By the time this article is published much will have been written about the demise of Heenan Blaikie LLP. Many verbal autopsies are also being conducted citing causes ranging from inflated student/first year salaries and billing rates, to unrealistically aggressive pricing, to partners without substantial books of business, to retired public figures with salaries that do not reflect the level of their contribution to the firm, to infighting, and the list goes on.
The demise of Heenan is a story that hits the Montreal legal community hard because it was a Montreal firm at its origin. It was one of our success stories. When I was in law school it was known as the kinder, gentler law firm, which could explain why the two reactions that characterize almost every lawyer to whom I have spoken about the event are first, shock and sadness at what happened to our friends and colleagues and second, tremendous humility: this time round it was Heenan but it could just as easily have been any one of us.
Although upsetting, the disintegration of a large law firm should come as no surprise given the present market. It is news to no one that the way we practise law, the rates we charge, the business model we espouse — or fall into — cannot continue.
In the coming months the smarter firms will run case studies on Heenan and try to learn from whatever its mistakes were. While the legal profession continues a self-scrutiny that is long overdue, however, one player is conspicuously absent from the discussion and avoiding responsibility for its part in the present state of the legal market: the law faculties.
Why do Quebec law faculties (and they are no different from law faculties in other provinces or American states except they do not require an undergraduate degree for admission) continue to produce the number of graduates they do into a market that clearly cannot absorb them?
The explanation so often heard from faculty deans that “law school is not trade school. We are providing students with an education not a job” or “it is up to bar school to regulate the profession” is irresponsible and disingenuous — especially when followed by the equally cavalier defence that faculties are merely responding to the market demand of students lured by inflated Big Law salaries and glamorous entertainment industry portrayals of the profession. Either you are market driven or you are not!
Moreover, law faculties are frequently judged, even if unofficially, on the employment rate of their graduates post-graduation and therefore benefit directly from the reputation created by market placement numbers. The inextricable link between placement rankings and reputation is one of the themes discussed in Steven J. Harper’s The Lawyer Bubble.
While admittedly the role of law faculties is not to fill the offices of Big Law, quotas are a poor answer, and students should be allowed to study law for the intellectual pleasure of it, the reality is most law faculty students end up at law school with aspirations of entering the market to practise law.
What the law faculties have done, however, is to produce a commodity surplus with the ensuing result: devaluation of the legal profession. The miracle, in fact, is that so many of us have been able to keep going at these rates for so long!
So while it would be ridiculous to blame law faculties for the demise of Heenan, this event is an excellent opportunity to perform an autopsy not only on the way we practise law but also on the way and numbers we train for the profession.
Ultimately there is no single explanation for why a seemingly successful law firm fell apart. There are many. That said, we will not be able to obtain the required context and perspective on a very upsetting event until one of the major players, the law faculties, steps up to assume its share of responsibility for the present crisis in the legal profession so as to assist in providing solutions for the future.
Danielle Olofsson is a knowledge management lawyer at Dentons Canada LLP in charge of civil law. She has practised law in Montreal, Paris, and Stockholm and is a member of the Quebec and Paris bar associations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org