DLA Eyes Canada After Heenan Blaikie Goes Bust

, The Am Law Daily

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Toronto's Bay Adelaide Centre, home of Heenan Blaikie

Marcel Aubut, a Quebec City–based corporate partner who sat on the firm’s management committee, is another key rainmaker. Aubut is a former president and CEO of the National Hockey League’s now-defunct Quebec Nordiques and currently serves as head of the Canadian Olympic Committee. Aubut is currently in Sochi, Russia, for the Winter Games that start Friday.

Other prominent lawyers who remained at Heenan Blaikie until the end include former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Michel Bastarache, counsel in Ottawa, and former Quebec Premier Pierre-Marc Johnson, who holds the same title in Montreal. Geoff Plant, a former attorney general of British Columbia, is a partner in the Vancouver office. On Thursday, it was announced that Plant, Bastarache and Heenan Blaikie cofounder Roy Heenan will become of counsel with Gall, Legge, Grant & Munroe, a litigation and labor and employment spin-off formed by 16 departing Heenan Blaikie lawyers.

Though not a member of the top tier of Canadian firms dubbed the Seven Sisters, Heenan Blaikie was among the country’s notable full-service shops. Founded in 1973 by Heenan, Peter Blaikie and Donald Johnston—the latter a former secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development whose name came off the firm’s shingle when he was elected to Canada’s parliament in 1978—Heenan Blaikie distinguished itself with its corporate, IP litigation and labor and employment expertise.

In recent years, the firm launched a rapid expansion effort beyond its Montreal base. According to historical head count data compiled by Lexpert, Heenan Blaikie had 349 lawyers in 2004. A decade later that number had reached more than 500, enough to qualify it as the seventh-largest firm in Canada.

One sign of how significant the struggles of a national firm like Heenan Blaikie were is how closely its travails were covered by the country's legal and business press. Other big Canadian firms that have folded—such as Goodman and Carr in 2007 and Holden Day Wilson in 1996, three years after the tragic death of one of its young partners—were based solely in Toronto.

The national firm model is relatively new in Canada, with most of the nation’s largest shops created out of mergers that began in the early to mid-1990s. According to Lexpert, the country's largest firm by head count last year was Borden Ladner Gervais, a 769-lawyer shop formed in 2000 through the merger of Montreal’s McMaster Gervais, Ottawa’s Scott & Aylen, Toronto’s Borden Elliot and Vancouver’s Ladner Downs.

Gowlings, second on Lexpert’s list, adopted its current name in 2000 via the merger of Ottawa’s Gowling Strathy & Henderson and Montreal’s Lafleur Brown. The firm has continued to grow globally, and reportedly held merger talks last year with Asian-Pacific legal giant King & Wood Mallesons.

Canada’s third-largest firm, according to Lexpert, is 631-lawyer Fasken. It grew out of a trio of mergers in 1999 and 2000 between Toronto’s Fasken Campbell Godfrey, Quebec’s Martineau Walker and Vancouver’s Russell & DuMoulin. Fasken, which in 2012 picked up South Africa’s Bell Dewar, held its own merger talks with DLA in 2008.

Now DLA is poised to follow in the footsteps of competitors like Dentons and Norton Rose Fulbright—the latter of which bet big on Canada in recent years by absorbing leading local firms Ogilvy Renault and Macleod Dixon—by picking up the remnants of Heenan Blaikie. (Another London-based firm, Clyde and Co, also established a base in Canada by picking up 40-lawyer insurance boutique Nicholl Paskell-Mede in 2011.)

The Canadian legal market has been especially active in recent years due the ability of the country’s big banks to come out of the global economic downturn relatively unscathed and the emergence of Alberta’s oil sands as a lucrative source of energy. That confluence of factors spawned an uptick in transactional work that fattened the bottom line of the country's law firms, as The American Lawyer reported in 2008 and 2010 feature stories.

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