A firm long associated not only with the Bay of Plenty legal fraternity, but its economic growth , is celebrating its 100th year in business.
Tauranga-based Cooney Lees Morgan has, today, 91 staff, including 48 lawyers and nine senior partners, and an office in Matamata.
It’s come a long way from its humble beginnings when the firm was established in Te Puke in 1918 by Hugh Owen Cooney – or simply H.O. Cooney - and today three of his grandchildren are involved in the firm.
Mr Cooney was the son of Irish immigrants who farmed near Pukekohe. He became a teacher at a small school in Bay of Plenty and studied law in the evenings, wrapping a wet towel around his head to keep himself alert late into the night.
During class he would practice his courtroom skills, creating a moot court with his students. To sit his exams in Auckland, Mr Cooney would travel by horse across the Kaimai Range to Te Aroha where he would then catch a train into the city.
H.O. Cooney’s cases at the time were varied: from riots and assaults to claims for unpaid wages and complaints about uncleared weeds. He reportedly never lost a jury trial.
Initially, Mr Cooney worked with an elderly Te Puke solicitor, O.J. Hodge. He covered the full gamut of legal services: conveyancing, estates and contracts, financial issues and litigation, and in 1923, was admitted as a barrister of the Supreme Court in Auckland.
In the early 1930s, Mr Cooney and his friend Andy Jamieson set up Cooney and Jamieson in fast-growing Tauranga while retaining the office in Te Puke. However, the advent of war in 1939 led to the end of the partnership. Mr Jamieson signed up for the army in 1940 and was killed in Crete in 1941.
Lionel Lees became a partner in 1948, with the firm being renamed Cooney Jamieson & Lees.
The pair were heavily involved in the development of the region. H.O. Cooney was Mayor of Te Puke for a spell and an advocate for local Māori over land grievances. Mr Lees served on the Tauranga Council and was Deputy Mayor, as well as being on the committee that established the University of Waikato.
H.O. Cooney battled on behalf of Tauranga’s Harbour Board to secure a Port at Mt Maunganui - after fighting off challenges from Auckland and Whakatane at two Commissions of Inquiry, the Port got the green light and opened in 1955.
Eugene Denis (Ed) Morgan became a partner in 1955, resulting in the firm’s name expanding to Cooney Jamieson Lees & Morgan.
Mr Morgan was held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese during World War II, and on his release he weighed less than 35kg.
He had a prodigious talent for languages and spoke Malay and Tamil, English, French and Latin. Ed Morgan became known for championing Māori interests and was awarded an MBE for efforts such as helping set up the Tauranga Moana Māori Trust Board, and helping Māori obtain some control of the Whanganui River.
After his death, at his desk, in 1988, a commemorative plaque, a memorial gate, was put up at Ngati Hangarau marae, at Waharoa which remains at the marae.
Lament and tribute
Mr Cooney died in June 1959, aged 76; he and his wife Rosa had eight children, four boys, four girls, with one, Desmond, keeping the name on in the firm.
A short notice in the Bay of Plenty Times on his death included a ‘Lament and Tribute’ from the Western Bay of Plenty Māori community.
Over the years the firm changed names, moved around Tauranga and has grown in tune with the growth of the city itself.
H.O. Cooney’s legacy is very much remembered today by those who work there.
“My grandfather created a business which has been woven into the fabric of our family for three generations,” says Owen Cooney, the only Cooney family partner at the firm, though his two cousins, Michael and Paul Cooney, remain as consultants.
“I think we all feel a great sense of satisfaction and pride that it’s been able to make such a big contribution to the growth and development of this city.”
Owen Cooney says he never thought of anything else but being a lawyer. “As a child I often visited my father, Des, at work and remember the Grey St office as being a warm and welcoming place where I was surrounded by uncles, aunts and cousins. I was allowed to sit in Dad’s office chair and while I don’t remember the exact ‘moment’ I decided to become a lawyer, I’ve never wished to be anywhere else.”
Mr Cooney says Cooney Lees Morgan has always evolved with the times, and not shirked from embracing new technology.
“Technology has also changed immensely, and Cooney Lees Morgan has always been quick on the uptake. We embraced fax machines and internal email as soon as they became available, and now the digital age has completely changed the way we operate.”
With Tauranga’s growing population Cooney Lees Morgan developed throughout the 1990s, bringing in new partners to meet increasing demands. A new structure was needed, and the firm developed into four divisions - property and development; litigation and local government; corporate and commercial; and private client and trust. A ‘management committee’ was formed to oversee the broader development of the firm.
“Our offices are now open plan and our clients’ needs have changed too. When I first started practicing law you were expected to be all things to all people. But we were among the first law firms to begin specialising in different areas and working collaboratively. Now our clients are happy to deal with a range of experts across different practice groups and this has become a normal way to do business,” says Owen Cooney.