The national co-managing partner of Heenan Blaikie LLP says the firm remains on a sound financial footing but is going through a strategic review, as word emerged on Thursday of three more departures of high-profile lawyers.
Heenan Blaikie, a 40-year-old law firm with more than 525 legal professionals, strong roots in Quebec, nine offices across Canada and one in Paris and former prime minister Jean Chrétien on its roster, has been the subject of speculation on Bay Street after a string of more than 20 departures since 2012.
On Thursday, Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP said it had snagged three well-regarded Montreal lawyers from Heenan Blaikie: merger-and-acquisitions lawyer Eric Levy, tax lawyer and Heenan executive committee member Manon Thivierge, and business lawyer Antonella Penta. Last month, Dentons LLP announced it had brought in two Heenan Blaikie lawyers to its corporate finance and securities group: David Carbonaro and Andrew Elbaz.
But Kip Daechsel, Heenan Blaikie's Toronto-based national co-managing partner, says the issues his firm are facing are the same as those faced by other Canadian law firms, which have been pinched by the sluggish economy, a slow market for corporate mergers and pressure across the legal industry to lower costs with technology and outsourcing.
"We've really been going through the same sort of thing that a lot of the firms – if not almost all of the major firms – in Canada have been going through this year," Mr. Daechsel said in an interview.
However, he acknowledged that his firm further delayed some deferred payments to partners, known as "hold backs" by "a couple of months" last year to ensure that the firm could weather any unforeseen financial trouble, "just out of prudence." He added that the firm was spending extra money on renovations in its Montreal and Vancouver offices and a new office in Sherbrooke.
Since November, he said, that deferred money "has been significantly paid down," and recent activity and billing levels are "much more encouraging" than they were earlier in the year.
Mr. Daechsel said the firm has adopted a plan with three elements, the first being "right-sizing" or shedding lawyers whose skill sets "didn't fit with the platform." He said this was responsible for most, but not all, of the departures, either "directly or indirectly." Some who have left were lawyers the firm had hoped would stay, he acknowledged.
The second element of the plan is expansion, he said, pointing to Heenan's move to hire about 20 new lawyers, including at least seven with the rank of partner or counsel. Among them is Conservative insider and fundraiser Ralph Lean. The third element is a "long-term strategic review" involving an external consultant that could see other changes at the firm.
Mr. Daechsel said any talk that his firm is near a collapse like the one that took down U.S. firm Dewey LeBoeuf in 2012 is completely wrong: "You hear all sorts of rumours on the street about other firms too, and you just discount them."
And he said Thursday's moves in Montreal were simply the result of a rival firm going after good talent: "In a way it is kind of a backhanded compliment to us, because if a firm the calibre of Osler's is raiding us, is that what they think of how talented our lawyers are?"
Osler's Montreal managing partner, Shahir Guindi, said his firm, which has about 70 lawyers in Montreal, is not looking to grow in size but is keen to hire top lawyers when the chance comes up.
"We are in an opportunistic mode, rather than in an expansion mode," he said in an interview. "We're always interested in hiring leaders."