Heritage, community and steady growth – what more could you want from this established Black Country firm?
“It is a barren wasteland, riddled with fire, ash and dust. The very air you breathe is a poisonous fume.” Don't worry, this isn't a trainee quote: it's actually Tolkien's description of Middle-earth's dodgiest neighbourhood, Mordor, which is thought to have been based on the Black Country during the smog-filled industrial revolution. Thankfully, things in the area have moved on quite a bit since then; prospective trainees can rest assured that Higgs & Sons' contemporary office in Brierley Hill's Waterfront Business Park bears little resemblance to the fiery chasms of Mount Doom or the filthy forges of a bygone age.
“We have been a part of the community for 140 years.”
Still, this is a firm that places great value on its history. “We have been a part of the community for 140 years,” managing partner Paul Hunt explains. “We're a big employer and for many years we've been involved in charity and CSR work in the area.” On the lawyerly front, Higgs is one of the best-known firms in the region, and picks up a collection of top Chambers UK rankings for its private client, personal injury, family, crime and clinical negligence expertise. Its corporate practice also earns high praise for its work with SMEs and owner-managed businesses.
Size-wise, sources felt that Higgs has got it just right: “The firm's big enough to make an impact on the market and not feel like a nameless high-street firm, but at the same time it's small enough to maintain strong community roots and distinguish itself from larger national firms in the area.” Hunt elaborates on Higgs' market position: “There is a lucrative middle ground that we service well. Our job over the coming years will be to exploit that to the best of our ability. Larger firms have been increasingly focusing their attention on the higher end of the legal market, leaving behind an interesting space for us to work within.”
It's a strategy that's worked well for Higgs, according to our trainee sources: “Our revenue grew consistently through the recession and we're anticipating further growth: our private client department is as strong as ever and we're expanding our commercial side.” Such plans mean that Higgs is “running out of space quite quickly,” but Hunt confirms thatthe firm won't be vacating its Waterfront office just yet; instead Higgs is “working with work space planners to see how we could use the existing space more advantageously. 'Agile working' is the buzz phrase, and we'll be taking advantage of new ideas.”
Divorce without any higgups
The seat structure at Higgs is a little different: trainees complete four four-month stints before returning to the department they'd like to qualify into for a bumper eight months. This arrangement went down well with trainees, who felt that the “eight-month seat is important as it helps you to develop more confidence before qualifying so you can hit the ground running.” Before starting, trainees are sent a list of the firm's 12 seats, which they then rank in order of preference to help determine their first four seat destinations. “For the most part people get their top four, but things can change depending on the firm's business needs.”
“We do everything,” said one insider of Higgs' private client department. It contains “sort-of” sub-teams, covering estate planning, charities, care and capacity, general wills, and residential property work. “As a trainee you sample everything and are encouraged to do so.” Trainees are eased in with “more basic will drafting” but soon progress “to drafting more complex deeds of variation, lasting powers of attorney and eventually running our own estate files with supervision.” Good people skills are a must: “There's a lot of face-to-face client exposure and you even conduct client meetings on your own.” Who trainees meet is confidential, but in the past we hear clients have included sportspeople, TV personalities, regional charities and landed estate owners.
“They like to try and make sure you see matters from start to finish.”
If you found Gwyneth Paltrow's 'conscious uncoupling' technique too Hollywood-schmaltzy, why not give The Higgs Guide to Divorcing Well a try? Published in April 2017, the book aimed to provide clients with basic guidance before they sought legal advice. However, when adamant divorcees come knocking on Higgs' Waterfront doors, trainees should be ready and waiting to file divorce applications and organise financial remedy proceedings. “They like to try and make sure you see matters from start to finish,” sources explained, with one detailing their experience of “helping to draft and bundle all of the court documents before attending the final financial dispute resolution hearing.” Contentious matrimonial issues aside, the department advises clients on how to protect their wealth, so matters regularly involve trusts, pensions and pre-nuptial agreements with a range of £1-20 million at stake.
A hybrid personal injury and clinical negligence seat is one of the firm's “more emotionally challenging” options. Road traffic accidents, industrial disease claims and head and spinal injuries are all dealt with on the PI side. Sources found this work “very procedural,” and recalled that they were “often the first point of call for incoming claims – as they progress we're always involved in negotiating with the other side as they try to settle.” The clinical negligence team is also claimant-focused, and is especially known for its expertise relating to cerebral palsy and catastrophic brain injury cases. These matters are “highly technical: you often have to try and be both doctor and lawyer to understand what's going on, but despite being difficult it's nice to feel like you're making a genuine difference.”
Corporate is similarly divided into loose subgroups: tax, commercial, succession planning, corporate transactional and insolvency. Many of the deals involve local businesses operating within the engineering, manufacturing, technology, healthcare and franchising spheres. However, regional clients do bring in deals with broader dimensions: the group recently advised the shareholders of Worcestershire-based Westbridge Foods during a sale to a Thai food producer and supplier. Our sources had “a lot of involvement in the due diligence process” and cut their teeth drafting board minutes before progressing onto chunkier asset purchase agreements. “We're also encouraged to attend meetings and assist with negotiating – even on the larger deals.”
Getting higgy with it
Away from the rat race of the capital, Higgs “is certainly not a firm that promotes the past 6pm working ethic. The policy is to get the work done within the hours; if you're here past six, they would question your productivity.” Still, despite agreeing that the “hours are fairly consistent and the work/life balance very good,” sources did reveal that corporate can come with the occasional 11pm finish.
“Our fund-raising activities are always in the local paper!”
“The atmosphere is quite laid back,” thought interviewees. “They look for genuine people with commercial acumen and a knack for working with individuals: we're professional but you can also have a laugh with clients and develop bonds with them.” While there's “obviously a hierarchy,” insiders “never felt at the bottom of the pile” and “sometimes forgot” that they were chatting with a partner. A nice mix of social events helps to keep things more egalitarian: the annual family day recently came complete with a bouncy castle and a BBQ (not the greatest combo for healthy digestion), while the firm's winter ball was held in Birmingham's Botanical Gardens and flagged as another highlight. Residing in a business park off of the A4036 may not lend itself easily to impromptu trainee drinks, but our sources kept an active social life via their membership of the Birmingham Trainee Solicitors' Society: “We get to meet up with other trainees in the area and attend bowling nights, wine tastings and even trips away – we went to Dublin recently.” Trainees are also kept busy organising events to fund-raise for the firm's chosen charity of the year: “Last year we supported the Stroke Association, but we also do a lot of work for the Business in the Community initiative – our fund-raising activities are always in the local paper!”
After a disappointing retention round in 2016 (which saw no qualifiers retained), 2017's was much better: all five second-years were offered NQ positions and accepted.
How to get a Higgs & Sons training contract
The only way into Higgs is through a direct training contract application. Senior HR manager Helena Flavell tells us: “We don’t offer a vacation scheme at present, however, following a high volume of enquiries, this is something we are looking to introduce in 2018.”
Initial application is by form which may be completed online for submission by email. Higgs historically receives upwards of 350 applications each year for its four to six training contracts.
Candidates must evidence strong academics, including high A levels and preferably a 2:1 degree. The form requires applicants to reflect on competencies like creativity, innovation, ability to work in a team and commercial awareness. Showing you've done extensive research into the firm is essential so make sure you read our True Picture on Higgs.
One trainee recalled the experience as “very informal and laid-back – it was actually quite fun. The partners don't try to catch you out with difficult questions; they try to find out what you're like as a person. It definitely felt less intense than other interviews I'd done”. Indeed, Flavell confirms: “It's very much a discussion between candidates and the panel, we want to make it easier for people to convey what they're all about.” The firm places a big emphasis on client care, so demonstrating great interpersonal skills is a must. “Candidates must be able to easily engage with and talk to people,” adds Flavell. “For this reason, the selection process is more heavily weighted on the interview.” Other elements include a group exercise and presentation –“candidates are given a legal scenario and asked to give their opinion which enables us to gauge how they fit into a team” – and a tour of the office.
How to wow
“Our ideal candidate will be commercially aware and client-focused, someone we can put in front of clients,” says Flavell. A trainee agreed: “You need to be someone who gets on with people in this job, you’re not going to be stuck away here; within the first few days you'll be introduced to several clients.”
Legal work experience is also desirable. Flavell confirms: “We prefer people who can hit the ground running having had some previous exposure within a law firm.” He continues: “There’s significant competition for training contracts so it’s vital to demonstrate you’ve got something extra.” Moreover, she points out, “how else would you know that's the environment you want to work in?” Vacation schemes with other firms or experience as a paralegal should do the trick.
Non-legal work experience also “goes a long way towards gaining transferable skills and demonstrating the requisite commercial awareness,” says Flavell. “It all adds up – bar work, restaurant work, anything to help you become a well-rounded individual.”
Interview with managing partner Paul Hunt
Chambers Student: Where do you see Higgs & Sons' place in the legal market?
Paul Hunt: I think we have an interesting position in the market. We are not a national firm and we are not a high-street firm, but we're in a really good place in the middle. Our business clients are a mix: we service one-man-band start-ups and national corporates. We also work with a lot of owner-managed businesses and there's a private client market in our region which responds well to who we are and the services we provide.
CS: How has 2017 been for the firm?
PH: There's been growth in every department across the firm. Our corporate transactional side has been busy for quite some time and the pipeline of work coming in remains strong. There have been plenty of challenges to the business community and lots of uncertainty, but that doesn't seem to have impacted us negatively and we are still reporting strong revenue growth.
CS: Is having strong ties to the local community important for the firm?
PH: Very much so. It's part of our identity: we have been a big part of the community for 140 years. Recently we've been working with 'Business in the Community' which is all about facilitating specific projects and activities in the area. For example, we've helped clear a local National Trust property and conducted numerous activity days with local school children such as painting and gardening. The trainees are a big part of that and are very actively involved in organising the events – they really throw themselves in. It's a great opportunity for trainees to develop their soft skills. For many years, we've also had a charity we support: in 2016 we raised £24,000 for the Stroke Association and in 2017 we're raising money for the NSPCC.
CS: Trainees told us the firm has done well in recent years, even throughout the recession. What's the plan moving forward?
PH: Our fundamental strategy hasn't changed – we want to continue to grow. We'll spread our word to would-be Higgs clients and keep close to our existing clients, working hard to understand their needs and how we can evolve to better cater to those needs. If we need to add more niche specialisms to our practice areas to support our clients then that is what we will do. I do think we occupy a good place in the market, and I think our job over the coming years is to exploit that to the best of our ability.
CS: How would you describe Higgs' working culture?
PH: There has to be a hierarchy to some degree, but we work hard to minimise it. With every single person who starts with the firm – from the most senior lawyers to junior office assistants – we sit down and talk them through our strategy to help them understand Higgs' philosophy. We are not selling widgets, we are selling the time and skills of our people, so we try hard to recruit the right people because that’s good for us and good for our clients.
CS: How can a candidate really impress at interview?
PH: Good academics are a given. Besides that, what we are looking for is personality and enthusiasm. We are ultimately looking for our partners for the future. You'll find that many of our partners trained here – I am one of them. When you come in for an interview, challenge us and ask us questions, but don't bring out a long pre-prepared list. Take a genuine interest. Some of our best interviewees have been the people who pushed back when discussing the firm – and some of those people are now partners here.
Higgs & Sons
3 Waterfront Business Park,
- Partners 36
- Associates 59
- Total trainees 10
- UK offices Brierley Hill
- Graduate recruiter: Helena Flavell
- Training partner: Paul Hunt
- [email protected] co.uk
- Application criteria
- Training contracts pa: 4-6
- Applications pa: 350
- Minimum required degree grade: 2:1
- Vacation scheme places pa: TBD
- Dates and deadlines
- Training contract applications open: 1 January 2018
- Training contract deadline, 2020 start: 31 July 2018
- Vacation scheme applications open: TBD
- Vacation scheme 2018 deadline: TBD
- Salary and benefits
- First-year salary: £23,500
- Second-year salary: £25,000
- Holiday entitlement: 25 days
- LPC fees: From 2018
- GDL fees: From 2018
- Maintenance grant pa: No
- Professional Skills Course: Yes
- International and regional
- Offices with training contracts: Brierley Hill
Higgs & Sons is different from the typical law firm. The firm successfully combines traditional values with an innovative approach to legal problems which has helped to attract an impressive client base whilst staying true to the local community. Clients and staff alike are attracted to Higgs’ ability to offer an all round service in several areas. The firm is proud to provide a supportive and friendly working environment within which colleagues can thrive. The opportunity for career progression is clear as almost half of the firm’s partners trained with the firm.
Main areas of work
For the private client: wills, probate, trusts and tax, employment, personal injury, clinical negligence, conveyancing, dispute resolution and matrimonial/family.
A training contract at Higgs is different from those offered by other firms. There is the unique opportunity to undertake six four-month seats in a variety of departments, including a double seat in the department in to which you wish to qualify as you approach the end of your training contract. Throughout the training contract you will receive a mix of contentious and non-contentious work and an open door policy means that there is always someone on hand to answer questions and supervise your work. Regular appraisals take place at the end of each seat and a designated partner oversees you throughout the duration of your training contract, acting as a mentor. Participation in BTSS events and an active Higgs social environment ensures an effective work life balance.
Open days and first-year opportunities
University law careers fairs 2017