Law firms’ merger activity is thriving and lock up days are reducing, highlights MHA survey

By Anita Jaynes on 9 October, 2015

The latest annual legal practices benchmarking review from MHA, the UK-wide group of accountancy and business advisory firms, of which Monahans are a member, points to encouraging signs of growth as firms feel the benefit of the improving economy, most notably through an upturn in commercial and residential property work.

The review, undertaken by MHA’s Professional Practices Group, indicates a much more positive outlook across most firm sizes, helping to ease the considerable financial pressures experienced in recent years.

This year’s results show how wider economic growth is driving up demand for legal services in commercial and residential property sectors, with confidence also returning to many practices active in corporate transactions.

Report highlights:

– Wage costs are still reducing as a percentage of fee income and turnover.
– Practice costs of rent, marketing, IT and professional indemnity insurance all saw an average reduction as a percentage of income.
– There has been significant growth in the average turnover for firms with 11-24 partners and 25+ partners.
– Lock up days have improved for all sizes of practice.
– Total fee income has increased for all sizes of practice, but this has not been reflected in profitability figures.

As the results from last year predicted, personal injury work-in-progress signed up before the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) is dwindling, meaning a reduction in income as a result of diminished success fees. Many firms have looked for new areas of litigation to replace the falling workload. Legally aided funded practitioners are experiencing further cuts to income levels and are under continued fee pressure.

Overall the results are positive in relation to income, showing increases in total fees across all sized firms. There is significant percentage growth in fee income per equity partner, especially in the 25+ partner practices, where merger activity has generated growth, with strategic plans keeping the equity ownership group smaller.

Simon Tombs, Head of Professional Practices Group at Monahans said: “Large practices have succeeded in making true economy of scale savings in overheads and running expenses, while still increasing top line fee income. We have also seen a reduction in equity partner numbers, so that these fewer individuals are really benefitting from higher rewards derived from personal capital invested in the business.

“We are seeing far more movement this year in smaller practice mergers, most of which is driven by succession planning issues.”

Profitability has not tracked the rise in fee income levels this year. However, results show expenditure on certain key overheads has reduced as a percentage of fee income. Expenditure on staffing remained fairly consistent, although this is expected to increase in 2015 as market forces take over and staff look for new opportunities at higher pay rates.

The survey shows that firms have taken the prompt to put the management of lock up – unbilled work in progress and unpaid fees – higher up their agenda and have made some significant improvements over the last 12 months as a result. Pressure from the banks will have been applied to reduce levels of funding, and so planning more control over working capital has been of benefit. There was a 15% reduction in lock up achieved by the 11 – 25 partner firms.

Harry Hilliard, Partner at Monahans states: “The overall improvement in firms’ lockup is very encouraging and shows that faster work-in-progress billing and a greater urgency when collecting debts is starting to have an impact. More work needs to be done, though, and a suggestion would be to target a 10 day lock up reduction for the coming year. The COFA’s, along with firms’ accountants, should be on hand to assist with techniques to make the target achievable.”

To obtain a full copy of the survey please contact Zoe Meaden on 01225 785520 or email or download one here.

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Pictured above: Simon Tombs, Head of Professional Practices Group at Monahans