Express, Ince, NAHL and Fletchers step up PI market activity

Crorie: First four pupils to start in September

The continued growth of Express Solicitors – which is to start training up pupil barristers – kicks off our round-up of significant activity among leading personal injury (PI) firms.

The Manchester law firm has become what it says is the first claimant PI firm to offer pupillage after winning approval from the Bar Standards Board.

Express said that, unlike those at chambers, its pupils would be on their feet in their first six months, and not just their second six, subject to satisfying certain criteria.

The head of pupillage is Nyssa Crorie, who was hired as Express’ first in-house barrister in 2016 and promoted to partner in 2019 with a brief to build the firm’s advocacy department. She said the first cohort of four pupils would be recruited to start in September, with a further four positions open for the following year.

Managing partner James Maxey said: “Being able to develop and nurture talented advocates to the next level is a privilege. It echoes our commitment to training and progression across the firm.

“We have just welcomed our new cohort of 23 graduates onto our training programme who we hope will be with us for many years to come.”

The news comes off the back of Express announcing another record year financially, with group turnover up 13% in 2022 to £36m, a sixth of which was attributable to its medical reporting agency, Ontime Group.

The firm spent £12m on marketing in the year, while the headcount increased from 389 to over 500. It will soon consolidate its four offices into a new head office, approximately a mile away from its longstanding base in Northenden, after buying the building for £4.4m.

The 40,000 sq ft space could accommodate 1,000 staff as the firm looks to become the largest PI firm in the country. Last November, Express acquired Lancashire PI firm Michael W Halsall Solicitors.

Mr Maxey said: “We have really accelerated our ambitious growth plans this year, enabled by the continuous funding of RBS. We aim to reach a turnover of £60m within the next five years.”

Meanwhile, listed law firm Ince Group has agreed to sell its Bristol-based claimant PI and clinical negligence practice to Enable Law for £1.3m. Enable has been given exclusivity until 28 February to reach a binding agreement.

In the year to 31 March 2022, the 15-person practice generated revenue of £2.2m and profits before tax of £400,000. It has around 275 active files, valued for accounting purposes at £1.8m.

The move is part of Ince’s recent strategy to dispose of non-core businesses and focus its insurance practice on corporate insurer clients.

Ince told the stock market: “The disposal of this claimant-side business will reduce the group’s cost base, generate cash consideration and liberate management time to devote to the new leadership team’s strategy.”

Another listed business, NAHL – which combines PI marketing services, a law firm and critical care for injured people – is set to report rising revenue and profits for 2022.

A trading update said that, despite a “subdued” PI market, National Accident Helpline attracted 35,000 enquiries during last year, a rise of 9%.

They are comprised “a more profitable mix than in 2021 resulting from the division’s strategy to focus on higher-value claims”.

The update indicated that group revenue would be up 6.5% at £41.5m, operating profit up 16% at £4.8m, with net debt down 14% to £13m due to “strong levels of cash flow”. It follows falls in 2021.

Profit before tax was expected to nearly triple to £600,000. Investors were told: “This is ahead of market expectations, albeit from a low base, due to lower-than-expected profit attributable to non-controlling interests in our LLPs, offset by an increase in borrowing costs due to higher UK interest rates and which the board expects will continue to have an impact in 2023.”

The consumer legal services division – mainly PI – is the company’s driver, with a turnover of £28m and operating profit of £4.2m.

In line with its stated strategy, the group continued to grow its law firm, National Accident Law, and invested £2.7m in 2022 in 8,760 new enquiries. NAL ended the year with a book of 10,860 ongoing claims, 37% higher than in 2021.

“The division continued to utilise its flexible placement model and enjoyed strong demand for enquiries from its panel of third-party law firms, benefiting cash flow,” the update said.

“The group’s joint venture partnerships, which are now mature, performed well and the business distributed a modest number of enquiries into Law Together LLP and no new enquiries into Your Law LLP as planned.

“Following investment over a number of years, these relationships continue to generate good levels of cash flow and delivered £3.3m in the period (2021: £3.6m), after deducting drawings to LLP members.”

Chief executive James Saralis said the PI business returning to profit was “an important milestone in our plan to build a more sustainable and profitable business in the medium-term”.

We reported earlier this month that National Accident Helpline was set to launch a multi-million-pound advertising campaign to reassure people who were worried or confused about bringing personal injury claims.

Finally, Zebra Legal Consulting – the unique business providing due diligence, external audit and other advisory services to the PI sector – is set to close after founder Zoe Holland agreed to join PI group Fletchers in the new role of chief commercial officer.

Her job will be to identify merger and acquisition opportunities and develop new businesses as the firm looks to grow through further acquisitions after adding Leeds firm Minton Morrill, the brand Cycle SOS and digital marketing company Blume to its roster since its acquisition by Sun Capital in October 2021.

She will also help build internal operational capability and, as a trained executive coach, will act as a coach and mentor for high-potential female leaders in the business.

Ms Holland will continue as a non-executive director of Frenkel Topping Group – which is also expanding aggressively in the PI support market – and will retain certain executive coaching and mentoring projects she is already handling through Zebra.

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