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Starting your own practice. Big 4 vs small firm?

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Hi, I currently work at a big 4 firm and I am about to start ACA. I have become frustrated due to lack of exposure with clients and the exam structure. My long term goal is to start my own practice, I was wondering would it be more useful to move to a smaller firm where I can work on audits, management accounts, tax comps etc rather than just focusing on audits. What would be more useful for starting a practice, the vast skills gained from a small firm or the connections made in the Big 4. Thanks 

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By Tim Vane
27th Feb 2019 21:26

I’m not sure you have the patience or temperament for working in practice.

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paddle steamer
By DJKL
27th Feb 2019 21:32

Both.

A larger firm will possibly offer far more support with the exams and a lot more technical backup.

I personally prefer the idea of a smaller provincial office of a larger firm, which is where I started, (Mid tier UK firm circa number 15-20 in size at the time) this gave exposure to small client work and also some plc audits, so one week I was doing accounts for a local butcher the next I was auditing a pension scheme for a quoted company.

The only drawback I experienced was limited tax exposure during training but there were plenty of years after to catch up in this regard.

Having said the above this was all a long time ago in the mid 1980s and I expect things are slightly different these days.

One drawback of very small firms is the variety of work can become a little restricted, exposure to different experiences will likely become harder to obtain as you progress, which can become unsatisfying.

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By andy.partridge
27th Feb 2019 22:19

You should be careful about burning bridges with a big 4. It pains me to say that the experience with them could open doors for you throughout your career.

You have many years ahead to specialise in an area of choice. It might sound unfashionable and frustrating to someone who wants it all ‘now’, but I say knuckle down.

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ALISK
By atleastisoundknowledgable...
28th Feb 2019 08:29

Qualify where you are, then step down a tier or 2 to get more ‘real world’ experience, then go on your own. So 8-10 yrs.

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By 1 2
28th Feb 2019 09:11

I'm concerned at your combination complaints of "lack of exposure with clients" with "about to start ACA". What do you expect?! That a Big 4 firm will let a new trainee start advising the FDs of their FTSE 100 clients?!

My opinion - forget about even considering running your own practice completely, for at least 4 years. You have a LOT to learn. Plus from a practical perspective you'd need to qualify ACA then get at least 2 years post qualification experience before you could get a practicing certificate. So maybe in 4 years you can start planning.

Perhaps get qualified with big 4, then look to move to a smaller firm for your post qual experience.

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By Jdopus
28th Feb 2019 10:14

I actually disagree a little with some of the above posters based on some recent experience of big 4 employees. The Big 4 definitely used to be a very solid base to develop your skills and become qualified but while I don't have direct experience, all my second hand experience suggests that this isn't necessarily the case any longer. Their training and work culture in recent years seems to have fallen completely to shreds and they don't seem to be allowing staff to develop skills outside of the extremely narrow discipline of audit.

We recently hired a staff member with two years of experience at one of the big four and their lack of knowledge is absolutely appalling. They did nothing but specific audit functions for the entire period of their employment and have a complete lack of knowledge around any other area - from bookkeeping to accounting preparation to tax. It's possible the staff member failed to take advantage of their qualifications and I know some big 4 offices are worse or better than others, but I just want to emphasize that the big 4 aren't what their reputation suggests them to be any more.

You'll have to decide for yourself whether the company you're working for is giving you any genuine chances to get experience or if they're just using you as cheap labour that will work 100 hour weeks before burning out.

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By Accountant A
28th Feb 2019 12:51

Quote:

We recently hired a staff member with two years of experience at one of the big four and their lack of knowledge is absolutely appalling. They did nothing but specific audit functions for the entire period of their employment and have a complete lack of knowledge around any other area - from bookkeeping to accounting preparation to tax.

Either the individual's CV was full of porkies or you need to review your selection and interview procedures. Surely you discuss a candidate's practical experience at length in an interview? That's my experience as both a candidate and recruiter.

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By marks
28th Feb 2019 20:57

Quote:

I actually disagree a little with some of the above posters based on some recent experience of big 4 employees. The Big 4 definitely used to be a very solid base to develop your skills and become qualified but while I don't have direct experience, all my second hand experience suggests that this isn't necessarily the case any longer. Their training and work culture in recent years seems to have fallen completely to shreds and they don't seem to be allowing staff to develop skills outside of the extremely narrow discipline of audit.

We recently hired a staff member with two years of experience at one of the big four and their lack of knowledge is absolutely appalling. They did nothing but specific audit functions for the entire period of their employment and have a complete lack of knowledge around any other area - from bookkeeping to accounting preparation to tax. It's possible the staff member failed to take advantage of their qualifications and I know some big 4 offices are worse or better than others, but I just want to emphasize that the big 4 aren't what their reputation suggests them to be any more.

You'll have to decide for yourself whether the company you're working for is giving you any genuine chances to get experience or if they're just using you as cheap labour that will work 100 hour weeks before burning out.

This isnt any different from when I trained 20 years ago. People that I went to univ with and went to the big 6 (as it was then) got good salary, good training support etc and good exposure to big business working eg PLCs etc. However, all the did was sections of audits for their training. They hadnt a clue how do to a bank rec or tax return.

Myself, who trained at small 4 partner independent firm started my first day; got thrown a bag of invoices, bundle of bank statements a file from last year and told to follow last years file. In my 3 years I prepared accounts for sole traders, partnership and Ltd companies. Did bookkeeping and managements accounts, got experience of both corporate and personal tax returns, did VAT returns, assisted and lead audit teams. All of which held me in good stead to what I do now in running my own small practice.

My advise to OP;

1. Get you head down and qualify
2. Get as much all round experience as you can in the big 4 (qualifying with Big 4 will open doors for you later in life)
3. Once qualify look to move to small/mid size firm to get hands on experience. After been there 3 - 5 years then you can decide where you want go.

I had worked in practice for 15 years in 6 small/medium sized firms across Central Scotland belt together with a 6 month foray into industry (which didnt enjoy) before going it on my own. Now 6 years on have no regrets and will never go back to working for someone else.

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Caroline
By accountantccole
28th Feb 2019 12:18

I trained big 4, excellent training support in terms of study package but also softer skills, management skills and training for trainers.
When I moved to a provincial firm, I ended up taking ATT to brush my tax up, despite being ACCA qualified. Deloittes didn't let accounts bods near tax and vice versa so you need to be careful of your choice of specialism preparing you for the outside world. Def don't try to jump straight from big 4 to going alone. There is so much to be learned from a smaller firm first.

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By Matrix
28th Feb 2019 22:15

It depends what your objectives are long term. If they really are to start your own practice then I agree that Big 4 is not ideal but these jobs are highly sought after so don't throw it away.

If you don't like audit then could you move to Tax, maybe in the owner managed business department? I trained in tax in a then Big 6 firm and would not say that it gives you a great grounding for starting your own practice but Big 4 opens other doors with greater earning potential (than running your own practice unfortunately).

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All Paul Accountants in Leeds
By paulinleeds
01st Mar 2019 12:29

I thought to get a practicing certificate that you need to show a broad practical experience of all areas of practice work. You will not get that in a Big 4 audit specialist dept.

I doubt you'll even do any audits if you work for your self in your own practice!

If you are to succeed in practice then you need LOTs of practical experience in so many SME areas, accounts preparation, Tax return, payroll etc. Will you get all of that in the Big 4?

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By Ken Howard
02nd Mar 2019 20:25

I'd go for mid tier firms rather than big 4 or small ones.

Some of the big 4 staff have ridiculously narrow experience. I worked in a small firm that took on someone newly qualified from the big 4 and they literally hadn't a clue - the guy even asked for the nominal ledger printouts for an incomplete record job on a corner shop!

Small firms are too limiting as you don't get the exposure of statutory audits nor larger clients anymore (most company accounts are micro now in small practices).

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By Kaylee100
04th Mar 2019 15:56

I have no experience of Big 4 but qualified with a 6 partner practice and transferred to a smaller practice easily on qualifying. I am now, effectively, senior partner here as my other partner is older but retiring. However, I fear I would never have been able to make the change upwards (so to speak) so, be careful leaving the Big 4.

I do suggest if you move you still get audit experience but, in reality, if you have a small practice, its a skill you will probably not need. We have now given up our registration as so few businesses need them.

I tend to agree that any move look at mid tier so you get good level of varied experience. Too small and you might find they are becoming restrictive (not all, but some only offer one software solution to clients, for example, and the lack of audit registration)

Also, I would add, its very hard for a small practice now. There is so much to know and tax so wide. Make sure you also hone you tax skills, business strategy and accounting technology skills, where ever you end up if you are looking and settling in small practice.

Good luck with your exams! Why are you frustrated by the structure? It is what it is, surely, if that's the qualification you want?

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
04th Mar 2019 16:58

Well I did it, albeit more through accident than design.

What I learnt in those 3 years was very valuable, but had little to do with what I do now on a techcnail level, but does on an advice level. The exposure to business was however breathtaking considering what you got to do, and who you got to speak to at such a young age. I used to love being able to waltz into a senior person's office and ask them about the business. My bosses didn't like it as much, but I was making them a huge ££££ so blow 'em. I hate auditing, loved the breadth and responsibility. The people I did exams with in small practices were just churning fairly basic stuff out [which is a skill dont get me wrong], I was running a team of 4 or 5 by the time i exam qualified and waited for the 3 years to elapse.

However on then going into industry I deliberate took an operational role, and essentially started as a well paid graduate starting another 3 year of learning how to do accounts. I remember posting my first journal "live". From this grounding, I think I had a good balance of "doing" and "thinking", albeit I was not well thought of in my operational role as I was on such a massive learning curve and really feeling my way, and the "KPMG" tag left several 'we expected more of you' type conversations, but I was learning my craft which takes time.

It mattered little, as I always got a job interview with KPMG on my CV even when I was the youngest candidate by about 10 years.

When I started my own practice again I knew nothing, and had to start from scratch.

With a properly planned career I ought to have spent 3+ years in a small practice rather than starting at 28 on my own, albeit this was no out of choice, I was ill and couldn't hold down a job.

Anyhow, buckle down, suck it up and utterly hate it if you have to, just get through it, and think about YOUR progression and what you need to learn, not what your bosses want to dump on your head.

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