Boring, boring Irwin Mitchell

Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures

Irwin Mitchell: big all over the place

It’s not often that I feel sorry for law firm PR people, but I sense that Irwin Mitchell’s is getting a little fed up with being asked when the firm is going to float.

There has for some years been a widespread assumption in the market that it was a question of when, not if, this would happen. It has been reported in both the national and legal press as fact (although not on Legal Futures, on the old-fashioned basis that actually it wasn’t a fact).

Irwin Mitchell has never denied that a stock marketing listing is an option; but equally it has never said that one is going to happen. To clash a couple of clichés, it is both on the table and on the shelf – even more so now that the firm has announced that it is instead borrowing from its banks to finance its continued expansion.

But nearly three years ago, the firm very publicly stated its intention to seek external capital of some form – and it didn’t mean from the bank. So what happened?

To some extent, it is more a case of what didn’t happen – at that point, alternative business structures (ABSs) were due to start on 1 October 2011 and I think IM reckoned it would get through the process fairly quickly.

As it turned out, the doors at the Solicitors Regulation Authority didn’t open until January 2012 and IM was not licensed until August 2012, some 15 months after the external capital announcement. Things change over such a period. Further, it ended up with five licences for various bits of the business, which was not out of choice, I believe.

It has been a longstanding gripe of many that the uncertainty of the ABS licensing process makes it difficult to keep potential backers on board – it goes back to a problem I have flagged up many times before of the SRA’s liberal interpretation of the date from when the six months it has to decide on an ABS application begins to run.

Nonetheless, it has still taken IM a further 18 months or so to reach last week’s announcement, and chief financial officer Andrew Merrick – who has been in post for a year – was pretty tight lipped about what has gone on in the meantime.

It does not take a financial genius, however, to work out that stock market listings have not been particularly easy or popular over the last few years, and being the first law firm to float in the UK would add an extra layer of uncertainty.

Nonetheless, in the nicest possible way, bank funding is a rather boring way to go in the ABS era, especially for a firm which was so enthusiastic to usher in that era. But it is evidence that the biggest firms still prefer to borrow from the bank if they can, rather than put themselves in hock in some other way, such as to a private equity house – a sense further backed up by last week’s survey by Thomson Reuters of finance directors at the top 100 firms.

Of course, arguably the greatest pretender to IM’s crown as the UK’s leading consumer law firm is Slater & Gordon, whose incredible growth has by contrast been financed by its public listing in Australia some seven years ago.

Taking its Australian operations into account, S&G is of a similar size to IM, but in the UK, it still has some way to go to catch up. Size isn’t everything, of course, and I’ve written before about how effectively S&G is building awareness of its brand. At the same time, research has previously shown that IM is the best-known law firm name in the UK (not that I suppose the competition was that great), which is quite an achievement given that I still come across solicitors who recall it as a three-partner firm in Sheffield.

It would appear that IM, though planning “significant” expansion, does not currently need to grow in the same way that S&G has, and so does not require access to the same level of capital. The five acquisitions it has made since receiving its ABS licences are evidence of this – four debt collection businesses in a bid to dominate that low-profile market, and a niche, well-regarded personal injury firm. Nothing as eye-catching as S&G’s acquisition of Pannone earlier this year.

But then IM has quietly been doing lots of clever things for a long time, away from its headline-grabbing personal injury work. Research last year showed it is one of the country’s leading legal white-labellers, and the firm describes itself as the “number one provider of commoditised services to major institutions”. And that’s not to ignore the impressive expansion into business law services in recent years as well.

While the way it has gone about raising money may be boring, Irwin Mitchell’s story is anything but.

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