Accountant by Day

Recruiting season

University is back in session, and so is recruiting for public accounting! As you're meeting the firms for the first time, here are a couple of pointers:

RESEARCH THE FIRMS (okay, just one pointer for this post.)

I know, people tell you to do it, your college hands you a guide to the accounting firms that recruit in your area, and there are 200 firms to look through, and you don't even know where to start looking. I always looked up accounting firm websites and just didn't know which information to pick out. Part of that was because I knew that I wanted to work audit, and I wanted a job, and beyond that I didn't really *care* so I didn't know which information remember and ask about!

Your mission: get familiar with what is "the norm" for accounting firms in your area, and take note of things that make each firm different than the norm. You don't need to memorize the firm's history, you just need to be able to say "I was looking at your website, and saw xyz about you." It's best if you have a question to follow this factoid up with, but if delivered right, you can get away with just saying the fact "Oh, your firm specializes in health care clients, right?"

At the last recruiting event I went to, I explained our basic differences from other firms to about 25 students. Only one of those students said "Oh I read on your website that..."

It does make you stand out. Of course, you probably don't want to memorize a factoid for every single firm, but do your homework, figure out which firms you're most interested in, and go prepared with some basic knowledge on those, plus a few other firms. At these events, you never know which firm you're going to end up talking to, and it's hard to pick out from just looking at websites which firm is the right fit for you.

I'm going to provide a couple ideas to help you know which information to study and bring up at accounting recruiting events.

Be familiar with firm size and location.

Most local accounting firms have only one office. If a firm that would otherwise be a local firm has another office in the city, mention that they have another location. Maybe ask why that came about. I would say that you don't need to memorize every firm's address, but it you really can't think of anything else to ask a small firm about, you can always say "Oh you guys are located up on xyz st, right?"

If the firm has a couple of locations throughout the country, ask "so you have offices in Chicago and NYC too, right? So does the firm have clients all over the country, or just in these 3 areas?"

If you're talking with a firm like Reznick Group or BDO Siedman you need to be familiar with the fact that they are big and nationwide! Just because a firm is not Big 4 does not mean that it does not expect you to recognize its name, and that it is a large company (just not huge like Big 4.)

Website Hint: Check out the part of the accounting firm's website called "Locations." Remember that just because a location is listed, doesn't mean that it's a large office. That can be another question to ask.

Be familiar with firm client base

As a student, I didn't know if I would prefer auditing health care clients, banks, or non-profits. But if a company specializes in banking audits, or construction audits, that is a very valuable factoid to throw out there. Another key to asking questions is not to lose your flexibility. Sure, their website says that they focus on health care clients, but most firms will have clients outside of their focus area too, and you may be talking to a professional at the firm who has never had a healthcare client.

So ask "I read on your website that you focus on healthcare clients. Do you work on only healthcare clients, or do you have a lot of clients in other industries too?" And then depending on how the professional answers, you have a follow up question.

But don't make it sounds like you're only interested in healthcare, and don't make it sound like working on 100% healthcare is your worst nightmare. Chances are, at a firm with a specialty, there are some people who will work 100% on the specialty, and others who will hardly touch it, so you don't want to commit to either one without knowing more.

Website Hint: Check out the part of the accounting firm's website called "Our Clients" and read the blurb there - even if it is directed at the clients themselves, it should tell you something about the type of clients that the accounting firm is targeting.

Take note of a firm's practice areas

If you're really interested in forensic accounting, make sure you tell that to the firms that actually have a forensic accounting arm. Our firm does a bit of investigation into fraud, but that is NOT anyone's full time job here. Plus, at a firm like ours where we mostly do tax and audit, and then will help out a client with looking into employee fraud, you'll typically get to work on the fraud case after you're experienced with audit and that particular client. So, there's a chance for it, but if you are aiming for a masters in forensic accounting, we know that we're not the right place for you. If it's just something you think you might interested in, I suggest not making a big deal out of that to a firm that doesn't have it listed as a practice area.

Website Hint: Check out the part of the accounting firm's website called "Services" for more information about the firm's practice areas. But, be careful because the firm may list services that aren't a huge part of their offerings - again, it gives your a starting point for asking informed questions, but don't assume anything.


Big 4 vs Regional Firms 2: Atmosphere

Earlier this month I wrote a post about some basic differences between working for a regional accounting firm and a Big 4 accounting firm (Deloitte, KPMG, PWC or Ernst & Young). I discussed the differences in sizes, clients, and length of engagement. This is part two in a series to help future CPAs get an idea of some differences between the two types of firms, and hopefully help you decide where to direct your efforts during the accounting recruiting season.

This post discusses the different work atmosphere between offices for the biggest accounting firms and your typical local firm. This is a tricky topic to have an opinion on, since each firm has its own culture and different work environment. In addition, I have only worked at 3 firms - I had an internship with a Big 4 firm, I spent some summers working for a local firm, and I now work full-time for an international firm whose regional office is pretty much the same size as the local firm I worked for.

Among the crowd

I interned at one of the Big 4 - who has well over 1,000 people working in their local office here. Where I work fulltime, we have about 70 people. At a firm of 1,000 people, you will only meet the people you are assigned to work with, unless you go out of your way to do so. To do well in this type of environment, you need to be fairly outgoing, and good at networking within your own firm. Someone who is good at meeting people and getting supervisors to remember them would definitely have an advantage at Big 4.

At a regional accounting firm with 50 - 100 people, you would expect to at least know the names of all of those people. As more of an introvert, I think that if I had decided to go the Big 4 route, I would never have known as many people as I know at my current firm. I also feel much more comfortable going to seniors and partners that I haven't worked with before and asking for work. There were only a few of us new folks who started together, so I think we got to know each other better.

Distinguishing yourself

The Big 4 firms hire the best accounting students out there. From that point on though, it's up to those new hires to prove themselves. When you only interact with a small subgroup of management, you need to be special to get recognized.

At both big and small firms, you need to do great work in order to be recognized as a great worker, but I would argue that at Big 4 you would need to do great work AND work with the right people, whereas at a regional accounting firm you are more likely to be noticed doing great work without having to go out of your way to work for the right people.

You do still need to be flexible about where you look for work when you have free time. At our smaller firm, I have worked for almost all of our partners, including partners in departments other than the one I am assigned to. Some of my co-workers are not so happy to seek work outside of their designated team.


It seems petty, but one of the things I hated about my internship was that when we returned to the main offices at the end of busy season, we didn't have our own offices or even cubicles. The Big 4 where I interned had just implemented this horrible (yet probably very efficient and cost effective) system called "hoteling." This means that when you get to the office, you go to a computer and select a free cubicle and assign yourself to it for the day. It involves calling your friends when you get to work to make sure you can find each other for lunch.

I love having my own desk in an office where I can keep my own stapler and pens and pencils . . . etc. It sounds silly, and it isn't a make-or-break point for me regarding accepting a job, but I know you other accountants out there understand the importance of having your own space that no one else touches. (So you can store your 20 different colors of highlighter in order to properly color-code documents at any given moment!)

Read Part 1 - Basic Differences between Big 4 and Regional Accounting Firms

So, any questions! (Ok, I may be sort of biased against Big 4...)


Big 4 vs Regional Firms Part 1

I have written about the topic of Big 4 accounting firms vs smaller, regional accounting firms before. However, now that I have a little more work experience, I thought I'd post an updated discussion on my thoughts. This post is part 1 in a series of posts regarding the differences between working for a Big 4 firm and a regional firm.

The big question for most accounting students when applying for jobs in public accounting is whether they should go to a Big 4 firm (Deloitte, KPMG, PWC, and Ernst & Young) or if they should take a job with a smaller, local firm. In a later post, I'll discuss how there are some "third options" available, such as the firm I work for, which would generally be lumped in with "regional," but is quite different than your average local firm.

This is just one woman's view point

Let me get my biases out of the way upfront: I, personally, chose a smaller firm over Big 4. However, I think that my opinion presented here should help you make your own decision, rather than just promoting smaller firms. My very blunt view is that with Big 4, you don't get to learn as much about audits, due to the sheer size of their individual audits, but the Big 4 name will look good on your resume, and will allow you to move on to a better job regardless. I believe with smaller firms, you get more well-rounded exposure to all parts of an audit, but you don't learn to deal with quite as much pressure, and won't be as easy to use your employer's name as a springboard into other positions in the future. Any of these factors can be easily changed depending on the circumstances and the person in the circumstances, so it is by no means the only view.

The basic differences between Big 4 and regional firms

  1. The type of audit clients
  2. The size of the audit clients, and thus, the length of the audit
  3. The typical first-year staff work
  4. The ability to specialize
  5. The name on your resume

There are many other differences to consider when deciding between working for Big 4 or a regional firm, but these 5 points should give us a good place to start from. Please feel free to comment on your views (or questions) on major differences between working for Big 4 and working for a regional firm.

1. The Type of Audit Clients

The Big 4 are large international companies. They tend to have large international clients. Most local firms will have local clients. When I interned at Deloitte, I really enjoyed going to our international clients, since the people who worked there were from all over the world. If I worked for a local Atlanta firm, I would probably still meet people from all over the country, but I would not get the exposure to international business and audit issues. Nor would there be any possibility to travel overseas to a client upon reaching a more advanced position.

2. The Size of Audit Clients

Big 4 clients are HUGE, and they take MONTHS to audit. I was assigned to a large client for 6 weeks of my Big 4 internship. The full-time staff who work on that job could spend about 6 to 9 months of the year working on only that client.

Small firms spend 1 to 2 weeks at each client, possibly 3. I enjoy the smaller clients our firm has, because there is something new every few weeks. However, it means meeting that many new people, become familiar with that many more accounting systems.

3. The typical first year staff work

Because Big 4 has such large clients, a first-year staff member may find herself working on only one audit section for most of the busy season. For a large client, it may take the whole season simply to audit their cash balances, thanks to having to getting bank information from all of their accounts and their subsidiaries' accounts.

Working for a smaller firm with smaller clients, new staff members typically get a chance to work on more sections of the audit. With some of our smaller clients, as a first-year, I was in charge of completing 90% of the work on my own. We do have a few clients where my contribution was only to the A/R and cash sections, but I really enjoyed getting a chance to make an attempt at completing every part of the audit.

4. The ability to specialize

On the flip side, the large size of Big 4 firms means that you can specialize in one area. In a smaller firm, everyone needs to be good at everything. Some specialization may be available, but it will be much more difficult to become an expert on a specific audit area. That expertise can be a highly marketable skill, as another firm may wish to expand operations in your area of expertise, which would make you an extremely valuable candidate.

It also means that if there is one area that you especially like, you can stick with that area, and avoid the types of work you don't find as interesting. This is usually not an option at a small firm.

5. The name on your resume

One of the biggest advantages of going Big 4 is having the Big 4 name on your resume. The names Deloitte, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, Ernst & Young, and KPMG are recognized as a sign of quality all over the wor.d. While your local firm may be a really wonderful firm, the rest of the world won't recognize the name. That name recognition can help you get jobs in industry and other public accounting firms.

Hopefully this overview of some basic differences between Big 4 and regional firms has given you some ideas to help you choose between the two. Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions, disagreements, or experiences you'd like to share.

Read more about the Benefits of Working at Big 4


First Audit Work

Next week I'll be heading out to my first client with this firm to do some preliminary audit work. I'm excited about having some real work to do for a few days. I'm also interested to see what the client is like, and how working on an audit at my current employer compares to my internship.

I had an internship almost 2 years ago with one of the Big 4. Following that, I went back to school for my masters, got a job offer from my current employer, and passed the CPA exam. So, a lot of things have happened in my life since I was last out at a client learning how to audit.

My current employer has much smaller audits than Big 4 has, so I'm excited about being able to see more of the whole picture during our audits. Also, my internship at Big 4 was rather unusual in that I got to be on 5 clients while I was there. Most interns were only on 2 or 3. Most staff, from what they told me, seem to have one big client and then a few little ones to fill in the gaps. So, at Big 4 I did get to see quite a few different types of audit tests, but it was still tough to see the big picture of what the client's financial state is.

We also mostly have manufacturing clients, which I'm excited about too. I like going to plants and meeting the people who work there. It just seems much more interesting to me than going to a client who is involved in banking, or software, or other more intangible products.

Is anyone else heading to their first audit this season? How about you experienced folk? Do you remember your first audit season? Do you have any hints or suggestions for us newbies?