Ian Holloway: Heenan Blaikie reveals the flaw of the partnership model
So a giant has fallen. Last week, the remaining partners of the law firm of Heenan Blaikie LLP voted to dissolve the partnership and to wind up the business. Practice groups have decamped to firms that, until a short time ago, were rivals. A rump tried to become the Canadian bridgehead of global firm DLA Piper, but those talks appear to have failed.
Drew Hasselback: Too many Bay Street firms are chasing scarce high-dollar business, while too many firms rely on a star-system that makes them susceptible to the same exodus of legal talent that brought Heenan Blaikie down this week.
To their credit, the remnants of Heenan Blaikie appear to have made it a priority to find landing spots for their students. One assumes that individual lawyers have done the same for support staff.
Measured in terms of column inches, the Heenan Blaikie collapse is the biggest story concerning the Canadian legal profession in modern history. There have been firm implosions before — most notably the Toronto firm of Goodman and Carr in 2007. But these were all localized, and compared to Heenan Blaikie were small scale. But Heenan Blaikie was different. It may not be old enough to have earned the title “venerable,” but it was a significant player. Not only was it large — at its peak, it had more than 500 lawyers — but it had a national, and even international (an office in Paris) footprint. Moreover, it was a virtual retirement home for former prime ministers, premiers and judges. And it all came unstruck in the matter of a few weeks.
Once the death spiral of partner flight begins, it is nearly impossible to arrest it
Plainly, this is the stuff of headlines, especially in a gossip-nourished profession like the law. But there is a deeper element to the story that concerns us all. For at base, this was not a story about a particular law firm. There are any number of firms who could have suffered Heenan Blaikie’s fate. Once the death spiral of partner flight begins, it is nearly impossible to arrest it. No doubt there were a number of managing partners over the past couple of weeks who have been silently reciting each night the old policeman’s prayer: please, Lord, not on my shift.
The real story behind the Heenan Blaikie collapse is not one of financial failure. As the firm’s co-founder and namesake, Roy Heenan, has said, the firm was profitable to the end. Rather, the problem was that it was not as profitable as it had been. And given that most law firms operate on a partnership model, this meant that individual partners weren’t going home with as much in their pockets. So a few, who figured they’d do better elsewhere, upped stakes and left, leaving their erstwhile partners to their fate.