A plan to start a family and get to the top of her game professionally sees Mary Hill become the newest partner at Tauranga law firm, Cooney Lees Morgan. We meet Mary with husband Matt and sons Luca and Mitchell.
WORDS JENNY RUDD PHOTOS TRACIE HEASMAN
It’s not the first time the topic of partnership has been raised with Mary. Eight years ago, Paul Cooney, then a partner in the firm, took her out for coffee. “Paul knew that Matt and I had been going through IVF to try and start a family. He was very supportive. That morning, Paul asked me if I had aspirations to become partner, and I said, ‘I have some news to share with you!’
“Although I knew I wanted a partnership, I felt that it was a time to focus on family. I also knew that if I wanted to make partner in the future, then I could make it happen. There were people who told me I was crazy to let the opportunity pass by, and that it wouldn’t come round again. But I was committed to making it work. I felt relaxed about waiting, and had faith in Cooney’s. I had seen that they treat people really well. When it comes to looking after their staff, and in particular mums, they always think long term. I’m in a good place right now – the kids are happy, the youngest has been at school for a year, we have built a new home. Now feels like the right time to become a partner.”
MAKING THE MOVE
It was that desire to have a family, and to work in an environment where Mary could succeed whilst raising children, which drew the couple to Cooney Lees Morgan. “I had been working in competition law, and doing high court litigation in Auckland. Matt was working for Mercury Energy in a corporate role. Matt and I are both from Auckland, and it never occurred to me that we’d live anywhere else. But even then, 13 years ago, it felt busy and big. We started to look at places like Nelson, Hawke’s Bay and Tauranga.”
A connection to Sally Powdrell, now chairperson of partners at the firm, convinced Mary to make the move. “I was offered a role in resource management – quite different from the competition law I’d been practising. But there were three big clinchers for me. One was Sally; she’s just amazing. She’d been made partner in her twenties, and although her children are now young adults, she was able to work part-time while they were teenagers, when she felt they needed her most. The second was that I could see the firm was driven to support community initiatives and play a role in building the community. The third was that they seemed to be a very happy group of people. That’s a good sign when you are looking at committing to a firm! So, Matt and I made the move.
“We had been living on Franklin Road in Ponsonby. We loved it, apart from at Christmas when we had to buy a load of cheap lights to stop our neighbours being angry with us. Every day another bulb blew. By the end of the holiday, we were a pretty sorry sight. We could see people pointing and laughing at our efforts as they walked past, so we would pretend we didn’t live there!”
Mary is a ‘take-the-bull-by-the-horns’ kind of girl, which is lucky. She needed to learn not only the different ways of doing things at her new firm, but also another area of law. “Paul Cooney had never had a junior before, but he turned out to be a brilliant mentor. He took me to every single meeting and upskilled me. There was all this new information to absorb. About a month into it, there was a hearing, and he chucked me straight into it! But I felt really supported, and so I just got stuck in and had a go. It’s the way I approach most things.
“I was getting practical experience too, more so than with a big firm. Early on I had an opportunity to be a junior for a QC, and was able to go to the Court of Appeal and learn about that side of things. In Auckland, I hadn’t run my own trials, but now I have a number of hearings each year. There have been two already this year. I had a three-week hearing when Luca, my eldest, was a baby. I presented my client’s case for several days, then a member from my team sat through the rest of the hearing. Good communication amongst my team meant we gave our client the best possible service.”
Most of the partners are from Auckland or Wellington. I ask Mary if she misses the big smoke, but she shakes her head. “We love it here, and the kids are thriving. In every way, it’s exceeded our expectations. I wanted to be able to make a life here and still be a court lawyer. Hearings are ‘full on’, and you need to be on your game to respond to everything that is thrown at you. Otherwise you end up looking like an idiot. In Auckland, there’s no way I could have had a family life with Matt and the children, and prepared properly for hearings. It would have been logistically impossible. Here in the Bay, our hearings are at the Twin Towers in The Mount: really close to my house! I can have a coffee at Slow fish, spend the morning at the hearing, take my client out for lunch, head back in, then go for a run around The Mount afterwards. It is in infinitely better than battling through a sticky and swelling city to do the same job.”
It’s hard to believe the extent to which Mary’s firm make it possible for parents to work around raising children. Old, established law firms aren’t renowned for making concessions like that, but it’s deep in Cooney’s culture to be supportive of their staff. “When my children were tiny, I was able to work two days a week for a couple of years. That’s virtually unheard of in our industry. I was still running hearings, my resource management practice and negotiating, and Cooney’s were happy to make it work. I shared a nanny with a colleague, Rachael Zame. If we had to go to a meeting together, which was not unusual, the nanny would look after all the children.”
“Recently I was up in Auckland at a conference with a group of young lawyers. They talked about the prevalence of ‘presenteeism’ at work. It’s the show of being constantly present and available at work, even if there isn’t anything to do. We discussed how damaging that culture is. It doesn’t get the best out of lawyers, so ultimately doesn’t do the best for the clients. It’s such an antiquated way of working, and one that we really don’t support.”
This culture of open-minded trust has a real effect on the work produced. “We are a pragmatic bunch. We’d much rather pick up the phone and have a quick chat than send out a waffy five-page letter. Because of that, we have built a good reputation both as a legal practice and employer. We have some big clients, like Zespri, Milford Asset Management, and Norske Skog Tasman, who like the way we work.”
Mary is a bit of a superwoman. I asked her how a normal day looks; it can’t be easy having two small children and being at the top of your game professionally. She is incredibly t, and likes to do sunrise yoga then go for a run. If she has extra work on because of a hearing, it’s all done early in the morning. “Then it means I can do the school run. That’s my time to see how my boys are doing, and chat to the teachers. By the time I get home in the early evening to relieve the nanny, I’m done. Evenings are for Netflix!”
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What is resource management?
Back in 1991, it became apparent we needed some legislation to make sure our beautiful country remains that way for the generations to follow. So the Resource Management Act 1991 (usually known as the RMA) was written to set out guidelines as to how we should manage our environment. Sustainability plays a big role in the RMA, encouraging us to take responsibility for the future of our environment by telling our local governments what changes we’d like, and what we think is important.
In legal situations around the RMA, one firm acts for the council, and other firms act for other interests (like a developer, or a neighbour, for example). The team at Cooneys generally act on behalf of local authorities: regional, city and district councils, both in the Tauranga area and further afield, in places like Gisborne and Opotiki.
It might sound like a dry area of law, but it’s one that affects us all so much, every day.
“Last year we had a three-week hearing about Matakana Island. Someone wanted to put a resort-style development on the island. The argument was whether Matakana was an outstanding natural landscape. Much of a resource consent hearing is taken up with considering the effects our decisions will have on the environment and the future. Those kinds of hearings affect all of us – we all love going to Pilot Bay and eating ice cream while looking at the view across to the island.
“Another case I really enjoyed was the Whakatane Kopeopeo Canal Project, where dioxins sit at the bottom of the canal, meaning no one can swim in it. The council came up with a really innovative way to extract the toxins. First, giant vacuum cleaners will suck out the contaminated sediment, then specific types of trees and fungi will be planted to absorb the toxic matter and clean the soil.”