Big accounting firm or small? Choosing the right size work environment

Candidates for positions at CPA firms may decide to join a large firm or a small- to mid-size firm for individual reasons, but "Each firm offers something unique regardless of size," says Kathy Downs, Recruiting Manager at Robert Half Finance & Accounting in Orlando, Florida.

An individual may choose a smaller firm because they have a decreased travel requirement, and the commute to clients is shorter, Downs says. Small- to mid-sized firms generally serve private clients whose day-to-day demands do not require the long hours that can be necessary for SEC-registrant clients served by the larger firms.

Some applicants may look forward to the broad range of clients they can serve in a large firm and may want the outstanding technical experience they will gain serving clients in a large firm. "Others know exactly what they want in terms of industry specialization, and they may turn to firms -- often the smaller firms -- that serve that industry," Downs says.

CPA firms will provide different learning contexts depending on size. Some individuals learn better in the formalized programs offered by the larger firms, while others learn better when they can reach out to senior accountants or even partners, as is possible at a smaller firm. Most large firms have formal mentoring programs in place that can also enhance the learning experience.

At a smaller firm, the CPA may have access to more clients earlier in his or her career, while at a larger firm the individual might spend almost six months of the year at one client. While the larger firms are extremely competitive, Downs says, "In these firms you are surrounded by professionals who are just as ambitious and as motivated as you are, and that can help you to reach even higher."

"But it all goes back to the culture of the firm," Downs says.

"Most accounting students are aware of cultural differences while they are still in school," says Jim Nolan President of the National Society of Accountants, and owner of Nolan's Accounting and Tax Service in Oklahoma City. They come into the job market with a "gut feeling" about the differences in culture.

Some may choose a large firm in the same way they chose to attend a large university, he says, although many small schools have outstanding accounting programs, and their graduates are successful in many different environments.

The larger firms have an advantage in compensation packages, Nolan says, because they can offer higher starting salaries and bonuses. "There are fewer openings in smaller firms," he says, "but there are also fewer applicants to compete with."

"Personal relationships come more quickly in the small firm," Nolan added. "It is easier to establish rapport both with clients and the owners of the firm."

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