Last week’s decision by major Canadian law firm Heenan Blaikie to dissolve received a lot of coverage in the Canadian press as well as among legal commentators. Yet discounting its demise as being peculiarly Canadian is unwise. The market and competitive dynamics that contribute to a Canadian law firm’s success or failure are very similar to those confronting US law firms. Canada’s legal market is more like the US market than not.
Some law firms collapse due to circumstances uniquely their own or fall victim to an unexpected outside event that impacts a wide swath of the industry. Heenan Blaikie’s fall was not about an ill-conceived merger, illegal behavior like Dreier, or a direct result of an overtly macro economic slug to the gut like the Great Recession. Rather, most post-mortems attribute Heenan Blaikie’s dissolution to the increasing strains that are imposed on law firms generally, including heightened client expectations, increased competition and the dearth of high dollar legal work.
It is too early to write the definitive story on why Heenan Blaikie collapsed. Some finger pointing has begun, but it is unlikely that any one issue was “the reason.” Heenan Blaikie failed because the legal services industry changed around it in multi-dimensional ways and it did not adequately respond.
Nothing about Heenan Blaikie’s management, strategy or law firm DNA made it more susceptible to failure than the next firm. After all, by most accounts Heenan Blaikie embarked on many of the same initiatives or strategies pursued by a large cross-section of today’s law firms. So much of Heenan Blaikie can be found in other law firms that hope to live on. Here are some Heenan Blaikie characteristics that will be found in its peer firms, whether “peer” is limited to firms in Canada or expanded to include firms in the United States:
Conservative Operations. Viewed from afar, Heenan Blaikie appears to have operated like most law firms and was not guilty of falling for a “get rich quick” scheme. Like many major law firms, it attempted to provide legal services to commercially based clients in a highly professional manner befitting of the fifth largest law firm in Canada.
Growth by Lateral Hires and Opening Multiple Offices. Heenan Blaikie hired lawyers on a lateral basis like most firms its size do these days. Perhaps it placed too much value on laterals that were exiting government service but it would not be the first law firm to see value in that profile. And it opened offices in numerous cities, having eight offices at the end. Its growth strategy was pursued with the expectation that the new partners and offices would leverage their deep relationships into greater business for the firm as a whole.
Stiffer Competition For Fewer Deals. Many reports attempting to explain the Heenan Blaikie outcome cite to the nationwide dearth of corporate transactional work and the increased competition for the few deals available. Because the shortage of high-end corporate deals was market-wide, other firms no doubt were impacted in a similar way.
Greater Client Expectations. Canadian law firm prospects have changed in recent years with clients taking steps to control legal expenses. Heenan Blaikie felt the consequences of client legal expense control initiatives and these new client expectations added to the financial pressure it experienced.
Limited Control Over Lawyer Departures. As the financial pressures mounted, a trickle of departures could not be stemmed and turned into a torrent. Heenan Blaikie faced the one thing feared the most: a run on the bank. Having no way to counter the unrelenting exodus, Heenan Blaikie’s end was inevitable.
Heenan Blaikie was “everyfirm.” Reported personality clashes, a vacuum of leadership, a tardy effort at restructure may have provided the spark to the explosion, but there is nothing about the firm that makes it unique. Unfortunately, its closing does not fill a yearly quota of failed law firms and could be followed by others. Like John Bradford before them, many law firm leaders may be counting their blessings. Only law firms with capable leadership will make sure that the similarities end there and that they do not go forth as did Heenan Blaikie.
How are you going to prevent your firm from ending up like Heenan Blaikie?