Heenan Blaikie May Be Toronto’s Canary

The national law firm of Heenan Blaikie is expected to make a huge announcement this week. We’re not quite sure what the details of the announcement it, but it will likely involve some form of restructuring, merger or dissolution of the firm.

Although we have several Slaw contributors who are this firm I expect they are unable to comment on this publicly. Yet it’s a big enough event that it will invariably lead to further discussions about the legal market in Toronto in years to come.

The rumours started on Thursday with the departure of several partners to other Bay Street firms. It followed with revelations of a meeting this weekend to decide the fate of the firm.

The Legal Post identified one problem facing the firm:

 Toronto has too many corporate lawyers chasing too few dollars.

But the Post also stated in another article,

“It’s never one thing that gets a firm in trouble,” one veteran Bay Street lawyer says. “It’s always something like 106 things.”

The sudden urgency of the Heenan move is probably what is attracting so much attention. Other major changes in the Toronto market, such as the 2010 Ogilvy Renault merger with Norton Rose and the 2012 merger of Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP (FMC) with SNR Denton and Salans, either had more lead time in planning  or were kept more tightly under wraps until their official announcement. 

The 500 lawyer firm boasts notable celebrities such as Jean Chrétien, Donald Johnston, Pierre Marc Johnson and Michel Bastarache. It also has a number of thought leaders and innovators in the field who are well known to us. None of us doubt the ability of any of these individuals to fall squarely on their feet, despite whatever changes are announced this week. My concern is more with the junior associates who bet their entire careers and personal lives in hopes of making it on Bay Street.

The new changes may in fact incorporate many junior associates into the new structures that will be announced. But that does not detract from the fact that these juniors had no say, and presumably no insight, into what would come next. The assumption that obtaining a job in a large firm provides stability is a myth.

We live in unstable times, all of us. And for some, that’s just more room for opportunity.

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