Sophie Wardell,

People Director, Higgs LLP


Sophie Wardell, People Director at Higgs LLP discusses the ravages of mental health in the profession, the importance of inclusion in an industry shrouded in privilege and how bringing the word to schools on what the job entails is opening up the talent pool...

Sophie Wardell,

People Director, Higgs LLP


Sophie Wardell, People Director at Higgs LLP discusses the ravages of mental health in the profession, the importance of inclusion in an industry shrouded in privilege and how bringing the word to schools on what the job entails is opening up the talent pool...

Sophie Wardell is People Director at Higgs LLP. As an English Studies graduate from Nottingham University, a career in HR was not her first thought but she hasn’t looked back and is an innovator in the profession for instilling diversity and inclusion strategies in purposeful ways that are making a difference to the new generation of lawyers. Here, she talks mental health, her inspirations and that all important D&I agenda that sees her sit proudly in the role of Chair of the Black Country Cornerstone Employer Group.

How it began:

Following her English Studies degree and subsequent Masters in London, Wardell’s first thought was to be a publisher but like many others she quickly realised that the money and the location didn’t quite add up to a positive outlook, “I had minus £2000 to my name and I realised that if you want to be a publisher you have to be in London and I thought I just can’t afford this.”

Like many graduates, she returned to the city of her alma mater moving in with her then boyfriend while she worked out what to do next. Wardell admits that the Midlands return was an inevitable step closer to her roots.

“I was writing my dissertation and I remember applying for a job but not really knowing what it entailed,” says Wardell, “I received a telephone call within minutes and a week later I started my first full-time job.” Working in recruitment was an eye-opener, the performance targets and juggle between client demands and candidate needs was relentless, for Wardell it felt like each job seeker was just viewed as a number.

Again, she had a second awakening, once in role, and concluded that being a salesperson wasn’t for her and, that being integral to the role she knew she needed to find a more appropriate niche which used the critical thinking she developed during her studies. Holding onto a passion for the people side of the work, she knew that she cared more about what fit was right as a recruiter for a person, allowing that to take precedence over a commission. “It was more important that I helped a person find something they wanted, I cared that their values and ambitions aligned with their new company – I still do!”

She moved in-house and began her CIPD qualification quickly assimilating the requisite HR knowledge and was soon offered a business partnering role within financial services. “I was lucky to gain a great deal of exposure within an entrepreneurial business early in my HR career. Empathy, commerciality and the ability to challenge the status quo were instilled as important qualities for success.”

I was lucky to gain a great deal of exposure within an entrepreneurial business early in my HR career. Empathy, commerciality, and the ability to challenge the status quo were instilled as important qualities for success

Sophie Wardell | People Director, Higgs LLP

It was the financial crisis of 2009, and Wardell learned quickly what it takes to be at the sharp end of a disaster and all that comes with restructuring and making people redundant. Brushing shoulders with lawyers during this time, she got an insight into the legal profession and an opportunity arose in a firm called Browne Jacobson in 2010. Using her knowledge and experience she began to develop a range of strategies for the firm she would stay at for almost a decade, watching it more than double in size and turnover. In 2019, the business was doing well, turning over £80 million per year across its five-office network. However, returning to work after a second period of maternity leave, Wardell believed she was ready to take on a director role but needed to find one that she could deliver despite the demands of having two young boys.

“Many Director roles require extensive travel, and it didn’t feel viable. I spoke to my very supportive husband and together we decided we would move to the West Midlands and closer to Birmingham where I grew up. Fortuitously a role came up at Higgs LLP, or Higgs & Sons as it was then, again it was in the legal sector, and I knew I could make my mark.”

Looking back, Wardell says it feels that the stars aligned. “Higgs is a smaller firm, and from the moment I walked through the doors for an interview it felt like home to me.” Yet, the timing of her arrival would not be plain sailing and almost six months after joining Higgs came the pandemic. “I remember talking to our Managing Partner and agreeing that we should close the office and suddenly I was at home permanently with these two small boys, and everything just felt like a bit of a blur. Some days it was hard to know which way was up.”

Being part of a smaller legal practice during the Covid pandemic meant that HR was hugely leant upon, however, and the visibility of the contribution that Wardell was making began to be noticed.

“In 2021 I was made a partner which is quite unusual in a law firm because partners are usually lawyers. I was also appointed to the firm’s Strategy Board and remain on the Board today,” this, she says is a ‘fantastic experience’ because she is able to help shape the vision of the business. It signalled an important change because Wardell became one of two women who were the first to sit on it.

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