Life after the Big 4: Is a medium-sized accounting firm the right fit for you?

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Posted by Laura Bell on 05/01/2024

Are you an accountant, auditor or tax advisor at one of the Big 4 accounting firms? The prestige of working for a Big 4 employer is undeniable – you’ve got competitive pay, high profile clients and first-class training. 

But there may also be long hours or maybe you’re craving the variety that comes with wearing more hats in a medium-sized firm?

We’re going to explore the career shift from the Big 4 to a medium sized accounting firm and tell the career stories of two colleagues who’ve recently made the move from the Big 4 to PKF Francis Clark. 

So where to begin? Well let’s start with the biggest reason why leaving the Big 4 might not be for you. And that’s money. Take like-for-like roles and the Big 4 employers tend to pay competitively.  

On the upside though, we find that candidates leaving the Big 4 are often able to step up to the next level when they make their move. And there are non-monetary benefits that a medium sized accounting firm offers, let’s take a closer look…

Be a bigger fish outside the Big 4

One popular reason to transition from the Big 4 to a medium-sized accounting firm is the increased opportunity for personal growth. You’ll be in a smaller team and get more time with senior accountants and partners. You’ll learn from what they do, and their feedback helps you grow.

Another strength of a medium-sized firm is that it can be very agile and flexible. This means you can play to your strengths and forge your own path. Phil did exactly that when joining us from a Big 4 employer, shaping his own role and securing a promotion when he moved over.

Phil says: “Some people can hack the Big 4 culture for a long time. It’s got upsides for sure. You get a big name on your CV, amazing training and lots of great experience due to the breadth and complexity of the work. But the hours are long and you can feel like a tiny cog in a huge machine, it’s not for everyone.

“A recruiter called me, PKF Francis Clark were looking for someone to head up their IT assurance team. I wasn’t actively looking but I thought why not have a chat with them. I’m glad I did! I got the opportunity to shape my own role, and I started here as a director, a step up from my previous senior manager role.

“A lot of the partners here are ex Big 4, that was an attraction too, seeing how successful they are.”

Belong to a community

You get to know people and they get to know you. You’ll feel like a valued team member. Back to Phil to tell us more: “There is this strong community feeling – people are so friendly, there are socials, community volunteering and you’re actively encouraged to go along. I went to more socials in my first year here than I did in 12 years at my old job – and they were fun too!

“I’m glad of my Big 4 experience, it’s given me a great foundation but this is the right place for me now. I’m very glad I made the move! I’ve recently become a dad and the work-life balance here is very important to our family life.”

Career progression

Medium-sized firms can offer clear and achievable career progression paths. For some candidates that means accelerating their career, for others it’s more about finding a style of support that is right for them.

Jake joined us as a part-qualified audit trainee from one of the Big 4 employers to get support for his development and training. Over to Jake to explain: “I started straight out of school as an audit apprentice with a Big 4 accounting firm. I’d heard from a friend that they were one of the best accounting firms. I applied and got the job without looking around.

“I passed most of my accounting exams but there were a couple I was struggling with. I spoke to my managers, and they said I’d be losing my job. But I loved the work and I wasn’t giving up.

“I started to look at other audit employers. I applied to PKF Francis Clark and interviewed with Paul, an audit partner in the Bristol office. It was a more personal interview process; he got to know me and introduced me to my future team. I got a good feeling about what it would be like to work here.

“The knowledge of my new team here is amazing. I’m learning so much from them. I’m doing more varied tasks within each audit and working across more sectors, so I’m progressing faster here.

“I’ve also had more chances to speak directly with clients and develop a good rapport with them. I feel like my work actually matters and that it’s making a difference to my clients. That’s because of the feedback I get from them.

“I’ve come out the other side knowing that the Big 4 culture isn’t for me. I feel like PKF Francis Clark cares for me. They’re supporting me to resume my qualifications and they’re developing me at work. It was hard losing my old job at the time, but it put me directly on the path to a great job and a happier life.”

You can pursue a diverse and refreshing range of responsibilities across accounting, audit, and advisory services when you join a medium-sized accounting firm. Or you might opt to carve out your own niche, as Phil has done by developing new cyber security audit services. A medium-sized firm is big enough to accommodate experts and generalists alike, so your career options are wide open!

Improved work-life balance

Another major reason that motivates people to leave the Big 4 is work-life balance.

Many candidates who are considering leaving the Big 4 still want a challenge, coupled with a manageable workload and sensible hours, enabling a sound work-life balance.

It’s also worth remembering that a medium-sized accounting firm often serves a local or regional client base, reducing the need for its people to make frequent long-distance work journeys.

Phil says his new job made a big difference to his work life-balance: “The work-life balance is good here. I started coming home from work earlier. I have a lot of flexibility around working from home too. My wife saw the difference in me – I’m happier here.

“You still get a broad range of clients here, you still get the complexities so the experience is there. I’m doing cyber advisory as well as IT audit so there is plenty of variety. I’m giving more value to my clients, it’s less tick box work. Work gives me a buzz.

Jake echoes this: “It’s the work life balance that is most unrecognisable here. In my old job I’d routinely work late. For three consecutive months I was working until 7.30 every evening, well over my contracted hours and a few times I even cancelled plans with family and friends so I could work instead. Here I’m not expected to work late. I can leave at 5pm and not worry about it, and the people around me are doing the same. I have a social life again.”

Thinking about leaving the Big 4? Let’s talk…

While working for one of the Big 4 accounting firms undoubtedly offers valuable exposure, a medium-sized accounting firm can provide a change of pace and a different path to professional growth.

As you consider your career path, it’s essential to weigh up your priorities, values, and long-term goals. If you’re seeking a change that brings you close to your clients and offers a good work-life balance, then now is probably the right time to move on.

Our current openings are on our careers website. If you can’t see the right one for you please get in touch with us at [email protected] for a confidential chat as we’ve always got new opportunities in the pipeline.

Whether you qualified years ago, are newly qualified or part-qualified, we’re always happy to hear from you if you’re interested in finding out more about life at PKF Francis Clark.