Big Firms vs. Small Firms – What’s Different About Working for Each?

Big Firms vs. Small Firms – What’s Different About Working for Each?

‘Big firms vs. small firms’.

If it’s in the context of “they’ve somehow been animated and are now fighting to the death”, your money’s probably on the big firms. Pure size is BOUND to win out, right?

But in the context of choosing your first accounting career move, it’s likely to be a significantly tougher call! In the hope of making that decision a little bit easier, we’ve noted down some of the key differences between working at a bigger accountancy firm and working at a smaller one in the article below.

We hope you find it useful!

The application process

Whilst job interviews are universally disliked, they aren’t all built equally. Where some might be (slightly) preferable to the drudgery of the usual workday morning, others are protracted and highly difficult. Unfortunately, the application process for larger firms tends to fall on the latter part of the scale. You should fully expect a number of interview rounds and vast competition for jobs – there can be as many as 20 candidates fighting for one position!

Given the level of competition floating around, the standard interview process at bigger firms tests far more than just your capacity to rehearse STAR examples. In addition to age-old interview staples, larger firms may use online assessments to profile your personality, as well as to measure your judgement, logic and reasoning abilities.

Though they can serve as a bolt-on to an already hefty interview process, these tests are not necessarily a bad thing. If the thought of communicating with a fellow human fills you with existential dread, online tests can be a real chance to show off your best qualities.

With smaller firms, online tests tend to eschewed in favour of more traditional approaches. Whilst there will still be strong competition for jobs at these firms, the interview process as a whole is likely to be a little less bloated.

The work situ

The differences don’t end once the hiring process is over! If you like variety in the jobs you do and some semblance of a weekend, a smaller accountancy firm might be a strong fit for you. In smaller practices, you’ll be working with a range of colleagues on a whole bunch of different jobs.

Though these firms may not attract the blockbuster clients that a larger practice might, the smaller number of employees and relative dearth of high-profile cases should lead to a more rounded experience. And as we touched upon before, the work-life balance is likely to be *much, much* better than at larger firms.

Conversely, if the thought of singlehandedly surpassing the company KPIs is more what gets you going (no judgement here), then a bigger firm might be more what you’re looking for. However, the stakes involved are likely to mean looooooooong hours and heavy pressure to meet targets.

Beyond the exacting workload, it’s also worth noting the tendency for larger firms to fix their employees to a single specialism. This may not seem like a problem if you’re looking to excel in a specific field (which is an absolutely valid career path – Tom Cruise has made millions as the all-American action man), but might become frustrating if you’d prefer a wider-ranging experience.

The longer-term

Even though it’s easy to be pigeonholed into a certain specialism at large companies, the location you work from isn’t quite so set in stone. As large accountancy firms tend to have clients and offices based all across the world, they may eventually be willing to offer you travel opportunities beyond the daily commute. This could be a great chance to experience a new city (Solihull is LOVELY in summer) or see how a workforce operates in an entirely new country. At the very least, you’ll probably get to stay in a decent hotel somewhere on the company’s dime. 

If you’re more interested in reaching the top of the pyramid rather than visiting one, being on the books of a large firm can still come in handy. For both prospective new employers and in-house promotion pickers, prior experience with a big player is a sign that you’ve got a) great accounting knowledge and b) pure liquid nitrogen in your veins i.e. “the ability to handle pressure”.

The outlook tends to be less favourable for those employed at smaller firms. Certainly in terms of promotional opportunities, the size of your organisation will mean that there’s not so many spaces at the top table. And whilst external opportunities will inevitably crop up, they’ll probably be fewer in number than if you were working for a larger firm. Why? Well…

  • Though the breadth of experience associated with smaller practices is great for job satisfaction, it can risk positioning you as a “jack of all trades”.
  • *Painful reality incoming* Other employers will often perceive bigger firms as more reputable than smaller ones. It’s not fair, but that’s the way of the world!

Over to you!

There’s no “right” answer when choosing between a bigger firm and a smaller practice; it’s very much a case of personal preference.

Evaluate what’s best for you and take it from there. Is work-life balance a top priority? Maybe a smaller firm would suit you better. Happy to specialise straight away? A bigger firm might offer a better platform from which to do that. Whatever you decide, the very best of luck – we’re rooting for you!

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