A (Feminist) Review of Breakdown: The Rise and Fall of Heenan Blaikie

  • October 01, 2018
  • Erin Cowling, Flex Legal Network & OBA WLF Secretary

I bought this book because I thought it would make for a great review for this blog: a book about the demise of a large Canadian law firm, seemingly out of the blue.

​I was going to write a typical summary review of the book, but as I started reading I could not ignore the feminist voice inside my head popping up at various times as I made my way through its pages. I was reading the book as “Lawyer Erin”, curious about how a large firm like Heenan Blaikie could collapse almost overnight, but also as “Feminist Erin” fascinated (and sometimes annoyed) with the male author’s, and male protagonists’, perspectives on the inner workings of a law firm and the legal profession in general. So this will be both your regular review of the book, but it will be followed by a few observations that Feminist Erin could not ignore.

The Review

This book is more than a recounting of the rise and fall of Heenan Blaikie. It is also the story of Norman Bacal, the author, tax lawyer, and former co-managing partner of Heenan. Mr. Bacal writes of his lessons learned, his regrets, his mistakes and his successes. The book also includes many stories of tax cases, as well as the history of tax planning and film and television financing in Canada. Readers who are interested in tax law and tax issues will take a lot more away from this book than just Mr. Bacal’s explanation of the end of Heenan Blaikie. (Those not so interested in tax law may wish to skim through those sections...)

So, why did Heenan Blaikie fall? There is no short answer.  It was not because the firm was not making money, nor was there a large scandal or illegal shenanigans. Mr. Bacal paints a picture of a successful law firm that fell victim to the egos and emotions of the people at its helm. From my reading, it appears to have come down to fear, insecurities, lack of communication, and perhaps a little denial (although each person who reads the book may find a different explanation). Despite all the positive steps the firm was taking, other less positive circumstances were chipping away at the firm (no partnership agreement, lack of trust between offices, conflicting personalities). Basically, once the foundations of the firm started to shake, the collapse wasn’t too far away.  Eventually, it turned into a bank run. Once a few lawyers started leaving, the remaining lawyers got jittery: “If that lawyer is leaving, should I leave too? Why are they leaving? Is this a sinking ship? Should I look out for my own career?”

Mr. Bacal tells a tale of privileged lawyers and the "golden years" for law firms. He starts with the formation of the firm, and moves to its expansion to Toronto, across Canada, and globally. He chronicles the highs and the lows of managing a firm. The characters, the lawyers, are relatable (and familiar) to most lawyers in Toronto. He made it a human story, not a clinical examination of what went wrong.

Now….Some Feminist Musings: Where are the Women?

I could not help but notice the domination of male lawyers in this book. There are almost no female voices. And I get it, this story starts in 1973, at a time when men pretty much ruled the legal profession (some argue they still do). But Heenan collapsed in 2014. I was expecting some more women to emerge as the story continued, but few did. I can only take away from this that women did not play a large role in Heenan’s management over the years, or the author chose not to focus on their stories. I hope it’s the former and not the latter, but both explanations are disappointing. I am not saying that if women were in charge there would not have been a collapse. What I’m saying is this book is more proof of the lack of female voices in law firm management.

Even the language throughout the book reflects the male domination of the legal profession. A few examples:  When Mr. Bacal talked about a turning point in his career, he noted, “I was forced to transform myself from a strong technical lawyer into a tax planner, and that required imagination. In the tax world, this is what separates the planners from the lifetime technicians, the men from the boys.” Also, the foreword states that a lesson to be learned “from Bacal’s book – is that in moments of crisis, firms must be able to rely on vigorous leaders as their last line of defence. In this regard, Heenan Blaikie didn’t have the men it needed.” It’s not hard to write with gender neutral language. Words matter.

The Hero(ine) of the Story

While some may see the hero of the story as Mr. Bacal and his attempts to resuscitate a dying Heenan, I believe the true hero of the story is Sharon Bacal, the author’s wife. Mr. Bacal clearly adores his wife. He leaned on her and looked to her for advice throughout his career. She counseled him on getting his job (“What do you have to lose…Why don’t you call him and ask?”) and how to be a good manager (“People need to see you, need to hear from you personally.”) And when he didn’t take her advice (e.g., "Do not open an office in Paris"), he regretted it.

But Sharon Bacal isn’t just a supportive wife; she is an accomplished woman, a chartered accountant,  was a partner at Coopers & Lybrand and now a portrait artist. When the Bacals decided to move to Toronto, Mr. Bacal observed that he was “adding a lot of pressure to [his] wife’s life, leaving her to coordinate the lives of three children, a pregnancy, a job transfer, the sale of our house, the purchase of a new house, and a move – in short, a complete overhaul of [their] lives”. It was this woman who emerged as the true hero of the story.

Who should read this book?

Anyone with an interest in Canadian law, law firms, or law firm management (or even legal gossip) will enjoy this book and many can learn from the lessons told within.

This article was first published on Erin's website, www.cowlinglegal.com/blog, in May 2017.


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