Leading Tauranga law firm Cooney Lees Morgan has broken with tradition by appointing a CEO – the first law firm in the region to do so.
Cecilia Burgess specialises in business development and leading high-performing teams and has an impressive track record, having been Chief Operating Officer at both PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) and Bell Gully over the past decade.
Her appointment is unusual because Partners still run most New Zealand law firms. The rare few that do have a CEO often have legal backgrounds or are a Partner themselves. But Cooneys has opted for Cecilia’s unique experience within the professional services sector to help the firm grow and evolve in the coming years.
“We are now such a diverse business in terms of our clients and the types of advice we’re providing that we need to ensure our Partners are spending their time working with their clients to solve their legal issues rather than spending too much time running our own business,” explains Partner Peter Crombie.
“We are thrilled to have Cecilia on board and know she will focus on our internal culture, enhance our client relationships, and position our firm for a sustainable future, which is exciting.”
Cecilia will be involved in all aspects of running the firm, including setting the strategic direction and leading initiatives to fulfil that strategy. She says Cooneys’ reputation as one of the best mid-size law firms in the country initially attracted her interest but that was quickly overtaken by the calibre of people she met during the selection process.
“You can immediately tell that this is a group of people who really enjoy being in business together,” she says. “Their level of engagement with, and enthusiasm for, the firm was obvious. They have a very clear sense of who they are and where they want to take the business – which is to be the best law firm of its size in New Zealand.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked in a number of leading law and other professional services firms around the world, and I would rate partner engagement as the ‘secret sauce’ in firms which do have a positive and sustainable culture.”
Cecilia says the advantage of appointing a CEO with a non-legal background is the ability to stand back and look at the firm’s performance objectively, and to bring an understanding of business management best practice to the table.
“Professional services firms are built on consensus management because that’s part of the partnership model. But what I can do is bring Cooneys’ Partners to that consensus and help explore options along the way with best practice in mind.”
Recruiting and retaining great staff in a market that’s “got a real war for good talent” will be a major focus of her new role.
Tradition is really important and Cooneys has got fantastic clients that they’ve had for years. But they believe they can always do better. We operate in a different world than what we’ve had in the past. We’re facing different challenges, and as one of the leading businesses in Tauranga we have our part to play in the community in which we operate.
“Cooneys is able to provide high-quality, challenging legal work on a national scale while also offering staff one of the best lifestyles in New Zealand. It’s an enviable position and one of the key reasons why the firm is so highly regarded within the legal fraternity. Many of our lawyers have worked at top tier firms in Auckland, Wellington or overseas – but have chosen to make Tauranga their home to enjoy the best of both worlds.”
Setting the business up for a sustainable future is another key goal Cecilia is working towards. She says there’s a genuine sense of kaitiakitanga among the current Partners to ensure the firm’s 100 year+ legacy continues.
“Tradition is really important and Cooneys has got fantastic clients that they’ve had for years. But they believe they can always do better.
“We operate in a different world than what we’ve had in the past. We’re facing different challenges, and as one of the leading businesses in Tauranga we have our part to play in the community in which we operate, and I think there’s a real recognition of that.”
Prior to creating the new CEO role, Cooneys appointed independent Chair, Carlos da Silva to its Board in 2020. The experienced businessman and director has helped steer the Trelise Cooper Group, FlexiGroup NZ, IT Partners, Fisher & Paykel Finance, NZ’s Meteorological Service, Waikato Regional Airport and the Greenlea Group, among others.
“My appointment, coming on the back of Carlos’ appointment as Chair, demonstrates the focus that Cooneys’ Partners have on building this firm and looking to the future without losing the strength that comes from having been in business for over a century. I’m ready for the challenge and look forward to helping the firm thrive for many decades to come.”