Ince & Co has approached a cohort of firms as it continues to hunt for a UK merger, The Lawyer can reveal.
The firm held talks with regional player Hill Dickinson, which if successful would have created a £179m firm and one of the 30 largest in the UK.
The Lawyer understands the talks went as far as board-level, with a number of practice heads aware of the conversations. However, the talks came to a halt a few weeks ago.
In a statement, Ince international senior partner Jan Heuvels said: “It is well known that our strategy for further growth includes the possibility of business combinations locally, regionally or internationally. As would be expected, I have met with a number of firms, including Hill Dickinson, however no discussions are currently ongoing.”
He added: “Having restructured the business over the last 24 months, we achieved a 16 per cent year-on-year increase in turnover in 16/17 and we want to build on that momentum.”
Ince’s turnover grew from £76.2m to £88.5m over 2016/17 – putting it back to levels seen in 2014. Ince’s revenue fell for the third consecutive year in 2015/16, with UK operations particularly hit.
One source highlighted that geographic coverage could have been a barrier to the proposed merger, with several top Ince lawyers said to have argued for international rather than regional scope.
Hill Dickinson is headquartered in Liverpool and has four international offices in Piraeus, Singapore, Monaco and Hong Kong.
Ince has offices in the same four overseas countries in addition to Beijing, Cologne, Dubai, Hamburg, Le Havre, Marseille, Paris and Shanghai.
Another source said that Ince had been in the market for a firm of a similar size to itself, with Hill Dickinson larger by just £30m revenue. The last high-profile merger attempt by Ince was in 2015 when it is understood to have approached Watson Farley & Williams.
Ince and Hill Dickinson’s average profit per equity partner (PEP) is also similar – Ince’s PEP is £313,000 while Hill Dickinson’s stands at £305,000.
Both firms have been on a rocky road in the past two years. Hill Dickinson’s revenue decreased marginally over 2015/16 to £103m amid a profit uplift of £14m.
It also closed its Sheffield office after Kennedys hired a 24-strong casualty claims team from the firm.
The exits followed Hill Dickinson losing a place on a client’s panel, which The Lawyer now understands was insurer Chubb. Chubb completed its first UK review post-merger earlier this year, with Kennedys, DAC Beachcroft and RPC all winning spots.
Hill Dickinson is led by chief executive Peter Jackson, who took on the role last year. He had been the firm’s managing partner was promoted after a reshuffling of management positions.
One source said: “Peter is always looking for opportunities and that ranged from merger discussions to taking somebody over.”
However, they hinted that Jackson was perhaps more open to acquiring a smaller firm, rather than merging with a firm of a similar size. DLA Piper offloaded its Manchester and Sheffield defendant insurance practices to Hill Dickinson in 2013, a year after acquiring Halliwells’ Liverpool and Sheffield offices.
A spokesperson for Hill Dickinson told The Lawyer: “The market for legal services is one that is bound to see further consolidation, in our view. The dynamics of the market, together with our own desire to grow in our chosen sectors and disciplines mean that we are constantly in dialogue with like-minded firms, teams and individuals.
“Indeed, we have recently recruited some leading individuals who add substantial value to our business and create new opportunities for us. No merger negotiations with any firm, including Ince & Co, are currently live, so the prospect of an imminent merger is unlikely.”