Irwin Mitchell pays out thousands to shareholders in first dividend for a year

Irwin Mitchell office

Irwin Mitchell has paid out thousands of pounds in its first dividend to shareholders since February last year, as both current and former partners continue to benefit from shares handed out after the firm’s 2011 corporate restructuring.

In a letter to shareholders sent on 23 February, seen by Legal Week, the firm has announced that it will pay an interim dividend of 1.25p per share for the half year to 31 October 2016.

The last dividend was paid out to shareholders in February last year, when they received 2.5p per share, equating to a total of £731,949. Given that the latest dividend is half of that value, the total amount paid out is understood to be around £365,000.

The dividends are paid to shareholders in Irwin Mitchell Holdings, which was set up as the parent company of Irwin Mitchell’s limited liability partnership (LLP) when the firm shifted to a corporate group structure in 2011, amid widespread market expectations that the firm was gearing up for a public listing.

Equity partners were issued shares in the holding company but were only able to exercise these stock options if they stayed with the firm for three years.  According to one former partner, senior equity partners received “substantial” shareholdings of “around the million shares mark”.

Many of those who received the shares have now left Irwin Mitchell but have retained their shares, allowing them to attend Irwin Mitchell’s annual general meeting, vote for its board of directors and receive a twice-yearly dividend.

The holding company’s accounts show the total dividend paid out to shareholders has been steadily decreasing in recent years and after the interim dividend in February, no final dividend was paid out at the end of the 2015-16 financial year, when the holding company’s profit after tax fell by almost 30% from £13.2m to £9.5m.

In 2014-15, the business paid out £1.87m in two dividend payments to shareholders, down from £2.36m in 2013-14.

In a statement, the firm said: “The decision not to pay a final dividend for 2015-16 was based on group performance and also a change in accounting standards, specifically the requirement to account differently for leasehold incentives, which led to a one-off adjustment to the final 2015-16 dividend.

“Shareholders were informed that subsequent dividend calculations would return to normal, as they have done with regard to the interim dividend payment to all shareholders in February.”

Irwin Mitchell originally handed out the shares after announcing in 2011 that it would restructure the partnership as an alternative business structure and seek external capital to fund growth plans, with Norton Rose appointed to advise on the legal implications of the various options to raise external capital.

One of these options, according to former partners, was a stock market flotation, but this was subsequently put on the back burner.

One former partner said: “The talk was that by floating, we were going to create a big war chest to enable us to drive the firm’s expansion. [Management] were looking at what Slater and Gordon had done in Australia.”

Former partners are sceptical about the prospects for any future float, given Irwin Mitchell’s recent financial results and the ongoing challenges faced by consumer rival Slater and Gordon, which has posted massive losses since its ill-fated acquisition of UK insurance company Quindell’s professional services division in 2015.

One former partner ascribed the lack of an IPO to “market forces” and “the Slater & Gordon thing”. The partner said that an IPO “is about timing, getting the right run rate of turnover and profit for a certain period”.

Irwin Mitchell has suffered a string of partner exits in London during the past year. The departures are referenced in the letter to shareholders, which states: “Our BLS [business legal services] division endured a difficult first half of the year, primarily due to the impact of the departure of a number of partners and staff from our real estate team in London.”

Four London real estate partners quit to join Dentons last summer, with a further quartet leaving for Osborne Clarke, including real estate partners Jo Footitt and Louise Cartwright in June. However, the firm has also made a number of hires during that period, announcing eight new partners since June and promoting 10 lawyers to partner in May.

Irwin Mitchell merged with southeast firm Thomas Eggar in December 2015, a deal that saw it take on 67 additional partners and new offices in Newbury, Southampton, Chichester, Worthing, London and Gatwick. However, its financial performance has suffered in the wake of the merger, with profit before tax falling 26% to £12.4m in 2015-16 from £16.7m in 2014-15.

Speaking in August last year, CEO Andrew Tucker said the reduction in profit was a “short-term issue driven by the significant investment in the merger to ensure it was a success”.