For a growing firm like Quebec regional firm BCF Business Law, opening its doors to more than 30 lawyers and support staff from the former Heenan Blaikie LLP Montreal office means it can accelerate its growth strategy. But for large Bay Street firms already struggling how do they absorb Heenan lawyers onto their lifeboats?
BCF, which has 180 lawyers, announced Monday it was taking 15 partners, 15 associates, and about the same number of support staff from the Montreal office of Heenan Blaikie including Marcel Aubut, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
André Morrissette, partner and chairman of the board at BCF acknowledged the “significant addition” of the “pretty large group” of Heenan lawyers but said some have been on the firm’s radar for a number of years and integrating new lawyers is something the firm does “very, very well.”
BCF started in 1995 with less than 10 professionals and 19 years later they will be over 200, which makes it one of the fastest growing firms in Canada.
“To experience that growth you must be able to cope with change and we’re used to it,” says Morrissette, who says they were not interested in specific accounts Heenan lawyers had but more so in specific “new players to complement the team.”
“We will add on a few business lawyers in the Montreal office and strong litigators in construction law and general commercial law at the Quebec City office and a few labour law experts — we needed those,” he says. “The group of lawyers who join the firm today are extremely independent entrepreneurs. Some have been identified as potential players for BCF a few years ago and we had been in contact with them.
“What we didn’t know is that we’d be recruiting such a large group in less than a week. So in a sense the move was opportunistic but it’s a fantastic opportunity for us,” he adds.
In other moves Monday, the former co-managing partner from Heenan’s Montreal office Guy Tremblay and partner Lucie Guimond are joining Gowlings as partners in its Montreal office.
“Guy and Lucie are tremendous additions to our Montréal office and to our national Employment and Labour Law Group,” said Scott Jolliffe, Gowlings chairman and CEO. “Guy is recognized in Canada and internationally as a pillar in the field, while Lucie, an outstanding litigator in her own right, brings a level of experience, expertise and tenacity that few in this area can match.”
Borden Ladner Gervais LLP also announced Monday it was adding a group of 12 labour and employment lawyers to its Montreal office. It will double the size of the practice group for the Montreal office, and the addition of the group will also expand the scope of labour and employment practice for BLG.
“This is a terrific opportunity for BLG to expand its practice with some of Quebec’s leading labour and employment lawyers,” said Sean Weir, national managing partner and CEO of BLG in a statement. “We are pleased that this team of esteemed and exceptionally talented lawyers have chosen to continue their practice at BLG, building on both our regional and national capabilities.”
As well, Dentons Canada LLP said Monday former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, is joining the firm as counsel.
So how can the large firms, especially in Toronto, take on all of these lawyers in uncertain times?
“Quite frankly I think the firms are going to struggle,” says John Rider, chief innovator with Cognition LLP and former chief client officer with Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP. “The issue is that no firm is full of rainmakers. There is a limited number of people with a strong enough client base to bring over to these other firms.”
The problem, says Rider, is there has been no fundamental change in the way these law firms are delivering legal services.
“You don’t change these large firms overnight,” he says. “I have talked to a number of firms on the street over the last six to eight months and they are all looking at what their next steps are.”
The reality is that in a post-Heenan Blaikie world the same number of lawyers are looking to get and keep work.
“You can have 25 national law firms of 500 lawyers each or you can have 12 national law firms of 1,000 lawyers each — it doesn’t change the underlying issue that the way big law is delivering big services is not what the market is looking for and won’t be looking for going forward,” says Rider.
While firms like McCarthy Tétrault LLP are starting to put together a different kind of service offering for corporate clients that include working with alternative service providers like Cognition, it’s still early days. Many firms are trying to make themselves more lean and fit but they are still not looking internally at the way they are delivering the service.
“The inherent problem with a partnership model where they are selling their hours is that the fewer hours there are to go around the more the partners take the hours themselves so they hit their targets which makes it the least efficient model of doing business,” says Rider.
“The only way they will get to the efficiency level they need to be profitable and deliver the services to the client a the price they need is to push the work down and very few firms are doing that now.”
While there are many Heenan lawyers landing on their feet, the long anticipated deal with DLA Piper, the world’s largest law firm, fell apart on Sunday night.
Roger Meltzer, co-chair of the Americas at DLA Piper, had said last week the firm was in talks to recruit a group of about 55 to 70 lawyers from the Toronto and Calgary offices of the storied Canadian firm. But in a statement Monday, DLA Piper said it was unable to agree to economic terms and accommodate the needs of the lawyers at Heenan.