to Partner in Big Firms: Truths and Trends
Robert E. Guinn, Sak Bhamornsiri, and Cindy Blanthorne
the profile of big-firm partners changed over time? What is
the average age of people making partner? How long does it
take to make partner? Will an advanced degree accelerate promotion?
Do audit partners have personal and professional characteristics
similar to those of tax partners?
questions are of interest to most accountants, from students
considering a career in public accounting to experienced
professionals pursuing partner status. Big firms are worth
focusing on for at least two reasons:
Big-firm public accounting experience is required, or
at least preferred, for many public and nonpublic accounting
Public accounting continues to be dominated by the big
firms that audit large publicly traded companies.
tests awareness of “truths” and “trends”
encountered on the road to partner in the big public accounting
Capabilities for Partners
an individual becomes a partner in a public accounting firm,
various capabilities must be acquired and demonstrated.
These capabilities are generally obtained through education
and work experience at various levels and, potentially,
types of employment. In addition, overtime work is a basic
element of a public accounting career, especially at big
article is based on two surveys of large-firm partners in
audit and taxation. The most recent survey included 402
respondents that were newly promoted to partner at the (then)
Big Five. The initial survey, reported in 1991, involved
392 partners from the (then) Big Six. Comparison between
the two surveys illuminates changes in the past 10 years.
CPA certification is essential to making partner: True.
Virtually all of the audit and tax partners surveyed were
CPAs. Tax partners were somewhat less likely to be CPAs,
but the average was still very high, 89%. At one time, public
accounting firms would not promote an employee from staff
to a senior or supervisory level without CPA licensure.
The 1991 survey found that 100% of the partners in both
audit and tax were CPAs. Over time, most of the big firms
have relaxed the CPA requirement, but the renewed focus
on the traditional lines of public accounting service may
once more make the CPA required for advancement.
takes more time than it used to take to make partner: True.
Individuals that wish to join a big firm commonly want to
know how many years it takes to make partner. The current
estimate is that it takes an average of almost 13 years
1). Compared to the previous survey, the time to make
audit partner has increased by approximately one year, and
the time to make tax partner has increased by one and one-half
advanced educational degree hastens the time to partner:
True. While individuals holding advanced degrees
seem to make partner faster than those with only an undergraduate
degree, the average difference is less than six months.
Only 23% of audit partners hold advanced degrees, compared
to 62% of tax partners (Exhibit
2). Thus, an advanced degree does not appear be a crucial
educational qualification for promotion to audit partner.
survey respondents are of an age that they were probably
not required to fulfill the 150-hour education requirement
in place for current graduates. Apparently, the undergraduate
education of most respondents that became audit partners
provided an adequate knowledge base for their promotion,
while the majority of those becoming tax partners sought
additional education. Education beyond an undergraduate
degree could be an expected norm in the taxation area because
typical undergraduate accounting programs do not include
much coursework in taxation. Although the majority of tax
partners hold an advanced degree, they did not make partner
faster than auditors or faster than fellow tax professionals
with only a bachelor’s degree.
make partner at a large firm, one must start at that firm:
False. While it is not necessary to start
and stay at the same firm, the majority of partners do just
that. In the audit area, 81% of respondents worked solely
for the firm at which they ultimately made partner. Interestingly,
since 1991, the percentage of new partners that make partner
at their original firm increased for both service areas.
In addition, partners that had prior work experience reported
that such experience was in public accounting. Thus, the
upside is that people do not have to start and stay at the
same firm to make partner. The downside seems to be that
it takes such people more time (approximately four additional
years) to make partner. The difference in time to make partner
with or without prior experience may indicate that firms
are not recognizing prior years’ service with other
firms as equivalent to years of service with their firm.
Consequently, partners with prior experience tend to be
older when admitted to the partnership than those without
partners are younger than they used to be: False. The
age at which people are admitted to the partnership has
increased. The percentage of new partners under the age
of 36 declined from 73% to 49% over the 10 years between
the two studies (Exhibit
3). The decrease for tax partners was greater than for
audit partners, but both groups reported at least a 20%
drop in the percentage making partner under 36 years of
age. A combination of factors may have caused the average
age of tax partners to be older; for example, tax partners
are more likely to have both prior work experience and a
new partners are male: True. The percentage
of female respondents admitted as partners has doubled in
the period between the surveys. While this may sound like
good news, the current percentage of females admitted to
partnership is only about 16% across both audit and tax
service lines. Related new hires for the years in which
current survey respondents were originally employed was
estimated to be approximately 45% female (using a three-year
average), as reported by McInnes and Sanders (“The
supply of accounting graduates and the demand for public
accounting recruits—1987; 1988; 1989”). The
large difference between female new hires and new partner
admittances highlights this continuing workplace challenge.
amount of overtime required to make partner has decreased
over time: False. In the last decade, most
public accounting firms have stopped paying employees for
overtime. However, respondents indicate that the number
of overtime hours worked has increased in both service areas
and at all firm levels. Exhibit
4 shows that the increase is relatively constant across
employment levels in auditing. The annual overtime hours
reported at the staff level in taxation increased most,
29%. The lowest increases reported were at the manager level.
The overall trend during the last 10 years is for big-firm
professionals to work more, not less, overtime.
Path to Partnership Has Become More Difficult
to partnership in a big firm has always been a lofty career
goal. Overall, the path to partner is more difficult than
in the past. New partners in the big accounting firms are
older, have more years of experience, and work more overtime
hours than they did 10 years ago.
E. Guinn, PhD, CPA, and Sak Bhamornsiri,
PhD, CPA, are associate professors, and Cindy Blanthorne,
PhD, CPA, is an assistant professor, all in the department
of accounting at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.