What Size Accounting Firm Should You Work At – Small Or Large?

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When searching for a job at an accounting firm, there are many factors to consider, such as location, types of responsibilities and training.

Another important factor to consider is the size of the firm. Accounting firms can vary in size from one to more than 10,000 people, and it’s important to make the choice that will best fit your personality, your career goals and your lifestyle.

Although the experience at each firm may be different, we spoke with recent grads who are now working in accounting about their experiences to help you decide where you’ll fit in:

Work-life balance

Large firms often have big groups of 40 or more new accountants starting at once, which means the competition can be higher than at smaller firms. Alissa Kahn, an accountant at a mid-sized firm of about 90 people, says she’s lucky she doesn’t have that much competition. “With so many people starting at the same level at once, there is a lot of pressure to compete and work overtime. At my smaller firm, I don’t really experience that same pressure.”

Learning opportunities

However, since so many new accountants start their jobs at once in large accounting firms, it also means the firms tend to invest a lot of time and money in classroom-type training and mentoring, which small firms cannot usually do. “I did not get as much textbook training and I had to really learn on the job. It’s good for my career, but it’s tough in the beginning,” says Alissa.

At larger firms, you may also work in groups or teams and have joint tasks and clients. This is great if you like working in a team and enjoy having multiple perspectives on a project.

Training

While learning on the job will help give you hands-on knowledge in the accounting field, you have to depend on your supervisors to train you. “Most of the time the people that are supposed to be training you are very busy handling their own workloads and don’t have time to teach you everything which can be frustrating,” says Yoel Hofman, an accountant in a small firm of 25 employees.

Andrew Rotberg, a CA with a small firm of 12 employees in Montreal, says he felt the learning-as-you-go style was helpful for him. “You have to learn really quickly. Getting more experience helps when you’re studying for the CA and UFE exams, which expect you to know a lot about different areas in accounting.”

Tests and standardized training

Larger firms like KPMG, BDO and PwC typically offer preparation and paid time to study for exams like the Uniform Evaluation (UFE), and often pay for the cost of the exam too. This is generally not the case in smaller firms. “I did not get any paid time off to study and my exams were not paid for. There was no mentor program at my firm either,” says Andrew.

Responsibilities and duties

If you’re working in a big firm, you’re often given one specific area to work on, such as tax or auditing. But in a small firm, you’re more likely to be involved with all aspects of the job. “In my first week, I was doing corporate tax returns even though that type of work is usually done by a senior accountant,” says Andrew.

Yoel  experienced the same thing: “In a smaller firm you are given a lot more different tasks to be responsible for and you start handling clients from day one.”

That being said, many large firms offer rotational assignments within their internship and new grad programs to allow employees to gain a variety of experiences.

Future career goals

Laura SzekelyYou will have larger clients and more networking opportunities at a larger firm and that may help you advance in your career.

However, instead of working with a handful of big clients, at a smaller firm you will work with many smaller clients.

“I was given the opportunity to go on a four month secondment to our Cayman office, going from January to May, the perfect time of the year to be in Grand Cayman.” —Laura Szekely, Manager, KPMG (video)

If you’re a young accountant in public accounting and you want to eventually work at a client company, then working with big, global companies will help jump-start your career. You will also likely meet people from all over the world.

If you’re ever interested in re-location, you’ll probably have more opportunities to do so at a larger firm, which may have offices across Canada, in the United States and around the world. Young accountants are often encouraged to take advantage of international secondment opportunities: Laura Szekely, a recent Queen’s University commerce graduate who works at KPMG, spent four months at KPMG’s Grand Cayman office working in the company’s alternative investment practice.

Staff relationships

The types of relationships you have between your co-workers, supervisors and boss will be different at a large or small firm. “In a smaller firm, there is less of a divide between the partners and you. You also get to know everyone, even people who are not at the same level as you,” says Alissa. Smaller working environments may also help shy people with the transition to working life.

“If you want a relaxed, friendlier environment, it’s better to work for a smaller firm,” says Yoel. “But if you are a very outgoing, competitive person, then you may like a larger firm better.”

Reputation

“A big advantage for big firms is the name itself on your resumé makes you that much more attractive to your next job,” says Yoel.

Although the reputation of a big firm may impress future employers, ultimately your success at your job – no matter which size firm you worked at – will impress them more than any big name.

 

What do you think?

If you’ve worked in accounting before, which type of firm do you prefer? What are the differences and similarities that you have noticed? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Visit the Accounting Career Guide to learn more about careers in the accounting industry, and find student and entry level jobs from top accounting employers!

Photo credit: my desk by annethelibrarian on Flickr

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