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I am a senior accounting major, and am trying to decide which type of firm I want to work in. I want a career where the pay is very good, but I do not have to sacrifice my family in order to make the money. I have heard that the Big 4 firms are the best place to make the "big bucks," but have a feeling that the work demand is much greater than other firms. Also, I do not know whether I will stay in the firm environment, or end up in the corporate world. Because of that uncertainty, I would like to find a firm that can set me up to be successful in either path I take. Any advice that you can give me on the different types of firms would be extremely helpful.

Congratulations on your future career! I assure you that no matter which route you take, in a CPA firm, you will have loads of opportunities to build your technical skills and grow both personally and professionally.

The theory goes that the Big 4 pay the highest salaries. In many cases this true, but not always. There are over 14,000 public firms who employ other CPAs. Some of those “other” firms are fierce competitors for good talent and will pay salaries equal to the big firms, if not more.

Money aside, I think it’s great that you are considering what type of firm would best suit your future goals. I started with the Big firms and found the experience to be quite rewarding and educational. Now I work with small and medium-sized firms. In these smaller firms, I see a tremendous sense of family and a wide range of opportunities. In the national firms, you’ll be on a very straight forward path of advancement for the first few years. You’ll probably also specialize in one area of practice (e.g. audit, tax, consulting) and perhaps an industry too (e.g. banking, manufacturing). National firms help you dive deep into a technical area fairly quickly. On the other hand, in smaller firms, you will see more of the business on day 1. The smaller the firm, the more extensive your scope will be. Also, I am told that you’ll have more exposure to your small clients and to the firm owners in smaller firms. Either way, you’ll off to a fantastic start. It’s just that the route will vary. Take at look at this page on the AICPA web site à www.aicpa.org

My advice to you is to meet as many people from the firms you’re pursing as possible. I highly recommend to any accounting student to gather a list of CPA firms in the area in which you hope to live after graduation and start learning about them now. (Thank goodness for the internet!) Ask yourself what is the firm’s reputation on campus? How large is the firm in terms of people and revenue? Do you know anyone from the firm? What type of clients do they serve? What service offerings do they have? What is their mission statement and how does it make you feel? Keep a good list that you can easily reference. Then, as you start to meet people from each firm, keep good notes. Who did you like or with whom did you resonate well? If you visited the office, how did it make you feel? Who made time to speak with you at the firm (e.g. partners, managers, associates, administrative staff)?

As you develop your list over the next few months (or year if you’re going for a 5th year), I think you’ll find that the firm you really want to join will be the one where you feel most comfortable and shares similar values with you. I have a feeling that you’ll be surprised to learn that your ultimate decision will be based on the environment of the specific office of each firm and not necessarily size. Some big firms have a small town feel in a local office. Some medium firms that are located all in one office really feel like a large firm.

When I was interviewing, I only looked at what was the Big 6 at the time (I’m old) and the few firms that had contacted me. If I had it to do all over again, I would have researched all sizes of firms and requested meetings with as many as possible.

You can meet the firms by attending every possible event on campus, requesting office visits/tours or a lunch date, asking your professors and others to introduce you to any CPAs that they know and getting involved with campus organizations that associate with CPA firms, like Beta Alpha Psi, business fraternities, NABA, etc... You could also demonstrate serious initiative by organizing a Meet the Firms night, where CPA firms come to meet accounting students, if your campus doesn’t have such a thing.

I wish you the best of luck in starting on the path that you desire. Remember that no matter what you chose, the CPA profession has awesome potential and that often your best choice of employer comes down to where you feel the most comfortable.

Being a CPA, Public Accounting, Work/Life Balance