If you ask someone at a big bank for career advice, they will usually answer that it is best to work for a bulge bracket. However, if you ask someone at a boutique, they too will likely favor their own career path. So, who is right? That depends mostly on you. For me, a small boutique aligned with my true motivations.
A friend who switched from a major bank to a boutique once referred to boutiques as a "tailored suit.” While big banks often offer the full range of products and make a lot of pointless "pitches,” boutiques are often much more focused on projects that generate sales. Often, I get the impression that people go to a bulge bracket because of the big name. You should think about your own motivation and be totally honest about what’s important to you.
I find that boutiques are much more entrepreneurial than bulge brackets, but many are also more selective, even if they lack the name recognition of bigger full-service banks. This is because most boutiques do not offer any other products apart from advice. Therefore, they are dependent on selecting top employees for the one specific product. The quality of boutique employees is measured by how hands-on they are. For some boutiques, there is often limited formal training, so people already need to know how things are done and be able to hit the ground running. This also results in more responsibility early on.
Names aren’t everything, junior
While an elite boutique is often as exhausting as a bulge bracket, working at smaller boutiques can be a lot more enjoyable in terms of working hours and colleagues. For smaller boutiques, gaining entry can ironically be even easier than at larger boutiques and at big banks. Smaller boutiques often bring on a lot of interns for their size because they do not have strong HR teams and are therefore less committed to structures and more entrepreneurial. If you are good, you have a better chance of standing out.
If you are looking to land a junior position at a boutique, you don’t necessarily need to have interned previously at an investment bank, though having gained experience in comparable areas is certainly advisable. These include auditing or similar matters at the Big 4 or other accounting firms, where advice accounts for a large proportion of the work. Once you've completed a first internship at a smaller boutique, you can also apply to the elite boutiques.
When it comes to interviews, it's a good idea to work out why you want to work for a boutique and not a bulge bracket. This is one of the first questions you’ll be asked. Reasons could be that you prefer client-facing or that you want to be fully committed to M&A or a specific niche group to which you are applying.
At the end of the day, smaller and larger boutiques usually differ only in logo, deal size and working atmosphere. Otherwise, it's pretty much the same.
Mark Davis is a pseudonym for a senior banker who now works at a boutique after having previously been employed at a major international bank.