140-year-old Higgs continues to grow while staying true to its Black Country roots.
Chip off the old block
Higgs & Sons can be a contrary kind of a place. It's “a high street firm that isn't a high street firm,” and a business that has closed one office while simultaneously “growing quicker than most predicted.” Nonetheless, this is mostly where the paradoxes end, and what emerges beyond doubt is that the beaming smiles on the firm's recently revamped website are anything but insincere. Chirpy trainees were quick to highlight Higgs' stellar local reputation: “Around here it's *the* law firm.” Though the Black Country is by no means a small pond – the region has a population of over one million – Higgs is most definitely a big fish. Reflecting its standing in the area, Chambers UK bestows top regional rankings on Higgs' private client, clinical negligence, personal injury, crime and family practices.
“Wherever you go, local people and businesses know our name and respect it,” trainees added. Recent local appointments do point to a generous helping of respect, especially for Higgs' younger lawyers: associate Rhian Gray was made vice-chair of West Midlands Resolution Group (a family law education provider), while her colleague, Adam Maguire, became president of an initiative called Future Faces, which was developed by the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce. In addition, Higgs has been increasing its profile of late: it's made multiple lateral hires to strengthen its corporate, private client, commercial property and dispute resolution teams – drawing in lawyers from larger national and regional outfits like Gateley and pre-merger Gowling WLG.
While it's clear that Higgs has growth on its mind, it's also apparent that it won't be going anywhere soon: the firm shut its small Kingswinford office in 2014 in order to keep everyone rooted in Brierley Hill, creating a more intimate 'high street' feel despite its growth (hence those paradoxes above). And this more close-knit vibe was certainly felt during the firm's 140th birthday celebrations in 2015: every employee was given a “£140 John Lewis/Waitrose voucher” and treated to fish and chips served up by the best chippy van in the Black Country. This kind of tender loving care is typical of a firm that still has a resident Higgs (consultant David Higgs) and tests its employees' blood pressure as part of its health and wellbeing policy.
A glass act
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. Incoming trainees have ten seat options to consider, spanning a range of commercial and more individual-oriented areas. About two months before their arrival date, they rate their top six preferences and a seat plan is developed for those first four destinations. “Everyone gets at least their top two,” sources informed us, though the firm's smaller size means that “the main determiner is business need.” Plus, “if a second-year wants to qualify in one of your preferences, they get priority.”
Higgs' private client department vies with its corporate one for 'biggest bull in the pen' status. It represents a mix of folk, from ordinary families to high net worth individuals and entrepreneurs. Probate and estates, preservation of wealth and tax matters are all handled here. There's also a “small but thriving” charities team within the department, which increasingly advises on Court of Protection care and capacity matters. Some of our interviewees opted for a charities-focused seat, and found the work “more corporate-focused: the charities are run like businesses, so my work involved liaising with the trustees on documents and taking minutes at meetings. The responsibility wasn't that high and everything would be checked by an associate.” Elsewhere, trainees were more enthusiastic, and reported drafting wills, powers of attorney and letters to clients, as well as “lots of client contact – you frequently get taken along to meetings.”
“They require a lot more initiative here.”
The focus in corporate is on local businesses operating within the engineering, technology, franchising and healthcare spheres. Deals – spanning acquisitions, disposals, investments and private equity matters – typically fall somewhere within the £1-10 million bracket: a recent highlight involved advising Walsall-based Brownhills Investments as it received £2.9 million to boost its subsidiary, Brownhills Glass (which, FYI, provided the glass for The Shard). “They require a lot more initiative here,” sources revealed, “as everyone's super-busy – they like you to try and get on with it.” Help is on hand if trainees get particularly stuck, but on the whole “you're encouraged to work things out by researching past deals.” On top of research, interviewees had updated due diligence questionnaires, filed disclosure documents and drafted a mix of warranties, SPAs and articles of association.
The dispute resolution department is split into commercial and real estate teams. The former handles a range of wrangles, from breach of contract and shareholder disputes, to fraud, product liability and patent squabbles. Two subsidiaries of French manufacturing pro Saint-Gobain – Jewson and Saint-Gobain Building Distribution – are major clients. The team recently secured a victory for the latter during a £360,000 dispute against Hillmead Joinery, which claimed SGBD had supplied it with defective laminate sheets. Real estate cases, on the other hand, frequently involve “tenants' rights, boundary disputes and commercial property issues.” Trainees typically work between both teams, and were full of praise. “It's rare to be given the same task twice as there are so many different cases to assist with: throughout you'll draft witness statements, defence claims, pre-action letters and court forms.”
“If you want to work really long hours, this isn't the firm for you.”
The clin neg team is known for its work on spinal, brain and birth injury claims, but has also been building its clout in a more niche area: cosmetic surgery. While the subject matter here is often distressing, the team's atmosphere helps trainees to deal with it: “There are two partners and they've built this whole department over a long period; they're so easy to talk to and they've created a really relaxed environment.” Work-wise, “it was a seat where I was given more responsibility: I was getting evidence from experts, analysing medical records, discussing breaches with counsel and going to clients' houses.”
Higgs shuts up shop at 8pm – giving you a pretty good idea of the kind of hours the firm's lawyers are expected to work. Potential workaholics take note: “If you want to work really long hours, this isn't the firm for you.” Those who want to stay later can, but they have to get a key from management so they can lock up when they're done. Even in corporate – the busiest department – days typically end no later than 7.30pm. All of the other practices have a uniform 8.30am to 6pm working day. With a good work/life balance on the cards, Higgs is known for attracting “more down-to-earth, family-orientated people – we don't employ machines!”
It might not push trainees to stay late, but Higgs does, according to our sources, “push us to succeed.” One told us: “You feel invested in, and we get a lot of training. We have the usual inductions and departmental training, but also sessions on things you wouldn't necessarily expect, like networking, confidence building and client service.” Trainees are kept in the loop via monthly departmental meetings and biannual presentations on the firm's financials. “You don't ever feel that there are secrets – if you want to go and see a partner about something they'll just tell you about it.” The reason for all this transparency? “They stress to us early on that they want us to eventually become partners.” In 2014 and 2015 retention rates were pretty good with seven of nine qualifiers staying on over the two years. 2016 was something of a letdown however with none of the six qualifiers retained.
An industrial estate in Brierley Hill might not sound like the most glam location from which to embark on your legal career, but Higgs' office is anything but drab. Newly opened in 2010, it's “really modern and open-plan,” with a lovely waterfront view to boot. One downside is that “you can feel a bit isolated from the rest of the local trainee community,” but interviewees made the extra effort to hobnob by attending local business events and joining the Birmingham Trainee Solicitors' Society: it organises balls, pub crawls and trips abroad for young local lawyers. And while Higgs' lawyers are often eager to get home, they do reserve some time for mingling at quarterly drinks in the atrium, departmental shindigs and morale-boosting Christmas/summer parties – the former of which was recently held at the Wolverhampton Wanderers' Molineux stadium.
Can't drive? We'd recommend signing up for some lessons, as “the firm's location means a driver's licence will make life much easier for you.”
How to get a Higgs & Sons training contract
Training contract deadline (2019): 31 July 2017
The only way into Higgs is through a direct training contract application. Senior HR advisor Simon Lord tells us: “We don’t currently offer a vacation scheme although this is something we’re considering as we receive a high volume of enquiries.”
Initial application is by form which may be completed online for submission by email. Higgs historically receive 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, Lord 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 Lord. “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 Lord. 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. Lord 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, he 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 Lord. “It all adds up – bar work, restaurant work, anything to help you become a well-rounded individual.”
Higgs & Sons
3 Waterfront Business Park,
- Partners 34
- Fee earners 120
- Total trainees 9
- Contact Helena Flavell
- Method of application Online application form
- Selection procedure Assesment day including interview
- Closing date for 2019 31 July 2017
- Training contractspa 4-6
- Applications pa 350+
- % interviewed pa Varies
- Required degree grade Preferably 2:1
- Training salary (reviewed annually)
- First year: £23,500
- Second year: £25,000
- Holiday entitlement 25 days pa
- Post-qualification salary £32,000
- % of trainees offered job on qualification 100%
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 also staying true to the local community. Clients and staff alike are attracted to Higgs’ ability to offer an all round service in a number of 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 more than half of the firm’s partners trained with the firm.
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