Boutique vs. Large Consulting Firms - What are the Reasons Behind a Candidate's Choice?

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Author : Steve Polen
Published: April 20, 2012

When making the decision to apply for a position in consulting, candidates struggle to choose between a big firm and a small boutique. It is a highly personal choice that will impact the course of your career in major ways. Graduates and experienced hires will take in account 5 main factors. Understanding those is key to influence a candidate’s decision to join your firm.

Salary and promotion opportunities

Working at a smaller firm usually means having a less impressive brand name to put on your resume. Small firms are willing to compensate consultants by paying a higher wage.

Smaller firms also have a larger bonus pool and most exceptional performance will not go unrewarded. Larger firms have a more rigid hierarchy that determines employee compensation, meaning your raises are tied less to performance than they are to seniority.

Work hours

Consultants are almost always working under some form of pressure to release a product or make a recommendation sooner rather than later.

In general, small firms vary the most in terms of work/life balance because they have less person-power on which to draw when a deadline is drawing close. Consultants may have several weeks of relatively easy work but then be in a crunch for days at a time, only leaving work to sleep in their own bed.

Larger firms can punt assignments to other workers, so the equilibrium state is less volatile, but the workload averages out to be about the same.

Job security

Smaller firms that pay better may be an easier target for takeovers or restructuring efforts that kick you to the curb. This isn’t to say that larger firms don’t fire people—they do—just that larger firms are less likely to undergo significant change than they are to experience tweaks here and there.

If a smaller firm loses several key clients it may have to work for weeks without any meaningful income stream. The risk is a much more significant reality for smaller firms. In the event of an economic downturn, smaller firms can be less flexible with their resources and may be less capable of weathering the storm.

Professional growth

Smaller firms rely more heavily on their workers to fulfill a wider variety of roles. Whereas a larger firm may have you work on very similar projects year in and year out, a smaller firm may ask you to become much more of a generalist in consulting.

Consultants are more likely to work directly with clients if employed at a smaller firm as well. This could be good if the candidate’s role is to start his own practice or have aims of working in senior management, but it is a double-edged sword. Employees at larger firms who are able to specialize will develop a talent in their field much quicker and may have a more marketable skill set.

Long-term career goals

Does the candidate projects to be working as a consultant five years from now? Ten years? Is he planning to leave the industry or does he want to run it? If a candidate wants to be his own boss, working at a big name firm can help to provide the credibility needed to survive in private practice.

This may seem counterintuitive, as consultants at small firms get a wider variety of work experience. That being said, consultants at smaller firms can greatly benefit from working directly with big clients and in many cases it really does come down to whom you know and how you market yourself.

To see more on the consulting recruitment process read Dan Anderson's article or read Lew Sauder's article in order to gain a better understanding of the fundamental process.

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