Some staff with collapsed national law firm Heenan Blaikie LLP say they had little warning their firm was going to dissolve and complain that more than a week later they still don’t know how much severance they will receive.
The firm’s flagship Montreal and Toronto offices have become “ghost towns,” employees say. Staff have been seen crying in the hallways as lawyers and non-lawyer staff pack up their belongings more than a week after Heenan Blaikie’s partners suddenly voted to wind up the 40-year-old firm, which had seen a rash of lawyers leave but was still profitable.
While dozens of partners have already found new spots with other firms, Heenan Blaikie also had hundreds of non-lawyer support workers, including legal assistants and marketing, IT and financial staff.
An unknown number of lawyers are taking their assistants with them to new organizations, but many of the firm’s non-lawyer staffers are expected to be left without jobs.
The defunct firm’s leadership denies it has withheld any information, and says it has been calling clients and other law firms trying to find new jobs for staff, as well as sort out their severance payments as soon as possible.
Staff members who spoke to The Globe and Mail on condition of anonymity said that until the crisis came to a head last week, they had no idea the firm was on the verge of collapse. Some say they felt “kept in the dark,” and complained they were forced to get their information from the news media, instead of their employer. Only on Friday did some employees receive official notices that their last day would be Feb. 28.
In the weeks leading up to the collapse, staffers said, the firm appeared sound despite the departures. In December, the firm gave out Christmas bonuses and held its annual Christmas party at a downtown hotel. The event had a “masquerade” theme, featureing fortune-telling booths.
“I can tell you those fortune tellers weren’t very good,” said one employee. “Nobody told me that this was coming down the tubes.”
Still, there were some warning signs. Some staff were laid off last year. And in the fall, Heenan Blaikie relinquished all of its space on the 11th floor of Toronto’s Bay-Adelaide Centre, consolidating on its other five main floors.
Employees said a town hall meeting for the more than 220 staff in Heenan Blaikie’s Toronto office in late January with the firm’s leading partners, Kip Daechsel and Norman Bacal, presented a rosy picture. “They told us everything was fine, everything was going to be okay, that things were just rumours,” one staffer said.
Some say the shock of the firm’s sudden demise has been made all the more painful because Heenan Blaikie, until now, was so good to its employees. “It was such a beautiful place to work. For me, it’s like a funeral,” one employee said.
Mr. Bacal, the firm’s former national co-managing partner, said he understands the frustrations of the employees.
But he denied that anyone was kept in the dark, saying the dissolution took the firm’s lawyers and leadership by surprise as well. He said while he was trying to deal with the firm’s challenges, he did not believe it would collapse when he spoke to staff last month.
He said that employees should receive their formal termination notices by next Tuesday, and that severance amounts are being worked out in compliance with the law. He blamed the delay on “around the clock” efforts to try to find jobs for as many of the staff as possible.
“People who have been with us for a long time and who haven’t found work are going to be taken care of,” Mr. Bacal said, referring to severance payments, and adding that he understands their frustration.
The dissolution came after internal dissension and a 15-per-cent dip in profits prompted dozens of lawyers to leave, causing a “run on the bank” that Mr. Bacal said took on a life of its own.
Still, some staff feel angry and betrayed by highly paid partners who dissolved what was still a profitable firm and left lower-paid support staff in the lurch.