How do you make partner at a Big4 accounting firm and how long does it take?

accounting-apps-bookkeeper-273691Authors: Fred Sroka, Dean of the GGU School of Accounting & Bruce F. Braden School of Taxation; Richard G. Carson, Senior Adjunct Professor, GGU; Wendell Hutchinson, Associate Professor, GGU.


Only 10% of the people who start with a public accounting firm ultimately make it to partner, but whatever time you spend in public accounting will pay dividends throughout the rest of your career. What skills does it take to make partner at an accounting firm and how long does it take? The authors of this post — Dell Hutchinson, Rich Carson, and Fred Sroka — are all retired “Big Four” partners who now teach for Golden Gate University. Here they share their perspectives on accounting career paths and planning.

What is a public accounting firm?

Public accounting firms are amazing service organizations. Unlike most of corporate America, you don’t report to a single boss. Instead, you likely will have many assignments with many different supervisors. This can be both a blessing because you are more empowered to chart your own career and a curse because it is easy to get overlooked or overcommitted.

Timeline and Skills

Here’s a quick summary of the different levels within accounting firms and a rough timeline to chart your progress along the way:

Associate: For the first 2 or 3 years of your career, you’ll be classified as an “associate”. That means you spend a lot of time doing what other people tell you to do. The learning curve is steep and the hours are long. Since you are reporting to maybe 5 supervisors, you have to learn how to budget your time, ask questions, and manage the expectations of people above you. The most important skill — for associates and on throughout your career — is your ability to communicate clearly, honestly, and effectively.

As to how far up the ladder you climb, who knows? However, unlike many other career paths, public accounting empowers you to chart your own course and provides a wide range of exciting alternatives…

Senior: After 2 or 3 years in public accounting, you should have developed the skills necessary to be “in charge” of a project”. That’s when you’re promoted to “senior associate”. The good news is that you now have associates below you, which gives you much more control and leverage. The bad news is that you need much better management skills to manage your time, your staff’s time, and your client’s expectations–all on multiple projects. Seniors tend to have the highest stress levels, and many talented professionals quit during their senior years because of the pressure.

Manager: If you’ve survived to year 5 or 6, project management has become a core skill. You’re now ready to move on to overall relationship management. As a manager, you are expected to work closely with the client to make sure that all the individual projects run smoothly, are delivered on time and are delivered on budget. Along with better project management and relationship management skills, your technical skills should rise another level as well. While seniors are expected to be able to spot errors, managers are expected to be able to spot risks and opportunities!·

Senior Manager or Director: While the promotion schedule is pretty consistent from associate through manager roles, the time required to move higher up the organizational chart varies widely. Somewhere after 8 years, you may be ready to move on to practice management. Managing a practice requires great technical skills, solid project management skills, good people and relationship management skills, and an ability to build teams and systems that can serve multiple clients effectively. Senior managers and directors are often subject matter experts in fields such as international tax, state and local tax, mergers and acquisitions. They run many client relationships and also help coordinate staff development and serve as technical resources for other teams.

In addition to communication, here is a list of needed skills as you climb the ladder:
Time Management
Project Management
Stress Management
Managing Client Expectations
Technical skills (audit, tax, consulting or a variety of other specialties)
Building teams and systems that can serve multiple clients effectively
Spotting risks and business opportunities
Meeting with current and prospective clients to sell services
Mentorship, growing professional staff, and building the firm’s culture for success
Dealing with urgent issues and managing the firm’s legal, professional, and ethical responsibilities

Partner: When are you ready to make partner or principal? Nowadays in the “Big Four” accounting firms (Deloitte, PwC [formerly PricewaterhouseCoopers], EY [formerly Ernst & Young], KPMG) 12 years is considered early, 15 years might be average; and some folks may take a little longer. Partners own the business, share in the profits, and have the ultimate ownership of all client relationships. It seems like the end of the professional road, but frankly it’s just another milestone in your professional development. As a partner, you’re partially architect (watching the market and designing your firm’s services to meet changing demand); partially a salesman (meeting with current and prospective clients to sell services); partially a fireman (dealing with urgent issues and managing the firm’s legal, professional, and ethical responsibilities); and partially a mentor (growing the professional staff and building the firm’s culture for success).

What accounting career paths are there?

Few millennials are confident of their career path 15 years into the future. Happily, you don’t need to commit to any single firm up front. The skills and personal brand built up in your first 5 years will produce dividends for the rest of your life, whether in public accounting or working in a corporate environment.

If you like people, like solving problems, and are willing to work hard, then public accounting can be a very rewarding career. As to how far up the ladder you climb, who knows? However, unlike many other career paths, public accounting empowers you to chart your own course, and provides a wide range of exciting alternatives (public accounting, private industry, government, nonprofit and academia) the further you climb up the mountain.

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