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‘A lot of angry people’ at Heenan

|Written By Yamri Taddese

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 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?"

  • Gaynor
    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!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • David S
    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.
  • Upsetstaff
    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.
  • Gaynor Roberts
    This should come as no surprise to anyone who has worked in a legal support capacity. This "type of behaviour" has been happening for years - MacKimmie Matthews (albeit a much smaller firm) gave exactly this kind of treatment to support staff roughly 35 years ago! Excuse the spelling errors & paraphrasing, "nil illegitenum tae carborundum" - "don't let the bastards get you down'. I wish all the best to yet another round of mistreatment and bloody awful behaviour to members of the support staff.
  • John
    We are the reason lawyers are able to practice effectively, yet we are consistently treated like second tier citizens.
  • A Lawyer for 25 yrs
    A few tactical suggestions (1) Don't sue right away or a curtain will drop down on the story. HB will respond 'no comment - matter in litigation' to every inquiry (2) review the various Professional Codes of Ethics. There are always sections about upholding professional standards, etc. File complaints with the Societies under these sections. They have to be dealt with in some fashion (3) take your complaints to the press and request responses from HB (4) as for naming all the partners (in the event that you sue), you won't know who they all are. Name whomever you know and get the complete list in the proceedings.
  • Upsetwoman
    thank you for your suggestion.
  • employment lawyer
    Support staff, make sure you name every partner in your statements of claim - they should be all equally liable for your severance so obtain judgment against all and garnish all.
  • Upsetwoman
    well they say history was written by the winners but in this case history was written by the jerks. Heenan Blaikie...veni vidi vici and arrivederci
  • Michael
    Extremely reprehensive behaviour on all levels, on the part of the "Partners" that bailed out of self-serving greed, leaving so many behind to uncertain futures. The "firm" has also offered "those left" with bi-monthly, reduced severance packages, (instead of full payment) which one assumes that they can then declare bankruptcy to avoid payment down the road. Greed.
  • Victor Hugo
    and they do not want to give this entitlement as a lump sum either. Like the staff trusts them at this point?
  • John
    this is not surprising at staff has long been treated like unwanted step-children even though we are the people who keep law firms running. There should be a union of legal support staff to ensure that our rights are protected and that we are able to collectively negotiate the terms of our employment. Far too long have we been treated like lowly knaves while the lawyers (who would be lost without us) rake in big money.
  • Victor Hugo
    Absolutely. Since the Law Society wont hear our grievances and the lawyers can get away with this type of behaviour a union would be best, for IT, Staff, Marketing people, etc. They are 'asking for it'.
  • Mad
    I agree with the comments above. We have to clean up in the wake of the departures, pack boxes for others, clean out offices, etc.
    Thanks for nothing!
  • Trent
    sure the parnters who have left and started this fire are all happy to be elsewhere, but people know where they are and the Claims are going to be coming in at their new locations. You shall be served.
  • Victor Hugo
    Yes and so they should be served. Where is the law society in all of this or the Ontario Bar, BC Bar, etc. Time for change.
  • Victor Hugo
    Well they pretty much dropped us (their staff) on our heads and threw us under the bus. Some of us took out rsp loans thinking that the situation was only temporary as we were told back in January. Now they are ripping us off with severance entitlements. Can't find the correct curse word.
  • A Lawyer for 25 yrs
    I agree with the comments of Marcus. I would add that this should not surprise anyone. While the profession holds itself up as examples of correctness as it tsk, tsks others it is, in fact,populated by a remarkable number of very selfish individuals. The large firms - as has been made abundantly clear here - are often the worst offenders since they can camouflage themselves behind their firm name. The other culprits here? The Bar Societies.. Where are they in all of this mess? Or are they only for the Heydary's of the legal world? Shame, shame on Heenan's and the Bar Societies. True character- or lack of it - reveals itself in difficult circumstances. We are seeing that now.
  • John
    I agree but what can we expect with a self-regulating profession...why are lawyers responsible for regulating lawyers? This has trouble written all over it. The LSUC is completely ineffective and essentially an impotent organization that collects huge amounts in licensing fees yet does nothing to maintain a proper standard of conduct not only in the practice of law, but in the business of the practice of law.
  • Lawyer for 25 years
    John, your comment may seem at first glance to be a slam dunk but let me suggest that it is not quite as simple as that. In any area of expertise you need similarly trained people in the oversight group - after all they're best suited to recognize real vs imagined problems. The problem here is one of character and fundamental decency. The Bar Society should bury its head in the sand of fine print defining its responsibilities. It should rise above and oversee the dissolution of HB to ensure that the partners uphold the highest standards of therofession.
  • John
    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
  • Lawyer for 25 years
    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.
  • observer
    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.
  • John
    @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?
  • Lawyer for 25 years
    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.
  • Upsetwoman
    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.
  • Annette
    I was assured at the Town Hall Meeting that this downslide was only temporary and there were no planned lay offs, etc. I took out an rrsp loan which I am now responible for and they only have me 6 weeks severance. Had they let me go any other time last year I would have been entitled to 4 months pay. They dropped us on our heads and then threw us under the bus.
  • Victor Hugo
    That's the new phrase "dropped on your head and thrown under the bus". Heenan Blaikie sport.
  • Marcus
    This Heenan Blaikie saga will stand as one of the most shameful episodes of the legal profession in Canada. Not in the winding up of the firm, but in how it was wound up. The selfish fatcat lawyers waddled out of the firm and left the support staff to clean up the s hit, literally.
  • Victor Hugo
    We were strung along and then treated worse than garbage.

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