career advice for starting at "big-4" firms

Cross-posted on Google+:

In the fall of 2000, I started working for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), fresh out of law school. I started work in the dot-com-bust economy, when finance and legal jobs were difficult to find and keep. I stayed for nine years, leaving after I was promoted to Director. I was lucky, in many respects. I have some friends who are starting their legal and finance careers in the Big-4 firms this year, so I wrote the advice below for them. 

Some context for those not familiar with the first few years at a Big-4 firm: It's tedious work, with very long hours, and a high level of frustration around long-term career paths. When the economy is bad, low performers are quickly targeted.

Go to work with an attitude that you are willing to do anything, even outside what you want to do. You want to be the go-to person with the positive attitude. Offer to help, understand what is needed, and deliver the best product you can.

Every task is an opportunity to learn, even if how to operate the copy machine more efficiently. Take every opportunity to develop strong tax technical skills in many areas. Those skills will pay off many times over. Learn broad concepts first, then go for more depth in areas that will offer the best long-term potential.

Get to know your coworkers, especially those above you, and even if they seem out of reach. Good quality mentors at the higher levels (including partner) are the key to your success. Seek feedback from them often. At any time in your career if you lack good quality mentors, find new ones. And when you are in a position to mentor others, treat them well. Be friends with the administrative folks, they know how to get stuff done.

Some days you might feel lost, overwhelmed, and frustrated. You might feel like you don’t see the future career you want to embark upon. You may not feel that the opportunity you have is very good, or pays very well. You will want to quit. To quote a YouTube meme: It gets better. If you are focused and take advantage of the opportunities you will be given, it will get better, fast. But you will have to be patient the first few years during what will be a difficult learning curve in a sometimes painful environment. Stick with it, because the opportunities you will have in your career will be beyond what you are currently expecting.

Stay focused on your objectives (the stuff above). Don’t be distracted by administrative crap like the goals you will be asked to set (they are rarely the goals you should be focused on); stressing about chargeable hours (do well and the hours will come to you); the silly policies the firm will set (just a distraction); and the load of other administrative crap you will experience. Your success will never be determined by how well you do administrative crap. Just do it quickly, and move on to what your success will be determined by: Providing high quality, deep technical service to internal and external clients.

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