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‘A lot of angry people’ at Heenan

As many of Heenan Blaikie LLP’s heavyweights get comfortable with their new Bay Street jobs, the members of the support staff they left behind are “pissed off” about the long wait for information about their severance packages.

Staff say Heenan Blaike LLP has told them the Toronto office will close on Feb. 28.
Staff say Heenan Blaike LLP has told them the Toronto office will close on Feb. 28.
Staff who are still working in the Toronto office say they didn’t receive a termination notice until Feb. 14, nine days after the firm announced its collapse. The notice said the office would close on Feb. 28 but provided no details on severance packages, they say.

Just days after Heenan Blaikie announced it would start “an orderly wind down” in the largest law firm failure in Canadian history, several dozen lawyers struck deals with other big firms in Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal.

But the people who have been working as support staff at Heenan Blaikie say they watched as lawyers packed up and left, some with their secretaries, while they awaited news of their own fate.

People knew the firm was dissolving, says one staff member, “but nobody had any letters, nobody had any direction.” The staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says the firm’s human resources department held a meeting on Feb. 7 that “was just to tell people that the Toronto HR team knew nothing.”

A few days later, Ken Kraft, a former partner who was part of Heenan Blaikie’s insolvency team, met with staff to explain the wind down but again made no mention of severance packages, the source says.

“All he told us was his side of the story, how things fell apart. And when people were pressing him and asking him about severance, he goes, ‘I’m not a labour lawyer.’ People were so pissed off. They were like, ‘Well, why didn’t you get a labour lawyer to come and answer these questions?’”

She adds: “I can tell you there are a lot of angry people here.”

But as of late last week, some employees had begun receiving information about severance. A source says some of them are looking to challenge their entitlements.

Another staff member, who also asked for anonymity, says she attended a town hall meeting in January where Norman Bacal, founding partner of the Toronto office, told staff it was “time Heenan kicks butt again” and urged everyone “to stick with Heenan Blaikie.”

“It makes it even harder to process what’s happening now,” she says. “It’s incredible. Just disbelief.”

She adds: “I left a much bigger firm to go to Heenan and I just can’t believe this has happened. It’s all pretty depressing. Some people have been there a lot longer than I have and I can’t even imagine what they’re going through. Never in a million years would we have thought this would happen.”

A third source tells Law Times the firm is asking remaining staff to help pack the files of departed lawyers. “We’re being asked to clean after the bomb after they’ve ran out the door,” she says.

When they moved to other firms, some lawyers took their secretaries with them. But other secretaries, some in their 50s and 60s, remained, the sources say.

A team of bilingual commercial litigation lawyers that joined Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP as partners in Ottawa — including Pierre Champagne, who was the associate director of Heenan Blaikie’s Ottawa office, civil and commercial litigator Benoit Duchesne, civil litigator Rodrigue Escayola, and Louis-Pierre Grégoire, who focuses on construction law and civil litigation — took six support staff members and two articling students with them.

Quebec regional firm BCF took 15 partners, 15 associates, and about the same number of support staff from the Montreal office of Heenan Blaikie. Ralph Lean, who joined Gowlings as counsel, also says he took his secretary with him when he moved. Secretaries also followed the 13 former Heenan Blaikie lawyers who went to Baker & McKenzie LLP’s Toronto office. The team, led by partners Kevin Rooney and Sonia Yung, augments Baker & McKenzie’s corporate and securities, tax, and banking and finance practices.

Gall Legge Grant & Munroe, a new Vancouver law firm that rose from Heenan Blaikie’s ashes, also took seven full-time support staff and seven more on contract, according to founding partner Craig Munroe.

“We have taken almost all of our assistants with us, as well as some of the general admin staff,” he says.

“We are also working on identifying opportunities for the few who do not have new jobs to move on to.”

But taking support workers isn’t possible when lawyers join an already-established big firm, says Maurice Poitras, chief operating officer at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP’s Montreal office, where several former Heenan Blaikie lawyers have found new homes.

“What I would say is that we’ve hired several secretaries who worked previously with the lawyers,” says Poitras. Although he couldn’t give an exact number of secretaries hired, he notes there’s one for every two or three lawyers.

“But that’s not the true back office, if you will,” he says, adding the firm didn’t bring any of the people who staffed Heenan Blaikie’s accounting, marketing, and information technology departments.

“This is a very small acquisition of lawyers, a small transfer of lawyers to our firm. We’re the largest in Canada, so if you think about it in proportion of our full roster of lawyers, it’s a very small addition and we’re fully staffed already in all our offices,” Poitras adds.

“As a national firm, adding maybe 15 to 20 lawyers really doesn’t require adding backroom staff.”

Twenty-four more former Heenan Blaikie lawyers from the Toronto and Montreal offices, including former prime minister Jean Chrétien, are now calling Dentons Canada LLP home. The firm is also reportedly taking lawyers thought to have been part of the group that was negotiating the failed deal with DLA Piper.

On Feb. 18, Peter Blaikie, co-founder of Heenan Blaikie, sent an e-mail to staff members with the subject line, “Heenan’s collapse began overseas.” The e-mail included a link to a Feb. 15 article that appeared in The National Post about the law firm’s failed business ventures in Africa.

In the e-mail, Blaikie said staff should read the article “if you wish to get at least a partial understanding of why the firm you worked so hard to build was destroyed.”

Heenan Blaikie also opened a Paris office just as the European economy was tanking. While the firm had reportedly had some “good years” immediately after the 2008-09 downturn, one source said it’s those good years that were perhaps the “worst thing that could have happened to them” as they helped to cover up the impact of the recession.

For more, see "How did Heenan Blaikie fall so quickly?"

Comments   

+1 #30 Gaynor 2014-02-28 16:36
Something is being missed here - if you sue, you will be blacklisted (c'mon, we all know that happens). The fear (yes, it's fear not apprehension) of the consequences of suing a law firm (let alone the mega gods - a partner) sounds plausible BUT could you get a lawyer to represent you? Let's get real here - absolutely a viable case and cause, however, those of who have been in the legal factory know the real situation. If you can, GET OUT OF LEGAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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-1 #29 David S 2014-02-27 20:46
Heenan Blaikie, more reminiscent to the likeliness of the former Yugoslavia, it was something once upon a time, never will be again. Montreal office being the Belgrade and Toronto office being Sarajevo, without the bullet holes of course.
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+2 #28 Lawyer for 25 years 2014-02-27 09:17
You have to keep in mind that there are 3 countervailing areas of law here: bankruptcy, employment and administrative (LSUC) each with their own jurisdictions. That said, if I were in your shoes I would not waste too much time discussing the fine points of professional oversight. Rather use your energy to collect some of your colleagues (post your email here?) and contact the media. If you feel you've been wronged, then you have to keep the matter in the news. If that (and complaints and Labour Standards) fail then sue.
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+3 #27 Upsetstaff 2014-02-26 20:06
Staff has been treated like s.... But don't forget that Heenan won the 2007 best employer of the year. Such a joke when you see how they are treating us.
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+1 #26 Lawyer for 25 years 2014-02-26 16:52
You make a lot of good points. I was just trying to point out that many professions are self-governing since they ("we") know the business best. As well, most - but not all- lawyers try to act with a high degree of integrity and fairness. I do not know the intimate details of HB's behaviour other than a few articles and these comments. There may be steps afoot to rectify matters. Since litigation is time consuming and expensive, I would first try to shame both HB and the Societies in the court of public opinion through the press and with complaints and, if that doesn't work, then move to litigation. The legal profession does not want anymore bad press.
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0 #25 John 2014-02-26 16:45
@observer - I have a great deal of trouble believing the LSUC will do ANYTHING to these lawyers. They are their brethren there will be no action. There may be an "investigation" for show, but no real sanctions or penalties will be levied against the offenders. This is problem with any profession self-regulating.

Ask yourself: Who watches the watchers?
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+2 #24 observer 2014-02-26 16:40
File a complaint with the Law Society and it will be acted on. Start a law suit against the members of the firm, just like any ordinary citizen must. File a complaint with the Ministry of Labour.
Greed and a sense of entitlement is the illness of this age.
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0 #23 Upsetwoman 2014-02-26 16:17
Sad as some of us were with Heenan for a very long time and they denied considering common law or to include the age factor or the economic climate. There should be governing body when an LLP is formed, taking on employees is a big thing. They are so out of reach with that they did. It's not like we can go to the Ombudsman. I can only wish them heart attacks for handing things they way they did.
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+3 #22 John 2014-02-26 15:56
We are the reason lawyers are able to practice effectively, yet we are consistently treated like second tier citizens.
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+1 #21 John 2014-02-26 15:53
I understand your point and agree to some extent. There is a need for the "expertise" of lawyers in regulating their profession, however this role should be in an advisory capacity not in an administrative capacity. This breeds self-indulgence and creates a "club" thus eliminating the opportunity for consistent enforcement and maintenance of the standards of the practice of law. Also this is not only about the lawyers and the dissolution of HB; it also has to do with the treatment of the staff and the resulting acts of bad faith on the part of HB. Should the governing body of the profession step in and sanction the individual licensees who not only violate the practice standards of the profession, but also violate employment standards? There seems to be a lot of people who will "get away" with a lot on this one and there is no one to keep them accountable - even the organization who's mandate it is to do so.

Mark my words: there will be no action taken on this
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