Accounting firms come in all shapes and sizes, and each shape or size has its fair share of pros and cons. Unfortunately for people considering a career in accounting, it’s hard to get an unbiased view of which one is right for the type of career that you may be wanting to have, so I’m hoping to dispel some of the myths about small and large firms from an employee’s point of view…
What size firms are out there?
The firms that are out there fall into three groups in terms of size, with these groups helping to distinguish between them. The groups are the Big 4, the mid tier firms, and the smaller firms.
While every firm will spruik about its point of difference compared to the others, each firm really just falls into these three groups, and the difference between firms within a group really isn’t that great. Sure, some offices might have more arseholes working there or more nice people, but on average they’ll all be fairly similar.
So who exactly are the firms that we’re talking about? The following sections give an overview of the main players.
The big firms
The accounting industry is led by a number of very large global firms, which pretty much gained their size back in the 80s and 90s when everyone was jumping on the bandwagon of joining large worldwide groups. The idea behind this was that if you were based in the UK and needed some work done in the US, then you would just refer it to the US firm that was part of the same group as you. It also allowed firms to share systems and processes and offer their employees transfers and secondments to member firms in other countries.
While this period saw accounting firms changing their names like a game of musical chairs, the end result was a series of “Big” firms, starting with something like the “Big 8”, which has eventually whittled its way down to the “Big 4”.
It’s all a bit hard to track, so I put together this table:
The mid tier firms
Outside of the Big 4, there are another 10 or 15 “second tier” or “mid tier” firms that like to spruik about their international networks, which range from genuine networks that are close to rivalling the big four (except for their much smaller size in terms of revenue and staff), right through to much looser alliances where they can’t even agree on a consistent worldwide name or branding. It’s important for these firms to leverage off their international networks, often as a selling point to clients and also to attract teh best employees, but sometimes these international networks leave quite a bit to be desired.
The mid-tier accounting firms from rank 5 to 20 from a 2014 survey were as follows. I’m pretty sure that some of this has changed a bit since then, but I couldn’t find a more recent list. It still gives an indication of who the main players are though.
The small firms
Pretty much every other firm gets thrown into the smaller firms bucket, and these firms could range from one partner/director right up to independent firms with perhaps 100 employees, although firms that large would be rare since they would usually have become a member of one of the mid tier networks by that time.
Pros and cons – Big 4 firms
- Looks brilliant on your CV – just the name of the firm can get you a look in at other opportunities that you would have to fight very hard to get access to otherwise.
- You’ll get genuine exposure to the best clients – the biggest businesses (especially in auditing) use the Big 4.
- Great internal training programs.
- Lots of people going through post graduate qualifications (e.g. CA/CPA) at the same time, so you can learn from each other and study together.
- Top notch facilities, with offices in the best locations and the major cities around the world.
- You don’t need to know everything about everything, since you’ll always have specialists from other divisions that will know the answer to something. That way you can focus on your specialisation, whatever that may be.
- Great access to international secondments. Some of my workmates had secondments to some pretty cool places like London, Moscow, New Zealand, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Chicago and Florida, as well as a stack of secondments to other cities within Australia.
- A very structured career path, which in the early years is almost like school, where you graduate to the next promotion year after year. This slows down eventually, but there’s always a good amount of clarity in relation where your career could be headed. Plus the size of the firm means that you don’t have to wait for someone to leave for an opportunity to open up.
- Big 4 firms tend not to require a significant cash injection for progression to partner, instead giving a lower profit share in the initial years to compensate.
- Overly bureaucratic – huge administration functions and enough systems and processes to weigh you down forever, and if you want to change the way that something is done you’ll have to be prepared to go through a million committees.
- As a graduate, they’ll work you like a dog, especially in audit. This means that you’ll be working long hours out on site in plenty of locations that aren’t that glamorous (anyone like to work in a piggery, or attend a stocktake in a freezer for fruit juice for two hours?).
- Restricted in the services that they can provide. Because auditing is such a big component of their businesses, they quickly run into conflicts. This means that things like financial planning and insurance are largely off limits.
- Quite specialised, meaning that you will typically end up in just one segment of the business and may therefore end up knowing that well at the expense of many other areas.
- Can be quite political – office politics can be the worst part of the job, and people don’t always get promoted based on merit.
- Can be fairly antiquated in many ways, with some old partners still behaving the same way that they did 20 years ago.
- All of the Big 4 have dabbled in offshoring (e.g. to the Philippines or India) in some form, and that means that a lot of the repetitive processing type jobs are probably at greater risk than in the mid tier and small firms.
Pros and cons – mid tier firms
- They still look good on your resume, just not as good as Big 4.
- Part of an international network, so secondments are possible, just a bit harder to organise than in the Big 4.
- Exposure to plenty of big clients, although in an audit space they tend to be the next tier down as most of the largest businesses use the Big 4. Many of the larger high net worth individuals and privately owned family businesses use mid tier firms, and these types of clients can be fantastic to work with.
- Because they tend not to have the larger audit clients, they are free of many of the potential conflicts, which means that they can offer more financial services (e.g. financial planning, insurance, lending) and consulting services. With these services under the one roof, mid tier firms can offer a more holistic service offering to their clients, instead of clients needing to go to multiple providers for all of their financial needs. It also allows the employees to be across more of these services.
- Like the Big 4 firms, many mid tier firms tend not to require a significant cash injection for progression to partner. Instead, they often give you a lower profit share in the initial years.
- As a graduate you could still be worked like a dog, but you’ll feel like less of an ant in a huge ant mound, simply because there won’t be so many of you. That way you won’t get so lost in the crowd, and probably have a greater chance of partners actually knowing who you are.
- The offices don’t really work together that well, often because the firms are completely independent and are a group only when it comes to branding, systems and processes. This means that they quite often aren’t very good at sharing or co-operating, but this can sort itself out over a longer period of time once they become more used to working together.
- International secondments don’t always work that well – it’s really about relationships between individual offices, rather than about the best candidate. It can therefore be difficult to arrange a secondment if you don’t have a relationship with the other office.
- Can still be very bureaucratic, but usually less so than the Big 4. You actually have a chance of influencing systems and processes, especially for offices in your home country.
Pros and cons – small firms
- Usually minimal bureaucracy compared to mid tier and Big 4 firms. If you want to get something changed, or do something differently, then you have a really good chance of making it happen.
- A less flashy and formal image can mean that they have a more relaxed approach, and that can be a more enjoyable environment to work in.
- While your firm may not be widely known, many smaller firms badge themselves up as “boutique” firms which can sound kind of cool to many clients and prospective staff.
- Possibly a better career pathway to partner, especially if you have cash but aren’t the type of person that people are falling over to support you to make partner. These firms can also be quite good for people who have reached senior levels (e.g. Director) at a big firm but were blocked at the partner gateway, as they can step off to a boutique firm and demand partnership. The boutique firm will often be happy to give it to them to get them in the door, although you’ll have to work hard once you’re in to justify your existence.
- Once you reach a senior level, you will be able to have a far greater influence over the business and how it does things, rather than constantly having changes forced upon you by others in the group. In Big 4 and mid tier firms, there are often decision makers that are completely removed from you, and you’ll constantly be told about how something is going to be done differently without any say. All of this is fine if you’re a person that can move with the times, but some people really struggle with change, and such people may be better off at a smaller firm.
- Can be harder to get access to technical information, as you simply won’t have the in-house experts. You may need to consult other larger firms, or become an expert in a lot more fields than just the one that you like working in.
- Probably won’t have the most prestigious premises in the most prominent CBD locations, but they can still be well-situated.
- You won’t be able to rely on the name of your employer to get your next job, and that may mean that you don’t even get a look in for some opportunities. You’ll probably get sick of explaining who your employer is as people simply won’t know of them.
- It can be harder to get good staff, since the highest performance will often gravitate towards the bigger firms.
- Succession planning can be quite tricky, as you may need to come up with a significant amount of coin to pay out the retiring partners where as in a larger firm you probably wouldn’t need to fund this.
- Career progression can also be very trick, as the small size of the firm usually means that you need to wait for someone to leave so that you can get promoted. Unfortunately a promotion path to partner is often decided based on when the partner wants to retire, and who happens to have the cash at the time to be able to buy the practice. The most talented candidate with the best client relationships isn’t always the first name on the list.
So which one is right for you?
This question is really about what you are wanting to get out of your career, as all three of them can be fantastic in the right circumstances.
If you’re a person who is trying to reach for the sky, with great academics and a desire to be a high-flyer, then a role with the Big 4 is definitely the way to go. Unfortunately these roles aren’t easy to get for everyone, since the competition that you’ll be up against will mean that you had better have some top notch marks from university. Going to a good university and perhaps knowing someone at the firm already would also be useful. And you’d better be a confident young person, as the most shy of bookworms will struggle to get a role, even if they’re smarter than Einstein.
If you don’t happen to make the cut in the Big 4, it isn’t the end of the world as the mid tier firms are the next best thing and there’re plenty of decent opportunities there too. Because there has been a lot of movement in the mid tier firms (mergers, changing names, joining with other mid tier firms) things aren’t always as settled in this segment, but that can make things a bit more interesting. If you’re feeling like you’re blocked from promotion in a Big 4 firm (you just can’t get over the line as a partner), then you could just as easily make the switch to a partner role at a mid tier firm. A mid tier firm will tend to not make you feel like such an ant in the ant hill due to the greatly reduced size, so it can be a nicer environment to work your way up in as well.
If you don’t have such aggressive career aspirations, then a role at a small firm can work really well too. Plenty of people just want to make it to Senior Accountant or even manager and just stay there, and a role at a small firm can work brilliantly for these people. And depending on the age of the partner(s), you might end up making partner (if you want it) at age 40 or a bit after. The payoff probably won’t be as big for a partner in a smaller firm, with many of these guys making money that’s not dissimilar to say a high-Manager or low- to mid- Senior Manager in a big firm, but the client load won’t be as insane, and this can therefore be a worthwhile trade off.
As someone who had quite aggressive career aspirations before making Partner, has worked for Big 4 and mid tier firms, and with good friends in smaller firms, my advice is to try to get a role with the biggest firm that you can initially. Even if it doesn’t work out, you can always move out to a smaller firm at practically any stage. Admittedly not every smaller firm has the capacity to take on someone too senior (the payroll cost may be just too large for them), but you should still be able to work out a succession plan with them if you are prepared to give and take.
I’d also say that your ability/inclination to put up with being treated like one of 1,000 worker ants and put up with unjust outcomes and bullshit bureaucracy is probably at its greatest when you are young, so this makes your younger years the ideal ones to be working in the bigger firms. By the time you have worked out that life isn’t all about work and are fed up with big firms, you can make the transition to a smaller firm and get a better quality of life. You may very well have a family by this stage as well, so it can all work out a bit better personally also.
So there you have it, a warts and all overview of points to consider when choosing the accounting career path that’s right for you.
A future instalment will cover the client decision of small firm vs big firm, as there are just as many pitfalls in that decision as well.
If you have any thoughts on the employee decision (big firm vs small firm) then I’d love to hear them – perhaps your experience has been different to mine?