but had not taken any tax classes. I had no experience with or education in any aspect of income taxes. I had never even done my own simple returns.

Did you have a mentor who helped you in your journey as a tax preparation professional?

My uncle’s tax preparer would hire college students during the tax season as “apprentice” tax preparers. During his annual visit my uncle happened to mention that I had taken my first accounting course and that I was helping him with the books for the non-profit organization for which he worked. He told my uncle to send me in to see him.

On my first visit to the tax pro’s office he took me to a desk in the outer office. He gave me a copy of a client’s previous year’s tax return and a briefcase full of papers that constituted the current year’s tax “stuff” and told me to “jump in and swim.”

If I had a question about a tax return I was given to work on I would ask my boss, who would either take the time to explain the answer or tell me where to find the answer in the CCH tax library. So I learned how to prepare income tax returns in the very best way possible – by preparing income tax returns. My mentor also did accounting work for some of his business clients, and I learned Bookkeeping and Accounting the same way I learned 1040 preparation.

What was the best part of the tax preparation business, in your opinion?

After that first tax season I was hooked, and kept coming back each year. I especially liked the fact that my mentor worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for the 2½ months of the “tax season” and perhaps a day or two per week the rest of the year.

What advice would you give to a new individual in the tax field?

I am often asked what advice I would give to a person just starting out in the world of tax preparation.

My best advice involves a song lyric and two advertising slogans -

“You See You Can’t Please Everyone, So You Got to Please Yourself.” Do not choose your career, or run your life or business, because it is what you think your family, friends, colleagues, or clients, would want you to do. Follow your own dreams and make your own decisions and your own mistakes in the process, based on what you want and what you are comfortable with.

“Only Sherwin Williams Can Cover the Earth.” You can’t be all things to all people. Don’t spread yourself too thin and try to offer the world to your clients. The Tax Code is humongous and you cannot be an expert in all sections. Choose the areas of tax practice that you enjoy most and are best at and limit your practice to those areas.

“Just Say No!” You must learn to just say “no” to clients. Regardless of how much you would sincerely like to help them with matters other than that in which you are educated and experienced, realize your limitations and learn to tell a client “I don’t do that.” Also say “no” to accepting a new client or clients. If you feel you are already overworked during the tax season, or that the taxpayer shows a potential for “agita”, or is not being honest with you, learn how to say that you are not accepting any new clients or that you are unable to help the taxpayer. And learn how to say “no” to a client when they ask you to do something that is “shaky” or “shady.” It is better to lose the client than to gain the potential problems.

Name an accomplishment or projects that you are most proud of.

In 40 plus years of preparing 1040s I have never used tax preparation software to prepare federal income tax returns, and at this point in my career I never will.

While I realize that a new tax preparer today MUST learn how to use tax software – I firmly believe that the best way to learn how to prepare 1040s is by preparing manual returns. You must understand the 1040, and all its ins and outs, and not just become a data entry clerk.

What pearls of wisdom have you gained that you can share with us, after these many years of experience?

And it is vitally important that tax preparers who use tax preparation software carefully check all software-generated 1040s. Over the years I have found that tax preparers who use tax preparation software tend to become lazy when it comes to checking tax returns. Never assume (you remember what happens when you “assume”) that a software-generated return is correct – either mathematically or in terms of application of tax law.

I triple check all finished returns before giving them to the client. This should not be limited to returns prepared manually. Tax returns generated by software must also be triple checked in the same manner.

I believe it is important for a tax preparer to join a membership organization and remain current by taking many hours of CPE each year, whether or not required to do so by the IRS or your state. I highly recommend the National Association of Tax Professionals.

When I was still soliciting new clients I maintained a website for my tax practice. I currently blog (THE WANDERING TAX PRO and THE TAX PROFESSIONAL) and an on Twitter as @rdftaxpro. I have never had a My Space or Facebook “page”, and never will. I personally see no advantage to Facebook for a tax practice if you already have a website and blog.

I have been writing THE WANDERING TAX PRO blog since Sunday, July 22, 2001. It doesn’t cost anything to publish a blog. There are many free hosting options available. A tax blog can help you to develop a national profile, make potential clients aware of your services, expertise, and availability, and provide a source of updated federal and state tax information for your 1040 clients. Over the years I have received many emails from taxpayers asking me to take them on as clients. My current paid “gig” writing about taxes for MainStreet.com is a direct result of the success of my blog.

We would like to thank Robert Flach of the Wandering Tax Pro for his time and his complete and thoughtful answers concerning tax preparation and his journey in the field. Visit Mr. Flach at The Wandering Tax Pro and The Tax Professional.