Former colleagues are remembering Roy Heenan, co-founder of Heenan Blaikie LLP, one of Canada’s largest law firms, as a larger-than-life personality who loved the law and the people he worked with.
Heenan, who had been battling cancer, passed away Feb. 3 surrounded by his family at the age of 81. He was one of the firm’s three co-founders who, along with Peter Blaikie and Donald Johnston, built the firm that grew to prominence until February 2014 when it closed its doors forever.
Norm Bacal, who was national co-managing partner for 16 years at Heenan Blaikie, was first a student in Heenan’s labour law class at McGill Law.
“That’s how far back we go,” says Bacal. “But I only got a ‘C’. The running joke in the firm for years after I was hired into the tax department was that I would never have to do any labour work and Roy would never have me.”
While he had only spoken with Heenan once in the last couple of years, Bacal says when he heard the news about his death he felt a “great sense of loss” for the person who had been a major influence on his life.
“Roy and Peter changed my life and sent it in a particular direction,” he says.
Montreal lawyer Karen Rogers also started her career with Heenan, working with him from 1990 to 2014.
“In one word, he was a passionate person and his passion was in the law, in advocacy, for his clients, the firm — and you could feel it,” says Rogers, now a partner at Langlois LLP and chairwoman of that firm’s litigation group. “As a young lawyer and even growing up with him, there was this enthusiasm and need to do the best of your ability. What he built at Heenan, he believed a lot in people and working as a team with respect and not only the lawyers but the support staff and to appreciate the value of the whole team.”
Rogers recalls Heenan giving speeches at the firm emphasizing that it was the “kindler, gentler firm.”
“That was very important to him,” she says.
Bacal, who also “grew up” at Heenan Blaikie, recalls Roy Heenan as another kind of teacher, saying he learned a lot from him about how to approach people.
“He cast a giant shadow because he was a big personality, but on top of everything else, he was a real gentleman, always. There are so many aspects to him as an individual and so many lessons that he taught that I think he did without meaning to teach.
“Part of what Roy taught I’m not sure he was even aware he teaching,” Bacal says. “He was charming and it didn’t matter who you were — whether it was the receptionists, the hostesses, Fidel Castro, he treated you the same way,” he says.
Heenan Blaikie became known as a firm that offered a different climate for lawyers to practise law and be treated differently. It rose to fame as having one of the top labour and employment practices in the country.
“He was a brilliant jurist and will always be remembered as such in the labour community,” says Bacal.
Rogers also worked with co-founding partners Peter Blaikie and Don Johnston. She recalls the firm having a mandate to not just work for big clients but do smaller files and help less fortunate clients — something that mattered to Heenan.
“I think he could have worked anywhere and he didn’t want to do law for money, he did it because he enjoyed it,” she says. “When you’d go to court, you’d see him running down the hallway in his gown — he was a passionate person who didn’t necessarily do things the way lawyers generally do things. He felt if you did well and excelled at what you did, the rest would fall into place.”
When the firm collapsed in 2014, it was “extremely hard” for Heenan, Rogers says, adding that for her even today it’s “difficult to understand.”
“The firm folding was not about the majority but the minority who did not necessarily get along, which caused the whole thing to happen. It wasn’t a financial issue. I was a partner at Heenan and I didn’t anticipate it, to be quite frank, and I’m pretty sure Roy didn’t anticipate it either,” she says. “It was probably one of the biggest deceptions of his life.”
Heenan will also be remembered for his role in the Canadian arts world. Rogers remembers the art in the Montreal office and how Heenan decided where each painting would go.
“He built, possibly single-handedly, the reputation of a number of Canadian artists, simply by the volume of Canadian art he bought over the years,” says Bacal. “He found many unknown artists and held on to their works until they became known.”
Bacal has written a book about the fall of Heenan Blaikie called Breakdown: The Inside Story of the Rise and Fall of Heenan Blaikie, which will be released Feb. 28.
As a leader, he was described as unique. “Even his detractors loved him,” says Bacal.
Visitation for Heenan is today at the Kane & Fetterly Funeral Home in Montreal. A funeral service will be held tomorrow, Friday Feb. 10, at 1 p.m. at St. George Anglican, 1101 Stanley Street in Church in Montreal.