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Big 4 Vs Small Firm – 5 Differences

In the professional services industry, employees often have two distinct career paths to choose from; either to work for one of the prestigious ‘Big 4’ firms (Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), Ernst & Young (EY), and KPMG) or join a smaller company (SMPs). 

Both Big 4 and small firms offer unique pros and cons that can shape your career trajectory. However, choosing between them may rely on your preferences and circumstances. 

The 5 key differences between the ‘Big 4’ and small firms are:

  1. Range of specialisms and clients
  2. Salary and compensation
  3. Growth opportunities
  4. Woking hours and work-life balance
  5. Global mobility and networking

In this article, I will explore these five differences between the ‘Big 4’ and a small accounting firm and the unique opportunities and challenges they present to their employees.

New York skyline in a hazy light seen from the sky

1. Range Of Specialisms and Clients

‘Big 4’ accounting firms (EY, KPMG, Deloitte, and PwC) offer various specialisms and cater to larger clients. 

These companies have expanded their services beyond traditional accounting, Tax, and advisory solutions to specialized areas such as:

  • Data Analytics
  • Technology and revolution
  • Sustainability solutions
  • ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) 
  • M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions)
  • Massive business transformation


Moreover, the ‘Big 4’ firms have established themselves as trusted auditors and advisors to some of the world’s giant corporations in various industries, including the FTSE 100 and FTSE 350 companies. 

By working for any of the ‘Big 4’ firms, you will earn the opportunity to gain exposure to prestigious clients and high-profile projects, which can enhance your professional reputation and broaden your business network.

On the other hand, small-tier firms also offer a range of specialisms outside of traditional accounting and advisory services. However, their consultancy practices are often smaller in scale compared to the Big 4.

These firms often cater to local businesses, startups, and individuals, offering personalized and tailored solutions to meet their needs.

2. Salary and Compensation

There are notable differences when comparing the salary and compensation offered by the ‘Big 4’ and small firms.

Professionals who secure jobs in the EY, KPMG, Deloitte, or PwC can expect market-leading salaries and comprehensive benefits packages. 

However, it’s important to note that these heavy wages often come with increased expectations and demanding workloads.

An ex-EY Director highlighted the potential for significant wealth by saying, “If I had stayed at EY and made it to partner, I would have been a wealthy man but pursuing wealth should not be the sole determinant in career choices, as personal happiness and work-life balance also hold importance.” (Source)

On the other hand, small firms in the SMP accounting sector generally cannot match the salaries and compensation packages offered by the Big 4 firms.

These small firms often aim to attract top talent by providing a better work-life balance and a more pleasant working environment. (Source)

Here is a comparison of the senior-level consultant salaries at the ‘Big 4’ and small but considerably reputable firms:

Senior-level consultant salaries at Big 4Senior-level consultant salaries in SMPs
Deloitte$130,925 Marcum$97,307
Large skyscrapers in square in New York
Senior-level consulting salaries are significantly higher at Big 4 companies than smaller firms

3. Working Hours and Work-Life Balance 

Working hours can be a significant differentiating factor between Big 4 and small firms. Here’s a comparison of workload between the two:

1. Big 4 Firms: Working Schedule 

‘Big 4’ firms are known for their demanding work schedules. You may often have to work long hours, including weekends and late nights, especially during peak periods such as Tax season or audit deadlines.

The demanding nature of the work at these firms can make it challenging to maintain a healthy work-life balance, leaving little time for social life, ultimately leading to potential burnout.

Andreea Ivan FCCA, a financial auditor at KPMG Romania, emphasized that “Working in the ‘Big 4’ often involves long hours, extensive traveling, and overtime during audit season.” (source)

2. Small Firms: Potential for Better Work-Life Balance 

Compared to the ‘Big 4,’ small firms may give you a more balanced working schedule. While busy periods may still exist, they are less frequent and intense.

These firms prioritize maintaining a healthy work-life balance for their employees by providing more flexible working hours, allowing them greater control over their schedules.

4. Growth Opportunities

‘Big 4’ firms typically have a more significant number of partners compared to small firms. This means there is potentially more room for your growth but fewer chances of advancement to partner positions. (Source)

However, these firms are known for their robust learning and development programs. They invest significant resources in training, upskilling, and professional development initiatives. 

This focus on continuous learning provides employees with valuable skills and knowledge that can support their career growth and progression.

On the flip side, small firms may have fewer layers of hierarchy, allowing for faster career progression. 

You may have the chance to accept more responsibilities and gain broader experience earlier in your career. This can also accelerate your path to senior positions or even partnerships. (Source)

Additionally, small firms offer more flexibility and autonomy in decision-making and client management. This environment can foster an entrepreneurial spirit, allowing employees to take on diverse responsibilities and directly impact the firm’s growth.

5. Global Mobility and More Extensive Networks

‘Big 4’ firms have a more extensive international network and greater mobility opportunities than small firms. 

With shared brand names and close connections between individual member firms, their professionals often have the chance to work in different locations or undertake international assignments. 

In contrast, small firms tend to have a localized focus and specialized expertise, catering to specific industries or regions. These small firms often promote an entrepreneurial environment and provide agility in decision-making. 


  • Will Bennett

    Will Bennett is a Cambridge graduate. He worked as a Consultant and Senior Consultant at Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in London. Will is the Founder of The Cambridge Consultant.