Milestone as Irwin given ABS status

YORKSHIRE’S biggest law firm, Irwin Mitchell, is set for significant growth after being approved as an Alternative Business Structure (ABS), which means it can receive backing from external investors.

Irwin Mitchell, which has 1,300 staff at its offices in Leeds and Sheffield, is the first company to be granted multiple ABS licences by the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA).

ABS was introduced as part of the Legal Services Act, which allows outsiders to take equity stakes in law firms for the first time, creating major opportunities for entrepreneurial practices that use external equity to grow market share.

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Irwin Mitchell has big plans for expansion under the ABS model, including adding new services. It is looking at a number of fundraising options. Earlier this year, John Pickering, Irwin Mitchell’s group chief executive, said it was too soon to say which route it would choose, but it could float on the Stock Exchange or sell a stake to private equity investors.

Yesterday, Niall Baker, the chief executive of the firm’s business legal services division, said “we rule nothing out and nothing in” when asked whether Irwin Mitchell was considering a flotation.

Most analysts believe that a flotation is unlikely in the near future because of the volatile state of the market.

The Yorkshire Post understands that Irwin Mitchell had become frustrated by delays in granting ABS.

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Mr Baker said yesterday that the firm had been somewhat surprised by the length of the process.

He added: “It (ABS) gives us the flexibility to ensure that we can pursue growth plans. We plan to increase the size of the business overall.

“We would consider a merger if it was right for Irwin Mitchell. It’s a very big change in how we do business. You’ve got to look at these things as an opportunity or a threat. We saw it as an opportunity.”

Irwin Mitchell was among the first applicants for ABS status when the SRA began taking applications in the first week of January.

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It has been granted five licences by the regulator, covering a range of businesses within its group structure.

The SRA has also approved the appointments of Glyn Barker, the former UK vice-chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers, as chairman of Irwin Mitchell’s parent company, IMCO Holdings, and Mel Egglenton as a second non-executive director and chair of the company’s audit committee, a role he previously held with accountants KPMG.

Mr Pickering said the announ-cement was a “major step forward”.

The five licences granted to Irwin Mitchell cover businesses operating separately within the firm’s group structure, including Irwin Mitchell LLP; Ascent Collections, which offers field agency and debt collection services; and Coris UK, which offers international assistance and insurance claims handling services.

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Further licences have been granted to Irwin Mitchell Trustees, which accepts appointments as a trustee, executor and estate administrators; and also to Irwin Mitchell Trust Corporation, which accepts appointments to act as Deputy from the Court of Protection.

Mr Pickering added: “It’s a very significant day for us, an important milestone which positions us well to take advantage of the opportunities which we think will arise from the changing legal landscape.”

Irwin Mitchell, which recently reported a 6.8 per cent increase in turnover to £183.7m for the financial year 2011/12, first announced that it would seek ABS status in April last year.

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