An accounting degree gave Richard Bell the know-how he needed to be an accountant, but it was his legal education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law that helped him be a successful entrepreneur.
Like many law students, Bell never intended to be a practicing lawyer. Instead, he has run a successful accounting and consulting firm, Bell & Company, P.A., for more than 35 years.
“I was better as an accountant than as a lawyer,” he said. “They are different disciplines. What my law education gave me was a marketing edge to build my business. It’s all about marketing and technical skills. I think differently with my law degree. I think analytically. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m thankful for that. It’s been a life changer.”
Bell’s firm represents small businesses, individuals, and professionals, including some lawyers. He has also found a niche in the trucking industry, which has led to providing support litigation as an expert witness in various transportation-related court cases.
Matthew Kerns, assistant dean of admissions at Bowen, says many students in the part-time JD program are pursuing a legal education as a way to advance in other career fields, whether it be a small business owner who can benefit from an understanding of contracts law, or a human resources manager who needs to better understand employment law, or someone working in government who needs a better understanding of labor laws.
Bowen offers the only part-time law program in the state. Students in the part-time program can complete a Juris Doctor in four years while full-time students finish in three years. About 115 students are currently enrolled in the part-time program.
Bell was the first in his family to attend college. When he was a student at Oak Grove High School, college was the furthest thing from his mind. He planned to get a full-time job at the sheet metal foundry, where he had worked during summers and where his father worked.
When he was 17, a lawn mower accident abruptly changed the course of his life. Surgery saved his foot, but Bell would need ongoing therapy.
“We were trying to figure out what I was going to do after high school, and the doctor asked my parents, ‘Have you ever thought about sending him to college?’” Bell recalled. “That doctor took an interest in me because he knew I couldn’t do the manual work often required from only high school graduates.’
Bell’s father knew his son was good at math. As the shop superintendent who signed employees’ paychecks at Phelps Machinery Company, he also knew how much the company paid its CPA.
“I didn’t even know what a CPA was, but my father thought I would be good at it,” Bell recalled.
In 1976, Bell graduated from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a Bachelor of Science in accounting. He knew he wanted to get a legal education – not to be a practicing attorney, but for a reason that harked back to an injustice he experienced as a boy and never forgot.
“I was a smart kid, but I was small, and I was a bullied a lot,” Bell said. “I had a beagle named Jack that I hunted with. One summer, they shot my dog. I was so mad, and I never forgot it.”
Bell graduated from Bowen School of Law in 1981. He took law classes at night and worked a day job at a grocery store, earning $6.30 an hour. There, he met Lee Wagner, who he soon married. Lee insisted that Bell put his college degree to work and encouraged him to get an accounting job. Ironically, the entry-level accounting job paid less than the grocery store.
Soon though, Bell found a better job at a Little Rock accounting firm, where he worked three years before he and Lee started their own accounting business in 1981 out of their home in Beebe.
Bell & Company now has two locations – North Little Rock and Conway – and employs 40 people. Bell’s daughter, Jennifer, manages the Conway office. Like her father, she earned an accounting degree and a law degree, also from Bowen.
Bell keeps in close contact with Bowen. Bell’s company has established foundation scholarships, work-study programs, and mentoring groups for college students. They have also created the Bell & Company Endowed Law Scholarship at the UA Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. He serves on the Dean’s Council, and last year was honored as Bowen’s Outstanding Alumnus.
Bell also teaches Business Law for Entrepreneurs at the University of Central Arkansas, and he provides internships for students at his firm’s Conway office.
“It’s our way of trying to give back,” he said, “by helping other students who are entrepreneurs.”