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Let’s End the Big 4 or Bust Myth Once and For All

It’s recruiting season on campuses all across America; that special time of year when accounting students get a taste of what it’s like to be a five-star middle linebacker — minus the “hostesses,” envelopes stuffed with cash, and any semblance of athletic ability.

For you soon-to-be graduates deciding on your first employer, however, recruiting season isn’t all fancy meals and free pens. It’s stressful, dammit; and generally speaking, the greatest source of consternation is whether the accounting industry boils down to “Big 4 or Bust.”

While I’d love to tell you this distinction is overblown, it’s simply not true. Because despite what I’ve been told by a long line of sympathetic yet clearly disappointed women, size really does matter.

So with that in mind, should you be eliminating all but four options from your job search? Well, if you go to the Big 4, you’re likely to make a little more money and work a few more hours, so there’s that. The rest of the decision will come down to what kind of person you are.  

Perception Dictates Reality

My first job was with Arthur Andersen, my second with PwC. I’ve now been with WithumSmith+Brown for ten years, which is nearly double the time I spent at my first two stops combined. Yet whenever I’m asked to provide my professional bio, I always manage to shoehorn my experience with the Big 5 4 into the first two sentences. Why? Because it matters.

Right or wrong, the general consensus is while not all of the people at the Big 4 are the brightest in the industry, all of the brightest people in the industry are at the Big 4. Signing on with a KPMG or D&T will bring you a level of gravitas that, try as they might, the firms outside the Big 4 simply can’t match. And as I’ve experienced, even after you’re long gone, the years you spent with the Big 4 will afford you instant credibility, even if, like me, you spent the majority of those days hoarding Cliff Bars from the breakroom and plotting the murder of your senior manager.

Is the perception of the Big 4 as the best of the best fair? Of course not. A lot of that perception was created by the big firms beating everyone over the head with just how great they are. A freestyle rap battle has less obnoxious arrogance and self-congratulation than the standard Big 4 recruiting pitch.

Deserved or not, ultimately, perception dictates reality. There’s a reason the majority of CFO and tax director positions require Big 4 experience; the perception is that only those who’ve tested their mettle with the big boys are prepared to handle those roles.

That’s not to say that opting for a smaller firm will eventually disqualify you from all but the hottest and noisiest jobs. But the reality is, without the Big 4 on your resume, you may find that some doors are much harder to open.   

Do you crave attention?

Maybe you don’t want to be a CFO or a tax director. Maybe your primary concern is finding a job where you can learn as much as possible during your formative years while you figure out if public accounting is for you. And maybe you prefer to learn via hands-on direction and a lot of personal one-on-one time with your supervisors.  If that’s the case, going to a smaller firm is likely a better fit for you.

As I wrote above, there is an abundance of smart people in the Big 4. The problem, however, is that at the giant firms, the people who are best positioned to teach you what you need to be successful –- the managers — are the least likely to have the time to do it.

When you’re a manager in the Big 4, it means that you are the point person for a long list of clients, responsible for the detailed review work that partners are too expensive and staff too stupid to do, and you’re supposed to bear the burden of developing the next generation. It’s the most exhausting activity one can engage in, outside of soccer.

Something’s got to give, and because managers are under constant scrutiny as to whether they belong on the partner track, it’s sure as hell not going to be client service or placating the decision makers. It’s going to be the development of the manager’s underlings: i.e., you.

At a smaller firm, while managers have the same responsibilities as their Big 4 counterparts, competition to make partner isn’t quite as fierce as it is in the large firms. In addition, because smaller firms tend to lack the formalized training programs for staff (more on that next), greater emphasis is placed on the managers to develop their staff and seniors. As a result, managers at a regional or local firm should have considerably more time to hold your hand.  

Or prefer to be left alone?

If, however, you hate dealing with people (like me!) and prefer to learn without one-on-one interaction (like me!) then the bigger you go, the better off you’ll be.

Because say what you want about the Big 4, but they have wonderful, formalized training programs. At AA, we would get shuttled off to St. Charles for a week to learn oodles of tax law. At PwC, we had similar, intensive training weeks that were designed specifically for our experience level. And just recently, a former co-worker of mine went to work at E&Y, and when he asked for some reading material about the niche he would be working within, E&Y sent him two three-hundred page manuals on the matter, both authored by E&Y experts. That ain’t happening at a 40-person firm.

So if your preferred method of learning has more to do with reading quietly and less to do with a senior’s coffee breath, head to the Big 4.  

Protect yourself from yourself

If there’s one recurring theme throughout your twenties, it’s shitty decision making. Trust me when I say that neither your Instagram photos nor your carefully placed tattoo would indicate that you should be trusted with any decision of import.  

And this makes going straight to the Big 4 a dicey proposition. Because if you head off to PwC or D&T, they’re going to ask you to commit to either audit or tax, despite the rather seemingly important fact that you don’t know anything about either. Yeah, you can eventually switch if you change your mind, but let’s be honest, if you don’t pull the chute on your first choice within the first six months, you’re not going to want to deal with starting all over again much beyond that.

Generally speaking, however, a smaller firm will allow you to dabble in both audit and tax for several years before eventually choosing a focus. Based on my conversations with the young staff at WS+B, this is the primary reason they landed at a regional firm; to get a feel for where they may find an area of interest within public accounting, rather than being asked to jump in with both feet to untested waters. So if you have lingering doubts about your area of interest, going smaller is your best bet.

Ski or surf?

If you’re certain that you’ll be involved with tax return prep in some capacity, however, consider whether you would prefer to see the light of day in winter or summer. At smaller firms, getting a return done before the original due date is a badge of honor, so for reasons I can’t comprehend, these firms will typically work you into submission from January through April rather than just file a piece of paper that, you know…buys you an extra six months.  

To the contrary, the April 15th tax season in the Big 4 is an afterthought; nearly everything gets extended, which means that while your winter shouldn’t be too stressful, you might find yourself spending Labor Day weekend in the office while your small-firm counterparts are lounging oceanside.

Bright Lights, Big City

I’m a firm believer that everyone should get to feel like a Big Fucking Deal at some point in their life. To throw on a nice suit and eat at a fancy restaurant and wash it all down with a private box at the Knicks game, without spending a dime of your own money. And nobody does luxury like the Big 4.

When I was with AA in Denver, people would routinely grab you during the middle of the day to go check out a couple of innings of the Rockies game from the firm’s club seats. Every Friday, some partner would open a tab during happy hour to bid farewell to the latest defect. Post-project celebration dinners required tips that with four digits. I’ll confess: while all this was going on, I felt like the Pope of Chillitown.  

And you know what? That’s OK. Because for the overwhelming majority of us, our college years were spent barely scraping together enough cash to keep the fridge stocked with Busch Light. To suddenly be thrust into a life of open bars and free filets is understandably intoxicating.

But it won’t last. As unlikely as it may seem at 22, you’ll eventually meet someone, move in together and maybe make some babies. Before you know it, human nature sets in, and the lure of free drinks and box seats won’t seem nearly as enticing as Netflix and a good night’s sleep.  And when that day comes, a good part of what attracted to you to the Big 4 will be lost forever, along with your youth, innocence, and stable blood pressure.

But until that day comes, there’s no harm in relishing in the Patrick Bateman lifestyle, minus the axe murders. Go the Big 4 and live it up.

Obviously, there are other things you’ve got to take into consideration: big city versus small town, the opportunity for niche services like M&A or consulting at the Big 4, and the potential for more work-life balance at a small firm (though I don’t necessarily see that to be the case). But keep an eye on the items discussed here, and you just might wind up happy with your first job. For a year or two. Then you’ll be ready to read this.