World's first listed law firm takes over UK's Russell Jones & Walker

Australia’s Slater & Gordon, the world’s first publicly listed law firm, is set to acquire UK personal injury specialist law firm Russell Jones & Walker (RJW) for £53.8m in a Legal Services Act first.

The deal will be structured with an initial cash payment of £36.4m in cash, of which £8.8m will be deferred for up to two years subject to performance targets, while £10.3m will be used to pay off RJW bank debt. Slater & Gordon will also issue £17.4m in shares.

The acquisition, which is expected to be completed in early April, will see the UK business trade as ‘Russell Jones & Walker part of Slater & Gordon Lawyers’.

Macfarlanes is advising RJW on the deal with a team led by corporate partner John Dodsworth, while LG is acting for Slater & Gordon with corporate partner David Ponsford heading up the firm’s team alongside corporate head Christopher Tite.

Slater & Gordon became the first law firm ever to go public after listing on the Australia Stock Exchange five years ago. The firm’s managing director Andrew Grech (pictured) said that while the UK had a similar legal jurisdiction to Australia, it had spent three years searching for the right opportunity in the UK, and that the agreement had come after more than 12 months of extensive due diligence.

He said: “In RJW we have found a great firm built on values which are very aligned with our own. The team at RJW gives us confidence that we have the right people on the ground with local knowledge to achieve our joint aspiration of being the first choice for personal legal services in the UK”.

“The UK market is inherently attractive to us because of its size and its jurisdictional similarities to Australia which the recent changes bring even closer into line. We have the huge advantage of having a five-year head start in operating in a listed environment and we can bring that experience to the UK through a kindred firm in RJW which has the business structure and the people to exploit that advantage.

“The goal is to be the leading direct consumer brand in the UK.”

RJW’s senior management will be locked in for at least three years, with its equity partners taking shares in Slater & Gordon. Share options will also be made available to the firm’s non-legal staff.

RJW chief executive officer Neil Kinsella, who will become CEO of Slater & Gordon’s UK business, added: “With all the ongoing change in the legal market you have to be properly resourced for growth. We have commenced to build a brand aimed directly at customers like Slater & Gordon has done in Australia, where it really is a household name. Three to five years down the line I think we will see a limited number of large players advising the market in our specialist area.”

Melbourne-based plaintiffs firm Slater & Gordon secured its landmark listing in May 2007, taking advantage of an overhaul of the regulatory framework in the Australian legal market that allowed firms to form multidisciplinary partnerships with non-lawyers, to incorporate and seek external investment. The Australian firm’s seven senior lawyers saw their stakes in the business converted into shareholdings worth between A$2.7m (£1.25m) and A$10m (£4.9m) at the A$1 offer price.

The RJW takeover, which is subject to regulatory approval, marks the first outside of the Australian market for Slater & Gordon, which has made 20 acquisitions in the local market since its listing, including Queensland litigation firm Trilby Misso, which it took over in 2010 in a A$57m (£32.8m) deal. The firm currently has a total of 61 offices and posted turnover of $A182 (£122m) for the 2011 financial year.

According to Legal Business, RJW has 21 equity partners, 33 non-equity partners and a total of 144 lawyers, and reported 2010-11 turnover of £36.5m and profits per equity partner of £226,000.

The firm is the owner of the Claims Direct personal injury brand, which it acquired in 2003 and relaunched in 2007, while in 2009 the firm tied up with insurer Hiscox to launch a business providing insurance cover and advice for lawyers and executives undergoing regulatory difficulties.

Jomati consultant Tony Williams commented: “This is very interesting news, it shows what a listed company can do. If they decide to do a secondary listing on the London Stock Exchange I think we will see them make further acquisitions in the UK, as that has very much been their model in Australia. This is good news which will shake up the market.”

The deal comes as the UK legal industry is currently going through a critical period change with the Legal Services Act, which came into force on 6 October last year, opening the market to outside investment and ahead of impending changes to the personal injury sector.

Liverpool’s Silverbeck Rymer was last week acquired by software and outsourcing firm Quindell Portfolio, creating a combined insurance claims outsourcing operation. The deal values the personal injury specialist law firm at £19.3m.

For more analysis of the deal, see Here come the Aussies.

For an in-depth look at Slater & Gordon, see Market forces. Click here to view the firm’s investor presentation.