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!”

NEW GIRL

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.

At work with John Wayne How­ell

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.”

Mary with Sal­ly Pow­drell at Eliz­a­beth Café and Larder, catch­ing up between meet­ings

PRESENTEEISM

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.”

Mary and Matt at home with sons, Mitchell (left) and Luca (right)

EXPECTATIONS

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.”

THE JUGGLE

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.”

Learn more about Mary at:

COONEYLEESMORGAN.CO.NZ/MARY-HILL