When companies have big problems, they usually bring out the big guns. The benefits of using large law firms, audit firms, and other professional service firms are undeniable. These firms offer a depth of experience that is invaluable, and they have seemingly unlimited resources in terms of manpower. A large firm often has the ability to mobilize an engagement team quickly, and can bring in experts from around the world.
Does bigger mean better? Certainly the perception exists that larger firms provide better services. No one can fault an executive who chooses a big firm when trouble is brewing. There is an undeniable comfort level that comes with the big firms because they have established reputations and many resources. Even if the project goes poorly, no one can fault the executive who chose the large firm.
Contrast this with the risk of using a small law firm or forensic accounting firm. Most board members and shareholders have never heard of the small firm. Is it competent? Does it have the resources to handle an investigation of this size? What if something goes wrong? The executive who chose the small firm is going to feel the heat.
Gradually, companies are becoming more willing to use smaller professional services firms. The first clear benefit of a small firm is the ability to get significant expertise focused on your project. A small firm lawyer or accountant can have just as much knowledge as a big firm professional. The key is finding the right professional with a wealth of knowledge.
A small firm professional is often more accessible to the client. In addition, she or he is likely to be doing the bulk of the work on the engagement, making it easy to get timely updates from the front lines of the project.
Most important is the level of experience on a project. With a small firm, the client is less likely to have young, inexperienced staff members cutting their teeth on the client’s project. Who wants to pay for on-the-job training for young personnel, when they could instead pay a highly experienced professional to do the bulk of the work?
In addition, small firms can often control budgets better than large firms. Smaller firms are more likely to use non-traditional billing arrangements, such as fixed fees, and are often more cost-conscious. Larger teams can tend toward runaway fees, and the client doesn’t necessarily receive commensurate value.
Choosing between small and large firms is not an all or nothing type of thing. Large firms are well suited to many engagements, but on highly specialized assignments, it might make sense for management to seek out a solo practitioner or small firm with the right expertise. By focusing on getting highly-qualified professionals on a project, the company can often get greater value for its money.
Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, CFF is a forensic accountant and fraud investigator with Sequence Inc. in Milwaukee and Chicago. She has conducted hundreds of high-stakes investigations involving financial statement fraud, securities fraud, investment fraud, bankruptcy and receivership, and criminal defense. Tracy is the author of Expert Fraud Investigation: A Step-by-Step Guide and Essentials of Corporate Fraud, and has been qualified as an expert witness in both state and federal courts. She can be reached at [email protected] or 312.498.3661.