But the proposed deals to create out of Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse on the one hand and KPMG and Ernst & Young on the other, two new combined entities each bigger than the present biggest, Andersen Worldwide, also mark something of a coming of age for these large international firms. Though they cling to the idea of being partnerships, they have already aped their clients in such ways as having executive management teams, setting stringent performance targets and - in a few cases - publishing financial details about themselves.
Moreover, they talk less about their profession than about their industry. If the two planned mergers are successful that process will only continue at a quicker pace. There is no way that a firm with upwards of 8,500 partners and $13bn-odd in annual revenues - as would be the case with the Coopers- PW deal - is a partnership in anything but name.
All eyes will be on how successful the big players are in persuading regulators in the US, Europe and Japan that their merger plans will not act against the public interest. As Nick Land, UK senior partner of Ernst & Young, points out, this is not an all-or-nothing situation.
Even if the mergers are not waved through, the accountancy world will not look the same at the end of 1998 as it does today. Firms will seek to achieve their aims through other means, perhaps even merging in some parts of the world but not others. And, though commentators have worried about the concentration of big audits in few hands, it is clear that the protagonists are not losing sleep on this score.
Andersen and Deloitte & Touche, the two Big Six firms not so far involved in merger talks, are confident of picking up clients and staff from rivals attempting to merge. Firms in the so-called second tier and beyond are also likely to continue to consolidate in the hope of being better able to compete for some of the scraps left over from the Big Six's gnawings.
Running parallel with the urge to merge is the urge to break up. The Andersen organisation - despite continuing to grow at close on 20 per cent a year - spent much of 1997 trying to resolve the bitter row between its core accounting arm, Arthur Andersen, and Andersen Consulting, the specialist consulting business particularly known for big IT projects that was set up in 1989.
The dispute centres on the consulting arm's claim that the other business has been competing in its area of business despite receiving a pounds 100m-a- year subsidy from its sister operation. Just before Christmas, the AC partners stunned their colleagues in the rest of the business by calling for an arbitrator to settle the issue.
There is a certain irony - and not a little hubris - in the fact that just as other firms are following Andersen's lead in seeking to create a single global firm spanning all areas of professional services, the role model looks like falling apart. And if that happens, who knows what alliances might spring up.
- Roger TrappReuse content