The new CEO for Tauranga law firm Cooney Lees Morgan says disruption from online and software products that are commoditising part of a lawyer's role means legal firms have to stay more relevant than ever.
Cecilia Burgess says of the disruption challenge: "It's crucial to stay relevant and ensure clients are getting the most cost-effective advice possible."
Burgess is the embodiment of how Cooney Lees Morgan is breaking with legal tradition by appointing a CEO – unusual because partners still run most New Zealand law firms. The rare few that do usually appoint people with legal backgrounds or an existing partner.
But Cooney has opted for Burgess' unique experience within the professional services sector to help the firm grow and evolve in the coming years.
Burgess specialises in business development and leading high-performing teams – and she has an impressive track record, according to Cooney Lees Morgan partner Peter Crombie. She's been Chief Operating Officer at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) and Bell Gully over the past decade.
"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," he says.
"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."
Burgess will be involved in all aspects of running the firm, including setting the strategic direction and leading initiatives to fulfil that strategy.
She says Cooney's reputation as one of the best mid-size law firms in the country initially attracted her interest, quickly overtaken by the calibre of people she met during the selection process.
"You can immediately tell 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."
Burgess 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 I can bring that consensus to the partners and help explore options along the way, with best practice in mind."
Recruiting and retaining great staff in a market in a "real war for good talent" will be a major focus, along with setting up the business for a sustainable future. Burgess says there's a genuine sense of stewardship or kaitiakitanga among the current partners to ensure the firm's 100 year-plus legacy continues.
"Tradition is really important and Cooney has fantastic clients they've had for years. But they believe they can always do better," she says.
"We operate in a different world than in the past. We're facing different challenges and, as one of the leading businesses in Tauranga, we have our part to play in our community, and I think there's real recognition of that."
Prior to creating the new CEO role, Cooney appointed independent chair Carlos da Silva to its board last year. 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 Cooney 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."