This article aims to answer some crucial questions that students and freshly qualified CAs have at the begining of their professional career. Students, begining their Articleship face an intriguing dilemma, whether to join an organization within the Big 4 or work with a small/medium sized firm? The same question is equally important for freshly qualified CAs. To have a meaningful analysis, let us first understand the difference in organizational structure at the Big 4 and comparitively smaller organizations.
The business units in the Big 4 are generally divided in three verticals: Assurance (Audit), Taxation and Advisory. Each vertical is further divided into several Special Business Units (SBUs) e.g. Assurance, inter alia, will have Statutory Audit and Internal Audit whereas Taxation will have Direct Tax and Indirect Tax, Advisory will have Mergers and Acquisitions and Due Diligence. The SBUs are further subdivided in groups which are headed by Partners or Directors. So while joining a Big 4 company, you will become part of any of the SBU's that has a requirement of resources (employees are referred to as resources in large organizations) at that point of time. There is also a concept of 'china wall' between different verticals i.e. one particular vertical does not have control over the functioning of other vertical and will not interfere in the activities of other vertical. Still, there are plenty of cross vertical assignments wherein say someone from the taxation team will be helping someone in the advisory team.
A small/medium firm is less structured. The hierarchy would be simpler and the segregation of business in different verticals will not be very stringent.
If you join a Big 4 organization, the exposure or experience that you get will depend on the group you join. You may or may not get to move across groups, across SBUs and across verticals. It all depends on the opportunities and requirements that arise between different verticals. These days, Big 4 are making increasing efforts to give article interns exposure in different verticals and SBUs. But the fact remains that these opportunities may or may not come your way. On the other hand, in a small/medium firm, since the business verticals are not strictly segregated, over a period, you will get exposure in all kinds of assignments that the firm has in its portfolio.
The clientele for the Big 4 is usually large corporates and multi-national entities. Thus the assignments involve working with large teams which have resources of different hierarchy. This has two implications. The positive side being, you get to rub shoulders with seniors who carry practical experience of many years and get to learn from their experience. On the flip side, there will be very little or no independence with you in the assignments. Working for a small/medium firm will give you a significant amount of independence in terms of planning and execution of tasks after you have spent some time with the firm and gained confidence of the seniors. You also get the benefits of experience of the seniors in the firm but in smaller teams however you may not get a fair understanding of group dynamic and processes.
These days, Big 4 and small/medium firms are at par in terms of flexibility in work timings and getting exam leaves as prescribed by ICAI. Generally small/medium firms are more lenient in terms of number of exam leaves however that again depends on your relation with the partners and business exigencies. Also, most small/medium firms work 6 days a week whereas all Big 4 across all locations work 5 days a week. This point is very crucial for students as they get one additional day per week to clear their academic backlogs.
Another important factor to consider is employability after articleship. Many articles are absorbed by the Big 4 company they have interned with. Human Resource managers in the Big 4 claim that around 85% of their partners started their career as article interns in the organization. Industry professionals also rate articleship experience from the Big 4 highly. However, the fact remains that it will be difficult to get a job outside your area of work experience even if you are employed with a Big 4 company. To elaborate if you have done your articleship in assurance, it will be difficult for you to get a job in taxation and vice verse. Small/medium firms tend to give you exposure in variety of fields like audit, taxation, project finance, etc which thus gives students a chance to pursue a wider horizon of job prospects post articleship. For those who plam to launch their own practice post qualification, I would suggest to go with a small/medium firm to get holistic experience.
Another factor that many students consider in their decision making is the stipend paid by the organization. While every Big 4 company pays a stipend that is substantially higher than the ICAI minimum requirements and that paid by most small/medium firms (at least in non-metro cities), it is advisable not to consider stipend as a factor while making the choice. The 3 years of articleship lay the foundation of your career. It is more important is that you choose a field that suits your requirements and interests. Do not treat articleship as job. Treat it as a learning experience.
To sum up, there is no right or wrong answer to this question. But in your decision making process, you should determine your area of interest, ask about clients/groups you would be working for, evaluate the pros and cons in an objective manner and not in a subjective manner. The decision you take here will affect the direction of your career significantly.
The Author, Pulin Doshi is a Chartered Accountant and an all India ranker with experience in large scale IFRS implementation projects across various industries.
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