Big firms can fail - just look across the Atlantic.
Here’s something you don’t hear every day: it’s all going off in Canada.
Well, strictly speaking, it’s going off in the legal profession, where leading firm Heenan Blaikie has announced it is closing down.
The firm is something of an institution in Canada: founded in 1973 in Montreal, it was a pioneer of expansion and ended up with offices across the country.
It was also rather good at building political connections, with former prime ministers Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jean Chrétien listed among its roster of former lawyers.
At its peak, Heenan Blaikie could boast 500 lawyers and the kind of entrenched market position most can only dream of.
Until this week.
The trigger was a slump of between 10% and 15% in profit per equity partner, announced last month by management. It was followed by, in effect, a ‘run on the bank’ of legal talent, as partners rapidly cleared their desks and fled, taking clients with them. Reportedly a third have scarpered since last weekend.
Signing all those leaving cards must have taken an age.
The remaining partners then took the shock step to vote on an orderly closure of the firm, taking effect immediately. Staff have been told to leave and already there are talks of a ‘phoenix’ business emerging from the ashes.
What is remarkable is that the firm was apparently still relatively comfortable until recently, but simply couldn’t cope with such an overnight (almost literally) partner exodus.
The problems that slowed down profits are all too familiar to the profession here: efficiency (cost-cutting) calls from clients, corporate clients turning to in-house counsel, client loyalty seemingly a thing of the past and a weak transactions market.
And reading of the demise of such an established firm in Canada should send chills down the spines of managing partners throughout England and Wales.
Size is no barrier: by lawyer numbers alone Heenan Blaikie would be the 25th biggest firm on these shores. Profits were down but not catastrophically – just enough to cause panic.
In England and Wales, more than a fifth of the top 100 firms saw revenues fall in 2012/13, while the SRA has already said it has concerns for 32 of the top 200.
This is certainly not to stir an apocalyptic message that we are all doomed: plainly the market here is different to Canada’s. But the external forces are just the same – and Heenan Blaikie should be an item on every board meeting this month.
John Hyde is a Gazette reporter