Does Anyone Miss Heenan Blaikie?

What would it take to build a law firm that people would miss if it was gone?

By Stuart Wood, CEO, Caravel Law.

When Goodman & Carr announced that they were closing up shop in 2007, people were quite surprised. The firm had lost some lawyers but had been around for over 40 years and still had almost 100 lawyers at the time that they made the decision. Suddenly the “hard working law” firm was gone.

An article about the closure of G&C featured a quote from the Heenan Blaikie managing partner, “The only ones who were surprised were the insiders.” Seven years later, Heenan partners made the same decision to shut down – again after about 40 years in business. Both G&C and HB pursued mergers near the end with larger global firms, but when those fell through, the firms closed up shop.

Ogilvy Renault and Macleod Dixon opted to join Norton Rose and as a result both names disappeared from the Canadian legal landscape. Fraser Milner Casgrain was absorbed into Dentons and Davis LLP became part of DLA Piper. All of the former Lang Michener lawyers who have stuck around have McMillan LLP on their business cards now.

These were all great firms, filled with great lawyers. They were around for decades in most cases. They had thousands of clients and would have had hundreds of millions in revenue each year. They handled complex matters and big M&A deals for their clients and clearly had talent, because the partners and lawyers of these firms all moved on and found new jobs, often without any gap in employment at all.

The question I find myself asking is, does anyone miss any of these firms?

I didn’t work with any of them, but I’m guessing most of these firms had very loyal clients and would have claimed to have a unique culture that was specific to each firm. (Each firm I’ve worked with has felt that way about themselves.) Now that they have been gone for a while, I wonder if anyone really wishes one of them was still around.

I don’t know but I think the answer to my question is no. Nobody really misses these firms, except perhaps some of the lawyers who worked there. (Not even sure about that!) All of the clients moved their work to a new firm and were fine. Many continued to work with the same lawyer they had worked with before. I think there is lots of evidence that people miss individual lawyers when they move in-house or retire, but if they merely switch firms, often the client just moves their work over to the new shop.

Seth Godin asks his audience, “If your brand were to disappear tomorrow, who would truly miss you?” The people helping clients define their “purpose” at McKinsey & Company suggest leaders ask themselves, “What would the world lose if your company disappeared?” I think all law firm leaders should think about these questions.

Is there a firm today that people would miss if it disappeared? What would it take to build a law firm that people would miss if it was gone? Is it even possible?

I think it is. Perhaps here, law firm leaders can take inspiration from the famous quote from Dr. Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I think it starts with a client feeling that the level of service and personal attention that they have received goes beyond what they have experienced at other firms. Building on that – it includes a client being able to focus on growing their business because they have the peace of mind that comes from knowing that their issues are being addressed with the right level of communication to avoid any unpleasant surprises along the way.

What if a client gets that level of service, along with excellent legal work, and then when they received their invoice had the reaction, “I thought it would be higher.” Would they miss that firm if it disappeared?

It depends. Could they find another firm that made them feel the same way? If not, then I think they would miss that firm.

It takes a total team effort to create a firm like that, but that’s what we’re working towards.


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