The legal profession was shaken and saddened last week to learn that Heenan Blaikie is winding up operations.
Founded in Montreal in the 1970s, it was one of the firms that paved the way for national law firms. At the time, that was a significant disruption in the legal landscape. Even bigger disruptions were yet to come.
Legal observers have said that Heenan was essentially between a rock and a hard place in a difficult legal market – not big enough to compete with the big firms, but too big to match the ability of smaller firms to deal creatively with clients seeking ways to lower their legal costs by insisting on flexible fee arrangements and farming out sections of work to the lowest bidder. According to Roy Heenan, the firm also fell victim to rivalries and inter-office conflicts. "It's so unnecessary. That's the part that upsets me," the founding partner told the Montreal Gazette.
When industry giants fall, it's a wake-up call for the rest of the profession. There's been a lot of talk about how the legal profession is changing, but few are taking steps to reposition themselves in the new marketplace. As legal futurist Richard Susskind has said, that's partly because it's hard to change the wheel on a moving car. It's also hard to know which direction to drive.
The conversation sparked by the Canadian Bar Association Futures Initiative has produced some interesting ideas that should help lawyers find their bearings.
During a recent Twitterchat on new forms of lawyer employment for the emerging legal market, participants identified a number of qualities that successful lawyers of the future will share. What's interesting is the emphasis on rejecting the traditional business model in favour of one driven by individual entrepreneurs who have identified new markets.
It means providing "truly affordable/accessible value service in practices streamlined for optimum efficiencies," participants agreed, along with finding underserved markets and filling those markets' need for legal services. This involves a shift away from the billable hour and firm hierarchies and a willingness to collaborate with lawyers who have different expertise.
Who's going to take the lead? Lawyers who are entrepreneurial, agile, creative, technology enabled and able to work in a multi-disciplinary setting, says chat host Jordan Furlong of Stem Legal. What does that mean for the future of legal education, regulation and innovation? That discussion is ongoing.
Clearly, lawyers who possess the qualities to adapt to changing circumstances will not be as vulnerable to the shifting fortunes of traditional law firms. Likewise, firms willing to have the difficult conversations necessary to innovate for the future may find a new lease on life. There is no reason to fear the future.
Out of great risk comes great reward. Watch for more from the CBA Legal Futures Initiative as we continue the conversation to find the path forward.
Fred Headon is president of the 37,500-member Canadian Bar Association.