Michael Durant didn’t follow the conventional path to a career in accounting. In fact, he was just 16 years old when he had his first internship.
He graduated from the Academy of Finance, which is part of the National Academy Foundation (NAF). The NAF introduces high school students to a variety of career paths that are growing and in-demand.
“A senior student came to one of my classes to talk about accounting programs and said there were internships available,” recalled Michael. “Most internships paid minimum wage, but if you excelled at the program, you could make more money. At the time, I was working at McDonald’s, so that was all I needed to hear.”
Michael graduated from the Academy of Finance and attended Baruch College in New York City as a part-time student. After working for a law firm and one of the big four accounting firms, he chose to pursue a career in accounting. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in accountancy in 2014 and a Master of Science in taxation in 2016, both from Baruch College.
“Because I was balancing school and work, I was a little greener than the average college grad,” Michael said. “School wasn’t for me – I just wasn’t a good student – so I had trouble finding a job at first. I wasn’t any less talented than my peers but I’m more of a people person. I found a job through networking and my involvement with the New York State Society of CPAs.”
The second biggest hurdle for Michael was not having exposure to the environment he discovered through accounting.
“I didn’t have any connections with high-net-worth individuals,” Michael said. “Growing a network and getting comfortable with that environment helped me gain the confidence I needed to succeed.”
The Early Years
Michael cut his teeth at a two-partner firm in New York that focused on high-net-worth individuals and foreign tax compliance. To say he was overwhelmed would be an understatement.
“You take a kid who’s never seen that many zeros in his life and say, ‘Go do a tax return for this guy’ – that’s a little intimidating,” laughed Michael. “I learned that you have to put in extra time at the beginning. For me, the key was to take ownership of my work and be receptive to advice and feedback.”
The reward for hard work was easy to see for Michael. At a small firm, he knew he could earn a good living if he became one of a small number of partners. While working for one the big four firms, the potential compensation was clear, along with the flexibility to strike the right work-life balance. He also benefited from strong mentorship.
“I had really good managers who took the time to explain things to me,” Michael said. “If I made a mistake, they explained why it was wrong and how to do it right next time instead of just telling me I did something wrong. I learned that if you work hard and take ownership of the work, your job becomes much easier.”
Prager Metis CEO Glenn Friedman sees parallels between his journey as a student and a young professional in the accounting industry and Michael’s journey.
“I worked three jobs to get through school, and my first job was at a law firm, too,” Glenn said. “I also had role models during and after school who really cared about me. I saw what my role models were able to achieve in life through the accounting profession and wanted to achieve those things for myself. Michael is living proof of what can be achieved through passion and hard work, and we as an organization enthusiastically support and reward that level of dedication.”
Moving Up the Ladder
After several years with the small accounting firm in New York, Michael joined Prager Metis CPAs as a senior accountant in 2018. He moved into a supervisor role in 2022.
In this role, Michael oversees staff while serving as an educator, trainer, motivator, and mentor. Driven by a desire to constantly improve, he has assumed a role similar to those who mentored him early in his career.
Just before the pandemic, Michael continued his mission to improve by enrolling in law school. He graduated from the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School in 2022 and plans to take the bar exam this summer.
“Trust and estate tax has a large crossover with legal services and documentation,” Michael said. “I decided to pursue this so I can be a strong leader in this field, not just by doing the work, but by promoting financial literacy as a core part of our education system.”
While Michael is grateful to live comfortably, the ability to simply help people has been extremely fulfilling. He is able to control his own time, build his knowledge base, and apply what he knows to better serve and educate his clients.
“The conversations I have with clients can have a huge impact,” Michael said. “Discussing the importance of saving for college and, 20 years later, mom doesn’t have to take money out of her retirement account to put her kid through school – that’s just one way I can make a difference in someone’s life.”
If there were one piece of advice Michael would offer to young accountants or students, it would be to understand the value of teamwork and relationships.
“You can’t know everything,” Michael said. “Be open with what you know, and be willing to learn from others and improve yourself. That’s the best investment you can make in yourself as a person and a professional.”
Glenn Friedman believes the accounting industry should encourage young people to be like Michael so his journey becomes more common.
“Michael has always worked hard to turn obstacles into opportunities,” Glenn said. “He stays focused on his vision and his purpose, regardless of the circumstances, and now he’s experiencing the reward. Leadership in the accounting industry needs to identify and support the Michaels of the world and show younger generations what’s possible.”