Hill Dickinson's on-off merger with fellow North West insurance specialist Weightmans has given the firm more exposure than it is used to over the past year. The proposed merger between two keen rivals in such a volatile sector certainly raised eyebrows. Now it is definitely off and, according to managing partner David Wareing, “there's no chance of us going back to them”. With insurance litigation specialist Tony Wilson taking over from Paul Walton as senior partner from the beginning of May, the firm hopes to refocus its attention back to the quality of its work.
Hill Dickinson has fared better than some with the consolidation in the insurance market, despite its traditionally low profile. It retained its place on the slimmed down NHS Litigation Authority panel, at the expense of some specialist healthcare insurance firms, and is on both the CGNU and Zurich panels, even though it has no SIF track record to speak of. It is also one of the preferred claims management organisations for St Pauls, with a considerable claims handling base in Liverpool.
Although it offers national coverage, 53 of the 77 partners (42 equity, 35 salaried) are based in Liverpool. The remainder are evenly spread between offices in Chester, Manchester and London. Wareing admits that “the idea of going national in the insurance litigation sector doesn't seem to have worked so well”, but it does not appear to have affected profits. With 200 fee-earners, including partners, last year's turnover was a respectable £23m. Average profits per equity partner were £190,000 and fees per partner, including salaried partners, were £320,000.
Insurance litigation is what the firm's reputation is built on, but according to Wareing, the firm is less dependent on insurance than in the past. Key players include John Wolfe, who recently assisted the Polish government in drawing up its fishing laws; Philip Woods, the ex-European head of Eversheds' IT practice; John Maxwell, a highly-regarded shipping expert who, according to one source, also brings in some useful corporate deals; and Stephen Lansdowne, an ex-Clifford Chance corporate lawyer. Outgoing senior partner Paul Walton will be a name familiar to barristers – he was the lead solicitor in the recent group action that saw barristers' immunity swept away.
Clients include Somerfield, which the firm advises on employment and public liability. In March it won the tender for the Royal Liver's property portfolio, with an estimated value of around £80m. It is on the commercial recovery panel for Barclays and its intellectual property practice counts Liverpool FC, Real Madrid footballer Steve Macmanaman and pop group Hear'Say among its clients. Also, Tony Allen advised on the sale of Prince Jefri of Brunei's $500m (£349.2m) yacht Tits, offered for sale, unfinished, for $75m (£52.4m).
Corporate has been slightly problematic for the firm. Andrew Smithson was hired in 1997 to head the corporate group. The small team brought in £750,000 in its first year, but Smithson left in December 2000 amid rumours about the firm's commitment to developing corporate. The “insurance litigation” tag has been a difficult one for many firms to shake off, and the loss of commercial star Elizabeth Mackay from its Liverpool office and London commercial head Felicity Jones' departure to Farrer & Co in August will not have helped Hill Dickinson's corporate and commercial credentials. The continuing Lansdowne presence, however, is perhaps an indicator that, despite staffing setbacks, the firm does still harbour corporate ambitions. In contrast to such problems, the commercial property department has doubled in size in three years and now contributes 10-15 per cent of the firm's overall turnover. “People don't realise how much we do,” says Wareing. With the distractions of the aborted Weightmans merger firmly behind it, the firm is hoping to ensure that more people will begin to catch on to the extent of Hill Dickinson's capabilities.