The Art of the Numbers in Law Firm Accounting

Mar 12, 2019 11:00:00 AM | Michael Marget

 art  noun/ärt

a thing created with imagination and skill or which expresses important ideas or feelings

artist noun/ärtǝst

a person engaged in creating art, practicing the arts or demonstrating an art

Every accountant is an artist. Sure, we work primarily with numbers and statistics rather than with marble and stone or paint on canvas, but we are no less artists simply because we work in a different medium. Accountants-artists create art with numbers, statistics, hard data, and words. Naysayers might protest that the very nature of art is inherently subjective — as in “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”— while numbers are objective facts and everyday objects do not constitute art. Andy Warhol might disagree.

Accounting-artists strive to transform numbers into works of art. Some of my work product is good art; some of it is less good. Like with any work of art, with every memo, report, or financial statement, I hope to bring something transcendent — to convey deeper meaning, stimulate hidden understanding, confirm assumptions, spark debate, spur action, or evoke emotions. Good art has the ability to inspire and provoke, uncover problems, and solve them.

Good art exists for whatever reason the artist or audience needs it to be.

HOW is Law Firm Accounting an Art?

Art is often an outward expression of our emotions, and creating art allows us to throw our personalities into the work and express our thoughts, fears, and desires. Granted, my work as an accountant-artist will never be displayed at the Met or in the Louvre, or win a literary award. (I may never graduate above mere “poetaster” status.)

Nevertheless, I strive to evaluate my own creations using criteria some critics employ to evaluate art: (a) How does the work help me (or the artist)? and (b) How does this help others?

The first criteria for “judging” my own work is knowing how does it help me? My “art” is an outlet to communicate my understanding of the underlying numbers, statistics, and hard data produced each month in the various timekeeper, billing, collection, budget, realization reports, and financial statements that cross my desk. I want to share with my audience — the partners who read the financial reports — the story the numbers are telling me about the various financial transactions that transpired over the course of the last week, month, or year. My work product is an opportunity for me, as an artist, to share my knowledge, observations, and insight on these numbers.

But good art surpasses whatever it means to the artist. I believe in footnotes, cross-referencing, and that numbers are animate objects with stories to tell! Our responsibility as accounting-artists is to help our audience (i.e., the readers) to understand those stories. A true accounting-artist will add narrative or flowcharts and graphics wherever possible — anything to convey a deeper understanding of the stories presented by the data. Accountant-artists are number whisperers. This addresses my second judging criteria: Does the work product help service my audience as well? Good art resonates. It enables the audience to hear the story of the numbers.

Our Job as Accounting Artists

All the work we do as accountants creates something important. A law firm accountant who simply reports data without narrative or other flourish is a mere artisan, not an artist. It would be like selecting a nice block of marble without ever picking up a chisel. Legend has it Michelangelo described the creative process of sculpting his masterpiece statue of David as simply, “chipping away all the material that ‘wasn’t David.’”

Our job as accounting-artists is to chip away at the data until the story of the numbers comes to light. Like any good story, it should be engaging. A “page-turner” with a good structure from beginning to end. It is okay to end it with a cliffhanger if the ending is unclear — just so long as it is “a good read.” The key is to engage your audience so they view the original data “like the block of marble” and in a completely new light.

We should accept the fact that all the work we do creates something important — otherwise, why would anyone have us do it? Your art is something to share, not something to keep private. Share your genius and elevate the financial discourse. Good art eclipses whatever it means to the artist. It serves not only as an outlet for the creator, but one for the audience as well.

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Michael Marget

Mike Marget is an erstwhile large law firm manager with tours of duty as COO at Katten Muchin, Jenner & Block and CFO at Holland & Knight, among others. He’s currently president of 4L Law Firm Services which provides accounting, bookkeeping and related back office services to small/midsize law firms. His blog, Law Firm CFO, is dedicated to every law firm manager who has ever asked the question, “Why me?”
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