I often get the question “What is it like to work for the Big 4?” In many ways, working for the Big 4 is like working in a hurricane. Sometimes you’re in the “eye of the storm” and things are calm and relatively laid back. However, it is only a matter of time before the storm shifts and your world is turned upside down. Professionals at the Big 4, as is the case with other professional services firms, are at the constant mercy of their clients and their bosses. You will be pulled in a thousand directions every day and have a series of conflicting demands on your time. What follows is an example of a typical two hours in the life of a Big 4 First Year. This is an excerpt from my new book ‘The First Year All-Star Guide’. 

You arrive at the client site at 7:45 AM. You are the first one there so you have the luxury of getting your laptop booted up and connected to the client’s wireless network in peace. You open up your email and see that you received an e-mail from the Senior at 11:45 the night before. This is somewhat surprising since you went home at 11:30 PM and assumed that things would be quiet overnight. You open the e-mail and it is a message to the whole team stating that the Sr. Manager will be “in the database” that day and to make sure all your documentation is up to date. You breathe a sigh of relief because, unlike many of the other First Years, your documentation is top notch and up to date. [You will learn about the ‘Database’ and ‘Documentation’ in the next chapter]. While you’re reading this message you get another e-mail from the Senior, this time it is from his Blackberry. It states:

“Hey. The Sr. Manager is actually going to be coming out to the client today, can you get coffee for him and I. I don’t know how he take his coffee.”

You reply “Yes” and grab your keys. As you’re about to walk out the door another e-mail pops up. You decide to give open it, against your better judgment. It is the Controller of the client, Sean. He has some information for you regarding the request that you sent to Barbara the accounting manager yesterday for copies of 100 invoices:

“I spoke with Barbara yesterday and we are both concerned that you are asking for too much information. Last year the auditors only looked at 50 invoices and they made their own copies. Barbara will choose 50 of the 100 that you requested and copy them for you by tomorrow afternoon.”

There are five things wrong with this e-mail. 1) The firm’s audit guide specifically requires that you test 100 invoices to gain comfort on the account; 2) Even if you could get away with testing 50 invoices, Barbara wouldn’t be the one to choose which 50, you would; 3) When you spoke with Barbara yesterday she seemed happy to make the copies, why did she run to her boss and complain?; 4) Barbara had promised that the copies would be done first thing that morning, now it is going to take an extra day, which is a problem because… 5) You suspect that there is an issue with the account and it would have been the perfect opportunity to discuss with the Sr. Manager today. 

While you mentally process the implications of the e-mail (e.g. have to smooth over whatever is bugging Barbara, have to respond to the Controller, copying the Senior, to explain why the 100 invoices are needed, have to offer to make the copies yourself) you briskly walk out to your car to head to Starbucks. You realize that you don’t know how the Senior takes his coffee either. You determine that the best approach will be to get two large black coffees and then bring back an assortment of sugar, Splenda and half-half. You pray that neither of them takes skim milk or soy milk in their coffee. You spend your time in line thinking about the other items that need to get done that day.

You arrive at the client site just as the Senior is pulling into the parking lot. He says that he wanted to talk to you about some items and begins to rattle off a list of suggestions and issues that there is no way you can keep up with. You cling to the most important phrases and feel like you have enough information to make an attempt at what he is requesting. Your first lucky break of the day comes when the Senior reveals his preference for black coffee and is happy with your choice. 

Back at your desk you check your email and you don’t have any. At this point that is probably a good sign. Then you realize that your computer somehow got logged off the wireless network. You log back in and have a handful of new emails. There is one e-mail from the firm’s HR department, reminding you that you need to take an online ethics training class. You file this as a low priority and move onto the next e-mail, this one is from the Partner:


Thanks for all your hard work on the engagement. I just wanted to remind everyone to be mindful of the requests that we are putting out to the client. We must make sure to test smartly and efficiently so we don’t put any undue burden on the accounting department."

Uh-oh, did Sean talk to the Partner? If so it is an almost certainty that the Controller did not accurately describe the situation and most likely implied that you were putting out ridiculous requests. Ugh.

You finally begin to work on the assignments that you had planned for the day. You begin performing some audit procedure using the information that you collected the prior day. Just as you begin getting into a good flow the Sr. Manager walks in. You hand him his coffee and he adds one sugar. He seems to be looking around for some milk. Great. He doesn’t sit down right away but stands in the corner of the room with his blue blazer on, furiously flipping through his Blackberry. Without even looking up he speaks in your general direction and says, “Hey, Sean forwarded me an email. I hear you’re killing Barbara with invoice requests.” Before you can respond he says, “Don’t worry, Sean likes to push back on everything, just explain what you’re doing and he should be OK. Copy me on the response in case he has any follow-up.” 

Phew. That takes care of one headache. You quickly crank out an e-mail, briefly and succinctly explaining to Sean why you need the 100 invoices and copy the Senior and Sr. Manager. You’re feeling more confident in your choice so you don’t bother to offer to make the copies yourself. 

Finally, you return to your work. It is now 9:45 and you’re back to the position you started at two hours ago. Fortunately, you have another 10 hours before you can go home! 

Big 4 Guru

AuthorAndrew Argue