Bay Adelaide Centre

Peter Blaikie to young lawyers — think twice about becoming a partner at a large firm

Heenan Blaikie co-founder says partnership comes with responsibilities and risks most lawyers never consider
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Heenan Blaikie co-founder says partnership comes with responsibilities and risks most lawyers never consider
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Less than a month after Heenan Blaikie LLP announced its dissolution, the firm is officially dead: its offices, once home to more than 500 lawyers, will be empty by the end of the day.

Precedent spoke to Peter Blaikie, the firm’s co-founder and managing partner until 1993, who has the following advice for young lawyers today: partnership, particularly in a large firm, is not for everyone. And for some people, it’s probably a bad idea.

Most partners, he explains, have no interest in taking on the responsibilities of ownership — which is what being a partner is all about.

“My instinct is that the vast majority of partners at law firms do not think of themselves as owners,” says Blaikie. “They don’t ask questions about how the place is run, or think about where the firm is going or what the vision is.”

If a lawyer has no interest in these issues, he says, then there is no good reason to become a partner. “I think some partners would rather be non-equity partners or senior associates than full partners.”

Even money, says Blaikie, isn’t a sufficient reason to join partnership.

As Blaikie explains, if the finances of a firm go sour, partners are on the hook — something that the recent history of Heenan Blaikie makes clear.

“I haven’t the faintest idea what the final result will be of the dissolution of Heenan Blaikie, but there are certainly many partners who still have skin in the game,” he says, adding that many former Heenan partners are likely to lose the capital they contributed to the firm in order to join partnership.

Moreover, says Blaikie, anyone whose sole motivation is money shouldn’t be practising law.

“Let’s be honest about it, you can be sure that lots of senior partners at Canadian law firms earn more than $1 million a year,” he says. “But that’s chump change in comparison to what you can earn in the investment world. If all you want is money, you might as well go to Wall Street and work at Goldman Sachs.”

In the end, says Blaikie, young lawyers need to ask themselves if they are prepared to accept the responsibilities and risks associated with partnership.

And therein lies the problem: Blaikie says the transition from associate to partner often happens without much thought.

“If you’ve been at a firm for nine or 10 years, and you’ve done good legal work, and you’ve been billing whatever the firm requires, and some clients think of you as their lawyer, then you’re going to become a partner almost automatically,” he says. “And I don’t think that’s a good idea for a great many people. If partnership on a Bay Street firm is a law student’s sole ambition, I personally think that’s a mistake.”


If you’re curious about what it costs to become a partner, read our previous story on capital contributions — or check out the entire Precedent Partnership Guide