mid-tier vs. big 4 accounting firms

Mid-Tier Accounting Firms: Pros and Cons vs. Big 4

When it comes to starting an accounting career, we’ve looked at Big 4 vs. small firms. However, those aren’t your only choices. Mid-tier accounting firms have a lot to offer, both in terms of salary and work-life balance. Additionally, according to the Australian Financial Review, mid-level accounting firms have been growing faster than the Big 4 recently.

Life at Mid-Tier Accounting Firms

Not all mid-market accounting firms are the same. For example, working at RSM, BDO, or Grant Thornton will be quite a bit different from working at a firm with 1,500 employees. However, there are some commonalities to these jobs.

Size

Before we get into details, it’s good to know what is considered a medium-sized firm in accounting. Essentially, the Big 4 are the top-tier firms in terms of size and revenue, and they’re in a field all their own. According to Accounting Today, the smallest of the Big 4, KPMG, had 35,736 employees as of 2019. RSM, the next-largest US firm, had only 9,670 – about a quarter of KPMG’s size.

Thus, you could classify the largest mid-size accounting firms as those with fewer than 10,000 employees. They also offer international services, but on a smaller scale than the Big 4. Additionally, they span multiple geographic regions and work with middle-market companies. If we consider the top 20 or so US firms beneath the Big 4 to be mid-tier, these are firms with between 1,000 and 10,000 employees.

On the smaller end, regional accounting firms typically operate out of one or two regions, though they may have multiple locations throughout that region. Below that are boutique and local firms. So, essentially, medium-size accounting firms are smaller than the Big 4 but larger than regional firms.

Salary

Since larger companies have more resources and tend to pay higher salaries, it makes sense that the average starting salary at a mid-tier accounting firm is less than a Big 4 but more than a small firm. You’ll typically start between $48,000 and $66,000 a year. As a junior CPA with 1-3 years of experience, you can expect to make between $57,000 and $81,000 a year. At a senior level with 4-6 years of experience, your salary will usually fall between $70,000 and $100,000. Finally, as a manager or director, you can expect to earn between $85,000 and $122,000 at a mid-tier firm.

Here’s a more specific breakdown of mid-tier accounting firm salaries by job title from Robert Half’s 2021 Salary Guide. Unfortunately, the guide no longer breaks down salary by firm size, but these represent the 50th to 75th percentile, which is about where mid-tier firms fall.

Starting salary Junior Senior Manager Senior Manager
Tax services $49,000- $57,250 $59,750- $70,500 $73,250- $87,250 $107,000- $127,000 $137,500- $165,000
Audit/assurance services $49,000- $57,250 $54,500- $64,250 $66,750- $78,500 $93,500- $110,000 $134,750- $161,000

 

As for a medium accounting firm partner salary, that will once again vary based on the size of the mid-tier firm, but it typically ranges from $200,000 to $800,000 a year. In contrast, the typical partner salary of a small firm of 10-50 people is closer to $140,000-$150,000 a year. At the Big 4, however, partner salaries start around $300,000 for the first year and can go as high as $3,000,000 after a decade or more. Once again, a partner salary at a mid-sized accounting firm lies somewhere between the small firms and the Big 4.

Type of Work

It’s no surprise that the biggest international clients and richest individuals go to Big 4 firms for their accounting needs. Thus, you’ll work with slightly smaller clients at mid-tier firms, though they still may be international companies. Additionally, since fewer employees are at a mid-tier firm, you’ll be called on to fill more roles and thus gain a broader range of experience. These firms have fewer resources than the Big 4, so there’s less streamlining and systematization of work processes. Also, you may work with older technology or software.

Hours

The trade-off for the smaller salaries at mid-tier accounting firms is that you’ll work fewer hours than you would at a Big 4 firm. Indeed, many people choose to leave the Big 4 to find a better work-life balance. You’ll still work longer hours when it comes to busy season, but during the rest of the year, the hours are closer to 9-5. There’s a substantial difference between the normal working hours at a mid to large accounting firm vs. Big 4.

Workplace Culture

If small firms feel like families, Big 4 firms can feel like huge, cold corporate entities. A mid-tier firm is a good compromise. It won’t feel small enough to be claustrophobic, nor is it large enough for you to get lost. You’ll know and develop relationships with your co-workers, but you’ll also get to work with people outside your department.

Plus, employee turnover in medium-sized accounting firms is much lower than at the Big 4 since many people are temporarily working at the largest firms for the resume boost. There’s also the fact that advancement is so important at the Big 4 that it fosters a cut-throat environment. You’ll feel much less of that at a mid-tier firm.

Advancement

Given the size of the Big 4, there are more opportunities for advancement there. However, there’s also the expectation that you’ll be more geographically mobile. That is, if the firm has a better job for you in another state or even another country, you’ll be expected to move there. Moreover, since the Big 4 have more partners than mid-tier firms, you stand a better chance of making partner there. However, you will also face fierce competition from your many fellow employees.

Exit Opportunities

Overall, Big 4 firms are still unmatched when it comes to buffing up your resume. Smaller firms prefer to hire former Big 4 employees over those from mid-tier accounting firms. There’s a reason that medium-sized firms are sometimes called “second-tier.” That said, taking a job that doesn’t suit you just because it looks good on your resume isn’t the best career path for everyone.

Working For a Mid-Tier Accounting Firm: Pros and Cons

Ultimately, here’s what it boils down to when it comes to Big 4 vs. mid-tier firms.

Pros of Mid-Tier Accounting Firms

  • Better work-life balance. You’ll work less overtime, and you may not need to work nights and weekends outside of busy season.
  • Less pressure. While you’ll still be expected to produce high-quality work, there won’t be the same high-pressure environment you’d feel at the Big 4.
  • Decent salary. Although you won’t make quite as much as you would at the Big 4, you’ll still make a good salary compared to smaller firms, particularly as you advance.
  • Broader practical experience. You’ll work on a greater variety of things and stages in the auditing process, gaining good experience and helping you prepare to take the CPA Exam.

Cons of Mid-Tier Accounting Firms

  • Medium-range salary. Mid-tier firms make less revenue than the Big 4 and thus pay their employees less.
  • Less chance for specialization. At the Big 4, you may spend a great deal of time with a single client working on a single part of an audit, allowing you to specialize.
  • Less chance to make partner. Mid-tier firms have fewer partners and potentially more office politics, making advancement more challenging.
  • Fewer exit opportunities. A mid-tier firm, even a large one, doesn’t look quite as good on your resume as a Big 4 firm.

Mid-Tier Accounting Firms List

If we consider accounting mid-tier firms to be those with between 1,000 and 10,000 employees, here are the 20 firms that fit this bill. This data comes from Accounting Today’s 2019 list as ranked by revenue.

Firm Name Total Employees 2018 Revenue
RSM US 9,670 $2,141,720,000
Grant Thornton 8,556 $1,865,220,000
BDO USA 6,592 $1,470,000,000
CLA 5,521 $954,000,000
Crowe 4,510 $923,900,000
CBIZ & MHM 3,876 $784,910,000
Moss Adams 3,076 $691,000,000
CohnReznick 2,659 $645,000,000
BKD 2,611 $594,620,000
Baker Tilly 2,901 $578,400,000
Marcum 1,784 $549,750,000
Plante Moran 2,495 $542,580,000
Dixon Hughes Goodman 2,001 $430,000,000
EisnerAmper 1,401 $360,000,000
Wipfli 1,819 $323,600,000
Carr, Riggs & Ingram 1,975 $305,970,000
Eide Bailly 2,044 $299,200,000
Citrin Cooperman & Co. 1,045 $270,000,000
Armanino 1,165 $268,000,000
Withum 1,031 $206,200,000

 

Final Word

So, why mid-tier over Big 4? Usually, it comes down to work-life balance. Most people who work at small to medium accounting firms do so because it allows them to spend more time with their families or pursue hobbies. However, a mid-tier firm will still provide a better salary and more opportunities than most small-sized firms. Your choice will come down to your career and lifestyle priorities.

FAQs

What are the mid-tier accounting firms?

Generally speaking, the medium accounting firms size refers to the largest ten to twenty firms below the Big 4. RSM, BDO, and Grant Thornton are the largest and most well-known of these firms

Which are the best medium-sized accounting firms?

The best firm for you is, as always, the one with the work environment that suits your life and needs. You’ll have a different experience at, for example, Eide Bailly, which is headquartered in North Dakota, than you would at RSM, which is headquartered in Chicago. Finding medium-sized accounting firms is easy, so do some research into the firms’ corporate culture to decide which one is the best for you.

How many employees are there in a mid-size accounting firm?

Between 1,000 and 10,000 employees are working at a mid-tier accounting firm.

About the Author Stephanie

I am the author of How to Pass The CPA Exam (published by Wiley), and I also passed all 4 sections of the CPA Exam on my first try. Additionally, I have led webinars, such as for the Institute of Management Accountants, authored featured articles on websites like Going Concern and AccountingWeb, and I'm also the CFO for the charity New Sight. Finally, I have created other accounting certification websites to help mentor non-CPA candidates. I have already mentored thousands of CPA, CMA, CIA, EA, and CFA candidates, and I can help you too!

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