Monday, August 12, 2019

Book Review: 'Breakdown: The Inside Story of the Rise and Fall of Heenan Blaikie' by Norman Bacal

Breakdown by Norman Bacal

‘Every organization needs a conscience. Not every business has one.’

Canadian author Norman Bacal stands tall as both an attorney and an entertainment world advisor. A graduate of McGill University’s Faculty of Law he joined the prestigious law firm of Heenan Blaikie, founding the Toronto office and propelling that firm as the national co-managing partner to become Canada’s most visible and respected law firms. His expertise as a tax attorney aided the financial foundations of Canadian films and television as well as his becoming an advisor for Warner Bros, MGM and Lions Gate Entertainment. Fortunately for the reading public, Norman has retired from these endeavors and devotes his time to writing – using all of his experience to share the BREAKDOWN of a major business in a manner that pleads for a cinematic version!

In defining the core subject of his book, Norman states, ‘This is a story of a young lawyer’s growth: how I evolved from law student to successful lawyer and then leader. In some ways it is the potential story of every student graduating from university, a real-life case study of the skills required to survive in the business world. This story is also a journey through the building of a remarkable enterprise. It represents my perspective on the birth, adolescence and maturity of a business from its infancy as a small, regional firm through to its glory days as a recognized international brand and ultimately to its shockingly swift demise.’ As succinct and finely written as this overview is, the book that follows is a unique memoir of the emergence of Norman Bacal as not only the preeminent legal mind in North America, but also an important chronicler of just how businesses birth and mature, and the internal flaws that hamper ultimate success.

Norman details his own life steps, from salesman to law student to becoming a part of and ultimately a leader of the most prestigious law firm in Canada, and the now infamous demise of that firm. He offers the most insightful evaluation of why that happened and in doing so provides a manual for ALL businesses, no matter the size or subject, on what determines success. As he states, ‘I discovered early on that in dealing with people, words, actions, and even facial expressions matter. Things we say and do, and the way we say and do them, are being observed, evaluated, and judged on a daily basis by superiors and subordinates. The higher we rise in the organization to positions of mentorship, leadership, or other forms of authority, the more the attitudes of the entire organization will key off the subtle cues we give out about who we are. We are continually on display as role models, and every word, every gesture, every omission can carry weight.’

Getting to know the players - Roy Heenan, Peter Blaikie, Donald Johnston and Danny Levinson (‘the conscience of the firm’) - as intimately as Norman details brings understanding and appreciation for the acumen of the author. Why did Heenan Blaikie fail? ‘Did it really happen as quickly as it appeared to outsiders? In my view the cracks in the foundation began to appear shortly after we opened the Paris office in 2011. We endured a rogue partner, concerns over our practice activities around the world, and a flawed process to replace the leaders, which led to greater tensions between Montreal and Toronto. Add to that a chairman who stayed in his official position for too long and a compensation committee process that upset partners, all capped by terrible economic conditions just as management had changed. And, as the final straw, a leadership deadlocked over what to do about the growing crisis.’

Norman Bacal emerges as both a wise legal and business philosopher as well as a superb storyteller. His wisdom is peppered with humor and his writing style invites readers to think, consider, and learn while witnessing one insider’s memoir that is sure to become a lasting resource for understanding the impact of human relations – in business and in life. Highly recommended. 

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Grady Harp. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.