An insight from our Head of Research, Kieron Whitehead, into the pros and cons of working for a larger firm compared to a mid-tier or boutique practice, and how it can impact on your career search.

A question that we get asked a lot is “Does size really matter?” … Of course I’m talking about the pros and cons of a big practice vs a smaller, independent firm, and which one creates the best opportunities for you as a career choice.

Often when someone approaches us to help them in their job search we get hit with the line of “I only want a Top 20 Firm” or “I only want to move to a Big 4”, and generally with the idea that bigger is better when it comes to finding a new employer. Of course there are major upsides to joining one of the powerhouse’s of the accountancy world, and a lot of very good reasons to be looking at the bigger firms, but often overlooked is the multitude of opportunities that joining a smaller independent can offer.

 

Let’s start with the big boys

For the sake of this article, I’ll focus on the Big 4 firms as the larger practices, though a lot of these arguments will apply to the Top 10 firms as well as any other large, corporate practices. The number of candidates we talk to who want to make these firms their first port of call in the search, and even restrict it to just these 4, is higher than a lot of people would think. From people at other Top 100 firms thinking it is time to move up, to graduates working on the assumption that a few years at a big firm is the best way to start off a career, it’s a daily occurrence that someone will call in wanting an in to the biggest practices in the land.

Usually, their reasons will boil down to one of 4 things;

 

The Pro’s

  • Exposure to bigger clients

With the Big 4 doing business with 99% of FTSE 100 and 96% of FTSE 250 companies, if it is big companies you want to work with then you can’t do better than the larger firms.

  • The prestige of having the name on your CV

PwC, Deloitte, KPMG and EY being recognisable names across the globe they can be great headlines to get on your CV for the future.

  • They will push you through your qualification faster

The Big 4 and all the larger, more corporate firms will have formal training schemes in place, signing everyone joining to a training contract, and usually allowing those that complete them to qualify at a faster pace.

  • They pay more

A lot of candidates are under the impression that the bigger the firm, the higher the pay scale, but that’s not always the case. Whilst it’s true that the big firms offer strong packages, with the market being so competitive just about every firm hiring is paying a generous remuneration to try and attract the best talent.

One thing to bear in mind is that the bigger firms are often much more regimented in their pay structure, with fixed bandings for certain levels of experience, where there is a bit more flexibility once we move away from the Big 4, which can often work to your advantage in securing a pay increase.

 

And the Cons…

  • Exam Policies

Perhaps the biggest downside to joining the Big 4 on a training contract is the exam policies. They all have very strict rules in place about how they expect you to perform in your exams and qualifications, and whilst these policies can vary from firm to firm they basically mean that if you fail an exam then they can let you go.

  • Forced into specialising in a niche area

The other side to working with the biggest clients is that often people can get stuck working on only one aspect of that client, worse still if your specialism becomes very niche or you work exclusively on only one client, you can easily find yourself in a position where you can’t find another practice role outside of that niche, or perhaps not even being able to move to another firm at all.

  • Work-Life Balance

Often the biggest problem mentioned when working for a Big 4 is the work-life balance that comes with the role. A bit of research online turns up that there are people in these firms, even at a junior level, averaging 50-60 hour work weeks, with that number getting ever higher in the busy periods. The stress that comes with working long hours in a high-pressure environment can drive many people to burn out and leave for a new role.

  • Progression

The pro’s of the larger firms being more corporate environments are apparent, as I said before they have structured training schemes and structured pay reviews, but they will also have a very structured progression plan. Not necessarily a bad thing, it can often lead to people progressing and moving into new roles quicker than they would in a smaller firm, stepping up when they achieve specific goals and milestones. The problem comes at the higher end of the organisations, I’ve encountered quite a few people who are looking to leave big firms as they feel they have hit their ceiling and can’t go any further there, and generally people can quickly get to a certain point in their career, and then just stay there.

 

Mid-Tier and Smaller Firms

Now to the smaller firms, and for the purpose of this article, I’ll define “smaller” as the Mid-Tier firms in the Top 100, and the independent firms outside of the list.

They can be a completely different experience to the large firms and can offer some fantastic opportunities that can regularly be overlooked by those focused on the big firms, so let’s have a look at some of the biggest pro’s of a smaller firm;

  • More exposure

Where those in a Big 4 firm can be working on only 1 or 2 clients as the vast bulk of their work, a smaller firm will allow you to gain exposure to a much larger portfolio of clients, and get involved in more aspects of the work.

  • Better variety

Building off of the better exposure that you gain, you are also likely to get a much better variety of experience working at a smaller firm. You will be much more likely to be working with clients across a range of sectors and fields, and there is also a greater opportunity to get involved in different aspects of the work itself, whilst a 100% audit role is commonplace at the big firms, you are much more likely to find a split role with the smaller firms.

  • Environment

Whilst a certain amount of pressure comes with the nature of the job in accountancy, generally speaking a smaller firm will be a much lower stress and easier working environment. A smaller firm will still have deadlines and commitments, but maintains what is usually considered as much better hours, and a much healthier work-life balance.

  • Involvement

When we speak to candidates coming from a large firm, one of the most often talked about requests is to move to a smaller firm where they feel they can make an actual difference, and “not just be another number”. Given the nature of a smaller firm it is much easier to get your voice heard, and be able to have your input on an issue when it comes up, rather than in the big firms where there are half a dozen levels of management between you and anyone with the authority to make a decision.

Of course, these smaller firms have their con’s too, only working with smaller clients, taking longer to qualify with potentially less support, and a slower climb up the career ladder, as well as the other usual selling points of a bigger firm.

 

So, is bigger better, or is smaller superior?

Personally, I would recommend a good mid-tier firm, and certainly say that you should always at least consider them as an option. In my experience the larger exposure and greater variety will put you in a much stronger position to find a role in the future, and even if a big firm is your end goal it is massively easier to move from a smaller firm up, rather than the other way around. When you take into consideration the difference in culture and pressure, I really do think that people are happier and better positioned when in a role at a smaller firm.

Fortunately, at AJ chambers we have a very strong mixture of clients, working with some of the best boutique practices, right through the mid-tiers, and all the way up to the Top 10, and so whatever your decision when it comes to the type of firm you want to work for we are ideally placed to assist you in that search.