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Legal legend Graham Cox dies

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

Legal legend Graham Cox, died peacefully on Friday, 6 May 2022, just days before his 90th birthday. He had been battling pneumonia for the past six weeks.


Graham Cox was well recognised in the Durban legal fraternity and the community as a highly respected commercial lawyer. He was, however, a man of many varied talents and interests.


Born on 21 May 1932 in Bloemfontein, he went to Diocesan College (Bishops) which was in many ways the making of him. He told his son Ian Cox that it taught him that life was unfair and that if you wanted anything, you had to make it happen yourself. He certainly did that. He was the first person in his family to go to university.


He went to UCT where he studied commerce with the intention of being a business lawyer. That was unheard of at the time as business lawyers did not exist in South Africa.


In 1964 Graham Cox founded the firm known as Cox Yeats. “I started my own firm because I don’t like being told what to do. I was employed at Unilever after I graduated, and they are a wonderful company to work for, but I wanted to be my own boss,” he recounted in an interview. Together with Jeremy Yeats who joined him in the firm in 1967, Cox Yeats became a formidable team from the outset. They combined their passion for law with their astute business sense, and with the help of exceptional partners, a multi award-winning firm was born. The firm was established on the foundation of ‘care for clients first and foremost and exceptional service together with sound legal advice that is useful to the client’. This legacy lives on in the firm today.


Graham Cox represented many of the old, established businesses in KZN. He handled many company acquisitions, takeovers and tax law cases down the years. He had the ability to translate complex legal issues into practical business friendly solutions that served the needs of the particular client. Moreover, he did this with tact, good humour and discretion. He was tough and demanded excellence but was always scrupulously fair and innately kind. He demanded more of himself than others and liked to lead from the front.


Cox Yeats senior partner, Michael Jackson, started his career with Graham Cox as an article clerk. He recalls, “Graham was a hard task master but a young lawyer could not ask for a better mentor. I was fortunate to learn from one of the best.” In 2014, Jackson requested Graham Cox to write a foreword for a book written on the firm’s 50th anniversary to capture the values upon which Cox Yeats had been built over the years so that these could be passed on to all those people who will guide the firm into the future. Graham wrote:


“From the beginning, we have been set apart by the concern, which we have for our clients, the expertise of our professionals and an excellent support staff. Ultimately, the enduring success of any firm depends upon its people and I have nothing but confidence that Cox Yeats will achieve continuing excellence in the service which it delivers to its clients.”


Graham Cox was known for his wicked sense of humour that was often deployed both at work and play, in many instances serving to defuse volatile situations and open the way to workable solutions. Many clients became good friends. He had what his generation called a first-class brain. Lawyers applauded his superb legal ability. He was one of the best lawyers of his generation and worked with the best. Many such as, Judges John Milne, John Didcott, Hillary Squires, and constitutional lawyer Professor Tony Mathews to name just a few, were lifelong friends. He was a lawyer’s lawyer.


Graham Cox was:

· A past president of the KwaZulu-Natal Law Society and of the Law Society of South Africa, chairing both where he championed the causes of freedom of speech, the rule of law and human rights

· A past chairman of the Council of the University of KwaZulu-Natal where he championed academic excellence and freedom

· A past council member of the Business Law Section of the International Bar Association

· A fellow of the Association of Arbitrators

· A member of the board of what was then the Natal Parks Board and the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra

· A trustee on various charitable trusts

· Recognised in 2012 by the legal profession for his 50 years of outstanding service as a corporate lawyer


During his time of active practice, Graham Cox specialised in Business Law, Tax Law, Trusts and Estate Planning and Construction Law.


While at university he became a nationally rated fencer winning top honours in all three weapons at the South African Universities Championships. He was awarded University full Blues for his achievements in fencing. His love of adventure ignited his passion for rock climbing and mountaineering. As a rock climber he climbed extensively and led an expedition to the Ruwenzori, which successfully summited Mount Speke. He was a member of the Mountain Club of South Africa for nearly 70 years. Yet when asked what his greatest achievement was, he would tell you it was marrying his wife Jillian. She was his soulmate. They met on top of Table Mountain where both had been rock climbing. It was love at first sight. They were engaged in a week.


Jillian was better known in Durban’s medical circles as Dr Jillian Key, who worked initially at McCords and then for more than 30 years in Addington’s paediatric unit. She was instrumental in starting the first child abuse unit at Addington. Together, Graham and Jillian were a winning team, supporting each other in their careers and enjoying life to the full travelling the world exploring remote places. Both were also avid conservationists who were committed to making a tangible difference to the world they lived in.


Dr George Hugues, past CEO of the Natal Parks Board pays the following tribute, “Some characters loom larger than others and Graham definitely fitted into the larger category. We shared a great deal of our lives together through nature and our endeavours to conserve it. Graham had a tremendous love for nature and spent as much time as possible wandering mountain paths. Graham’s advice and guidance as a board member of the Natal Parks Board never failed and his sense of balance and justice was of immense use in developing not just better politics and efficiencies for nature conservation in the province, but his wisdom also prevented the Board from taking legal action which would have cost us dearly. His contributions were inestimable.


More than that he was a joy to work with and his enthusiasm for the goals of the Board were exercised, always, with clarity, humour and understanding. Nature conservation could not have attracted a more valuable asset. Thank you, Graham.”


All of the institutions he served on saw an improvement in their finances as a result of his involvement. A disciple of “the Richest Man in Babylon” since his schooldays, he knew how to make money work.


His life was dominated by care for others and dedication to service. He cared about things and wanted to make a difference. Graham Cox continued to actively practice law and take care of his clients until 80 years of age where he would leave for work every day as the sun rose. He would spend a full day at the office consulting and helping with training young articled clerks and associates before setting off for home again at 4pm. He could be heard telling young students doing vacation work at the firm, “If you are wanting to do law to make money, you are in the wrong business. To do law, you have to care.”


“Above all he had a zest for life. He worked hard and played hard as well. He had a wide range of interests and a large group of good friends. He was a voracious reader with a huge library. He remained interested and interesting until the end of his long life. While not a demonstrative man, he hated fuss, he loved his family and friends and was beloved,” said his son Ian Cox.

Graham Cox, founder of Cox Yeats Attorneys

Graham Cox certainly lived a full life and has left an indelible footprint in the field of law and certainly in the lives of everyone he came into contact with. Always confident in his judgement yet humble, never arrogant, a true gentleman in every manner. His legacy lives on.


He leaves behind his son Ian, daughters Helen and Pamela, their spouses Lindsey, John and Ian, and eight grandchildren.


For more information about Cox Yeats, visit, www.coxyeats.co.za

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