Hitting the high notes

Matthew Dewar wears a pinstriped suit and a grey tie. His white shirt is neatly ironed and his brown hair perfectly combed. He looks every bit like the Bay Street employment lawyer that he is.

Then he starts talking. Words pour out of his mouth. He gestures with his hands to back up his points. At the diner, the tiny wicker chair he’s sitting in can barely contain his energy. Called to the bar in 2005, Dewar spends his nights in an activity that sometimes surprises his colleagues at Lang Michener LLP’s Toronto office. When not representing clients, Dewar belts out tunes as a singer and guitarist for the ’80s acoustic rock band The B.A. Baracus Band.

With three CDs and a seven-inch vinyl record out, the band is enjoying some success. They play regularly at pubs around Ontario, but they’ve also played private events in San Francisco and Hawaii. They’ve even appeared at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. For Dewar, the band is a labour of love. “It’s an addictive thing when you start playing live.”

Across the country, a growing of number of young lawyers are spending their time outside the office engaged in musical activities. Some are classical pianists or singers. Others are punk rockers, mandolin players, or rock ’n’ rollers. They’ve got something else in common aside from law. These lawyers can’t imagine their lives without music. “For me, singing is like exercise. I feel better afterwards, physically and mentally,” says Katie Goldberg Zwick, a partner at Davies Ward Phillips & Vineberg LLP in Toronto. During university, Goldberg Zwick sang in choruses, an a cappella group, and a band. Called to the Ontario bar in 2005, she is now a lead singer in the Insecurities, a rock band made up of Davies lawyers. “Singing is something I don’t like to go without,” she says.
For Vancouver resident Joel Whysall, listening isn’t enough. The criminal defence lawyer loves to rock out on stage as a guitarist in the punk band No Reply. The band plays tunes by the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and the Dead Kennedys. Whether at a show or rehearsal, Whysall enjoys jamming with his buddies. Called to the bar in 2004, the associate at Myers Waddell McMurdo & Karp says his life wouldn’t be the same without it.

For most of the musical lawyers, an interest in music sprung up long before a career in law. Erin Finlay, an associate at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP’s Toronto office, started taking voice lessons at 11. Then came national and international choir competitions. Finlay studied music at Wilfrid Laurier University. Halfway through her degree, the soprano switched out of music. “When you love to sing but suddenly it becomes your career, it’s not always as enjoyable as it used to be,” she says. After graduating with a general arts degree, Finlay went to Queen’s University for law. She was called to the bar in 2003.

While working as an associate at Cassels Brock, Finlay returned to her musical roots. She began taking weekly lessons with a voice coach. “Because I’m classically trained, I tend to lean that way when I sing. What I’m trying to do is expand my voice and make it broader than it traditionally has been,” says Finlay. She also became a backup singer in the Cassels Brock band, the Right Honourable Jake and the High Court of Soul. Singing in front of lawyers is similar to singing for other crowds, she says. “Once you get on stage, the nerves go away and . . . you want to be the best that you can be.”

While Finlay returned to music, others never left. They loved the spotlight but were wary of the unstable lifestyle. For them, a career in law began partly as a way to finance their musical interests. Dewar fits into this category. In 1999, he was in Europe touring with a Celtic band. The graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music loved playing bass guitar at live shows but found life on the road, with its long drives and greasy food, less than desirable. He also worried about the financial insecurity. No retirement plan. No vacation pay. “As you get older, the romantic notions of being a rock star start to fade,” says the 35-year-old.

Since his father was a lawyer, law had always been in the back of Dewar’s mind. Two years after the European tour, Dewar headed to Queen’s University for law. Now he says he’s got the best of both worlds. Law allows him to play part time in a band without the financial headaches. “I’m having more fun now than I’ve had in a long time,” he says.

Before Winnipeg’s Andrew Thompson was called to the bar in 2002, he spent a decade as a freelance classical pianist, music critic, and lecturer. Becoming a lawyer was a practical decision, he says. “I wanted to have a bit better quality of life, rather than always wondering where my next gig or my next article or my next chat was going to be. I thought that law would afford me a lifestyle that I could continue to play music, but I could also have a living that would allow me to support a family and pay the mortgage.”

These days Thompson is an associate at the Winnipeg firm his grandfather founded, Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP. Once a month he plays piano as part of a classical trio. The trio performs at bookstores, cocktail parties, and “any gig we feel will be fun.” Music “allows me to be creative,” he says. “It allows me to communicate in a wide way with people.” More than that, “it feeds my soul.”

Still, finding enough time can be challenging. While colleagues are supportive of musical pursuits, it takes  juggling to carve out space for practices and performances. “It’s good to be in a profession that allows one the freedom to perform, but the billable hour pressures and the need for good-quality family time can squeeze the music side of things,” says Thompson.


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Sarah Lennerton is a litigator at Patterson Law in Truro, N.S. Called to the bar in 2007, the 26-year-old sings in a community choir called the Cantabile Singers of Truro. The choir performs six times a year. Practices are once a week. “Sometimes it’s a little bit stressful because the practice takes up an entire evening and I have to rush to get out of work,” the alto singer says. But it’s worth it, “I really enjoy performing.”

Taking time for yourself is crucial, says work-life expert Nora Spinks. “If you try to function 24/7 without ever taking a break, you will ultimately drop your performance,” says Spinks, the president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises, a research and consulting firm in Toronto. A musical hobby is useful from a stress-management perspective, she says.

For Carleigh Whitman, music provides a change of pace from corporate-commercial law. Called to the bar in 2003, the associate at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP’s Vancouver office spends her free time singing with the Vancouver Bach Choir. The choir performs six concerts a year. Whitman enjoys the performances, but the 31-year-old also looks forward to the weekly rehearsals. “Every week I’m challenged with something very different than law. It forces me to take my mind off whatever it is that I’m doing in practice at the time. I need to just switch gears entirely and focus on what the music is.”

Finding the time for outside activities takes effort, says Whitman. “In part, it comes from creating accurate expectations among co-workers and clients and letting people know that you do this,” she says. Ensuring you’re available during crunch times helps too.

Roselle Wu, an associate at Vancouver’s Harper Grey LLP, says learning to make time for herself was a gradual process. “It took a few years before I realized that there are other things that I want to be able to do in life besides just going to the office,” the 2002 call says. Prior to law school, Wu studied piano at McGill University. Last fall, music and law came together when Wu performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor Concerto”) at a charity event in Vancouver celebrating Harper Grey’s 100th anniversary. “During the period leading up to the concert, I had more energy. I was able to concentrate better. I was more efficient,” she says. She hopes to perform in other concerts in the future.

At first glance, it may seem odd there are so many young lawyers who are also musicians. The image of a lawyer in court or drafting a legal brief doesn’t immediately suggest someone shimmying on stage or tickling the ivories. But the two fields aren’t as far apart as they appear. Career counsellor Kristi Nielsen provides clients with personality tests to determine which careers may suit them. In the Myers-Briggs assessment, there’s at least one personality category where lawyers and performers both appear, Nielsen says. This category is defined by a personality that is extroverted and creative. Nielsen isn’t surprised lawyers and performers overlap. Solving legal dilemmas requires creativity, she says. “It’s that creativity aspect that makes these people the ones that are also interested in music.”

For 29-year-old Christian Villeneuve, becoming a lawyer influenced the type of music he writes. In the past, the Edmontonian played guitar, trumpet, and mandolin. An associate at Davis LLP, Villeneuve was called to the bar in 2005. As a lawyer, he’s found himself increasingly drawn to electronic music. “When I’m drafting briefs, it helps me to concentrate to have some background music,” he says. With electronic music, there are no lyrics to distract him. Plus, the upbeat tempo motivates him to keep working. Now he writes electronic music in his spare time. “My goal is to write a one-hour piece of different ideas that kind of mesh together. I’m at about nine minutes,” he says. When the piece is done, he plans to put it online.

Michelle Davis also sees connections between her interest in music and her career in law. The associate at Stewart McKelvey in St. John’s studied classical piano at Memorial University. Called to the bar in 2004, Davis says being a musician prepared her for law. “From an early age it taught me a lot of discipline and perfecting a skill in a way that I can kind of parallel to my professional life as a lawyer,” the 30-year-old says. In addition, giving concerts prepared her for court. At court, “you always have to be prepared . . . in the same way that you prepare for a performance.”

Plato is believed to have said, “Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.” Across Canada, young musical lawyers would agree.

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