The departures snowballed, making it almost impossible for the firm to contemplate continuing, faced with acres of empty office space.
“Toronto had lost so many people that they were counting the number of vacant floors, floors that were going to be vacant,” recounted Geoff Plant, a former B.C. attorney-general who was a partner in Heenan Blaikie’s Vancouver office. “And you are paying rent. Rent’s expensive. Who’s going to pay the rent?”
The firm’s rapid decline underlines the delicate nature of legal partnerships, said Vancouver law firm management consultant Colin Cameron: “I think it shows how fragile these firms are. … They need a shared vision, but they have partners who effectively have their own work, their own little empires within these firms.”
Some of Heenan Blaikie’s problems were particular to it. Observers say the firm’s reputation took a hit in early 2013 when Griffiths Energy International was convicted of breaching Canada’s anti-bribery law after it forwarded a $2-million (U.S.) payment to the wife of Chad’s then-ambassador to Canada. Griffiths Energy had retained the services of Heenan Blaikie to advance its interests in Africa.
Some say the firm was overreaching. Aiming at mining deals in Africa, it launched a Paris office in 2011, with 16 lawyers in a chic neighbourhood – just as a recession crunched Europe’s economy. At the heart of the venture was Jacques Bouchard Jr., the Montreal lawyer who led the controversial Griffiths file. He left Heenan in December of that year following an internal investigation. He later faced professional disciplinary proceedings over allegations that while at his previous law firm he forged signatures at the bottom of embellished résumés to win World Bank work. He lost his licence to practise law for six months.
While some inside and outside the firm maintain the Griffiths and Bouchard affairs damaged Heenan Blaikie’s reputation, Mr. Bacal, the former national co-managing partner, disagrees: “I don’t think it had the slightest impact on the firm’s reputation.”
However, he agrees the Paris adventure as a whole was a drag on the firm’s finances. In its defence, Mr. Heenan points out it had been approved by a majority of partners, who knew it would take time to work: “The office wasn’t that costly, and all the partners were aware at the time of the vote that it would take two to three years to establish it.”
In the end, the firm ended quietly. A “civil and respectful” partners’ retreat in a Montreal hotel last weekend, with some partners dialled into a conference call, discussed various options to stop the bleeding, including spinning off offices or shutting down the entire firm. After three more days, and a steady stream of departing lawyers, the remaining partners were invited to join another conference call Wednesday night, to do what many knew was the only thing left to do: formally vote to dissolve their partnership.
Many Heenan partners described the firm’s once-congenial working atmosphere as a family. Mr. Bacal, who laboured to keep that family together and spent his entire career at the firm, said the breakup meetings were not angry or resentful affairs.
“There was something completely bittersweet about the whole thing,” he said. “Everybody knew where this was headed. … Both meetings, the one in Montreal in particular, was a chance for the partners to say goodbye to each other after a really long and beautiful association.”
With files from reporters Boyd Erman, Janet McFarland, Kathryn Blaze Carlson and Sean Fine