|Staff say Heenan Blaike LLP has told them the Toronto office will close on Feb. 28.|
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?"