How to be careful and still be clear.

Author:Danziger, Elizabeth
Position:Translating CPA jargon

Balance CPAs' need for protection with clients' need for clarity.

Confused? Befuddled? CPA clients, take note: The JargonMaster translator is now available! Simply scan in your accountant's correspondence and JargonMaster instantly restates the message in straightforward English. JargonMaster weighs just four ounces and comes in designer colors. And for all you CPAs, JargonMaster makes a great holiday girl for clients/Order today, before supplies run out ...

The JargonMaster is, of course imaginary but, unfortunately, the need to translate CPAspeak for clients is all too real. Technical doublespeak is a time-tested defensive measure for all sorts of professionals, and CPAs are no exception. The problem is that in trying to sidestep potential liability CPAs may obscure important client information rather than clarify its meaning.

Even SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt sees benefits to the profession in using direct language. In a recent address to the AICPA council, Levitt said he would like to see CPAs "hone specific, but plain English definitions for the types of information [that] should be included in public disclosure." You don't need to allude to every contingency in every paragraph to play it safe. It truly is possible to

* Express yourself in plain English and cover all the bases.

* State the basis for assumptions and the limits of an engagement and still communicate clearly with clients.

* Use the boilerplate language that insurers and legal counsel recommend--without letting the tone of such disclaimers overwhelm every sentence.


To build sound client relationships, a CPA must be both understandable and circumspect. A reputation for being a linguistic "straight shooter" can help protect a CPA from the kind of confusion that leads to litigation. Of course, to guard against lawsuits, engagement letters should always use the standard disclaimers recommended by malpractice insurers and state CPA societies. But clients are less likely to sue someone they like--and they are inclined to like a professional whom they can understand without a translator.

Debra Hunter, CPA and partner of Hunter Hagan & Co., in Scottsdale, Arizona, points out that obfuscation may make a CPA feel safe but it's far from foolproof as a protective measure. "Language that confuses clients makes them feel we have something to hide," Hunter says. "I think some professionals believe they will seem smarter to the client if they use confusing language and professional jargon. But clients are paying us to communicate clearly to them so they can make good business decisions" Hunter adds.

Jed Albert, JD, of Payne, Wood and Littlejohn in Melville, New York, agrees that practitioners who produce succinct findings and analysis create more value for their clients. Albert says that CPAs may intend to be thorough yet may overlook an important point: "The role of any professional is to counsel, not to direct. You can counsel clients effectively only if you use language they understand."

Boilerplate disclaimers spell out a job's limitations and liabilities, but a client may not read the disclaimer carefully or may not understand exactly what it means. If the client turns into an angry and deter mined litigant, he or she can cost you an enormous amount of time and money, even if you included the boilerplate text. "You do not have to be wrong to be sued" Hunter says.

Robert N. Pulliam, CPA, of Pulliam Financial Group PLLC, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, says, "The most common charge I see in CPA malpractice claims is `I didn't understand the boilerplate language in the CPA engagement...

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