An Accounting Career When The Big 4 Accounting Firms Suck 2

I went into accounting for two primary reasons: job security and money. On those fronts, I made a good choice.

Not all is perfect is Accountlandia, of course. One thing that I remember wondering before college graduation was about my options as a tax accountant if that first job didn’t pan out. I’ve now been to three of the major employment niches, and I’ve learned a bit from those experiences that I would have found interesting as that soon-to-be college grad, so I figured it’s time to sit back, sip on my carbonated beverage of choice, and take a look at where I’ve been.

This is mostly cathartic for me, but if anyone finds it helpful for their own career trench, all the better.

Let’s take it from the top.

The Big Accounting Firm Start

Right out of the gate, I had to fight against some deep indoctrination.

I went to a national accounting firm, a top player in the ever thrilling Accounting Final Four. No, being part of that elite group didn’t lead to sports fans watching us crunch numbers from the the comfort of their couch, as exiting as that might sound. Instead, it meant money pouring in from the Big 4 Accounting firms to convince us to sign our souls over to them.

That’s right, join us! Get your suit coat and join us!

Most of my class ended up at one of them. Considering the Big 4 tried to convince us it was either work for them or burn our degrees as we headed out the graduation door, that’s not a huge surprise. But I balked, not particularly wanting to hand over 50 to 80 hours a week for at least the next five years of my life.

Instead, I went with Accounting Firm #5. They sold me on their relatively low turnover rates (40% over 5 years instead of the 70+ of the Big 4) and promises of the Big Firm Experience in a more cuddly, friendly environment.

It might have started that way, but both local and national changes turned the firm purple with Big 4 envy. Whenever I would compare notes with my Big 4 colleagues, it was hard to find much evidence that either one of us had come out ahead.

Jump to Private Industry

The ultimate dream for most tax associates sitting in the cubicle (or shared open office space) of the Big 4 accounting firms is to land a cushy job in private industry. Just ask GoingConcern.com, a website grown on the backs of frustrated accountants sharing their always just-out-of-reach dreams for leaving PwC, EY, Deloitte, and KPMG.

After the next promotion, of course.

It’s always after the next promotion.

Things rallied in my favor when one of the old managers at my firm beckoned me to the company where he served as the VP of Tax. I was (most likely) less than a year away from that coveted manager position at the Big Firm. But Private Industry offered more pay for fewer hours, and at that moment, I really needed both of those things.

Private Industry has a lot of advantages over Public Accounting. The pay, at least from what I’ve seen, is better for comparable positions. There’s only one boss instead of several (depending on how many partners you worked for and clients you serve). The hours are much better and the work was less rigorous, to the point that some days I literally did nothing related to my job.

It could also be a little bit boring, though I always managed to occupy my time. The chances of promotion were low, and dwindling each day I was there. An (admittedly mostly meaningless) title went from a few months away to several years away, depending on how the tides turned and how many people above me got hit by buses.

Those were setbacks I could have waddled through. The real problem, I soon discovered, is that your company is much more likely to be acquired. And as I’ve written way too many times before, when your insurance is tied to your employer, you have no real recourse if your employer gets bought out and the new overlords decide that your not-so-great benefits were too generous.

Cue sad music as my annual medical bills threatened to jump $20k a year.

The Regional Firm

After months of soul searching, I finally jumped back into public accounting.

If there is one piece of actual advice that I have, if you want to become a manager, you have to do that in the public world.

Even though I had already started doing manager work at Big Accounting Firm, LLC, even though I most likely would have been promoted in a matter of months, no employer wanted to hire a Senior Accountant on as a Manager. Not when there were a million Big Accounting Firm, LLC refugees with that manager title tacked to their resume.

So my options were to take a lateral move or go back into public accounting.

I know titles are meaningless, but, like I said, I’ve been a little indoctrinated.

The main difference I’ve noticed in my much smaller firm is that (a) the clients are also smaller and (b) the partners have a much more healthy ego. These people are no longer guerrilla fighters who tore through their competition to get a chance at an equity stake in a giant firm, but entrepreneurs who have worked to rise their companies nearly out of nothing.

Our average client tends to have less complex problems. That doesn’t mean we don’t have complexity, but we definitely face fewer of the crazy technical issues day after day. Also, they’re the kind of people I would actually associate with in normal life. Which is a nice change of pace.

So far, it’s been good, despite the required networking that I am far from expert at handling. And sure, it has the public accounting drawback of long hours during busy season and having to meet client demands. But unlike either of the places before, I actually see a way forward.

The Comparison Conclusion

I know I was tainted by the constant marketing dollars of the Big 4 firms screaming that I have to Go Big (4) or Go Home. The more I’ve seen, though, the more I’ve realized that there’s a lot of room in between the high pressure world of Big Accounting and going back to school for a new degree.

I guess that’s my real piece of advice of this piece. One job might not work. Switching to a new place might not solve all your problems, but there are plenty of other places out there. I was deathly afraid to jump out of my big firm. I was almost nearly as afraid to jump back into public accounting. It’s worked out for me, though. Chances are, it’ll work out for you, too.

  • Brian

    I’ve worked at a big 4, a smaller regional firm and a private company doing taxes and will agree there are pluses and minuses to all. I’ve enjoyed all 3. The big 4 is a great place to start a career, it’s a great place to finish the career if you can survive the hours and demands. But overall, accounting/tax is a great background to have, lots of job security.

    • Definitely a great background to have, even if you’re like me and still not completely sure what you’re doing with it 🙂