A capacity for hard work, single-mindedness, and a passion for the task at hand. These are just some of the qualities shared by both classical musicians and lawyers, making it no surprise that there’s a growing number of lawyers orchestras popping up around the country.

Thomas Jones and the Sydney Lawyers Orchestra

For Thomas Jones, founder and conductor of the Sydney Lawyers Orchestra, many of the musicians he plays with are lawyers who, although perfectly happy with their day jobs, still need a nourishing creative outlet. “It’s really a group of people who wanted to enjoy making music together,” he says. “I think what perhaps surprised me was the sheer depth of talent in terms of the quality of some of the players. There are a number of ex full-time professional musicians, several people who have got undergraduate performance degrees, and there are several people also who just have a real passion for music but found it difficult to make the decision of whether you pursue it as a full-time career or you pursue another profession that’s probably got a greater degree of personal and financial security.”

Prior to becoming a lawyer, Jones was a full-time professional musician who studied at Indiana University under Josef Gingold, with Joshua Bell and Leonidas Kavakos some of his classmates. Jones says it was Gingold who first planted the idea for a lawyers orchestra in his mind – his teacher would often remark that the doctors orchestra that regularly played Carnegie Hall was comprised of Jewish doctors, “half of whom could have been in the New York Phil, but instead went and did medicine.”

Jones, who describes how he became increasingly disillusioned with life as a musician, came back to Australia to pursue a career in law after a few years playing in chamber ensembles. But Gingold’s words, and Jones’ own desire for continued music making remained with him. It was at a constitutional law dinner five years ago, where Jones had been talking to a number of prominent judges, that he decided to take the plunge and put together an orchestra comprised of those from within the legal profession. “The orchestra grew through word of mouth, and through publicising it within all of the firms and within the bar and the bench, and then the law schools around the various universities,” he says.

Jones emphasises the generosity of the law firms he’s worked at, both of which have been instrumental in providing rehearsal space, refreshments, and contributing to hire costs. The SLO’s first concert was held in the lobby of Jones’ then firm, Corrs. “It’s a thing that’s evolved, and something that I care passionately about. We’ve become progressively more and more ambitious in the programming, the kinds of venues we play at, and what we look to do,” he says. “I have great ambitions for the orchestra and I’m quite uncompromising in the sense that I want us to do things that are musically worthwhile in their own right, not merely as a way for lawyers to get together, which is of course very important, but I want it to have musical value in its own right.”

The Melbourne Lawyers’ Orchestra was established in similar circumstances, with founder and manager Aimee Nguyen having studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before deciding to pursue a legal career. With the daily grind of her day job leaving little time for music, and having met many others in the industry who had similar musical backgrounds, Nguyen decided to put together an orchestra for lawyers.

Conductor Robert Dora and the Melbourne Lawyers’ Orchestra

“Growing up, music was a huge part of my life,” she says. “After I made a career change to law, I realised that I had unintentionally abandoned all my musical activities due to the pressures of working in the legal industry. I quickly found that there were many other lapsed musicians in the legal community, who, like me, were looking to re-connect with this long-lost passion but couldn’t find a orchestra that was flexible enough to fit around their demands of studying or working in law. So I decided to start an orchestra for us.”

“To me, the MLO is really important because it allows me to stay in touch with my musical side, a very significant part of my identity,” she says. “I hope that the MLO shows people that you can have a successful career in law and still be able to pursue other interests and passions.”

Formed in 2013, the MLO is the longest running project of BottledSnail, a Melbourne-based not for profit dedicated to improving the mental wellbeing of those in the law through creative projects. “The MLO encapsulates what BottledSnail is dedicated to achieving because it provides an opportunity for members of the legal community to step out of their stressful lives and into the wonderful world of music,” says BottledSnail President Alex Finemore. “Members of the MLO are able to express themselves creatively whilst also belonging to a group of like-minded people.”

The make up of both the SLO and MLO are similar in their diversity, comprising lawyers from different fields and at different stages of their careers. “There are judges, barristers, human rights lawyers, partners and senior lawyers, in-house lawyers, people from Salvos Legal and Legal Aid, and there are junior lawyers as well as students at varying stages of their education,” says Jones, palpably proud of the mix of musicians he’s united.

Thomas Jones and the SLO. Photo © Shaun Bailey

Kylie Weston-Scheuber, who is directing the MLO in an upcoming concert of operettas, emphasises the sense of rapport amongst the musicians. “Despite their diverse backgrounds, there is still a huge sense of rapport and community amongst the players, because of their shared interests in both law and music. The players are all really supportive of each other and there is a real energy and buzz and sense of common achievement, particularly at concert time, when the players come together to enjoy and create amazing music,” she says. “At its core, the MLO is all about fun, promoting work-life balance and community. But lawyers tend to be high achievers so the players are very dedicated, hardworking and, despite being an amateur ensemble, still strive to deliver the highest standards of performance.”

Jones likewise emphasises the sense of community amongst the players of the SLO, as well as their commitment – they rehearse a few times a month and typically play two or three concerts a year. Part of that, he says, is to address a mental health need in the profession. “Working in law often places a lot of stress on individuals – it’s very competitive and it often requires a very heavy investment in time, so I think the orchestra is a great outlet for people. They really enjoy the rehearsals and they enjoy coming together.”

For Nguyen, the mix of musicians, and the spirit engendered by their frequent rehearsals, was exactly as she envisioned when she first came up with the idea for MLO. “Part of the beauty of this kind of ensemble is the way that the musicians interact and bounce off each other, and pick up different ideas from watching each other,” she says. “I grew up performing in amateur productions with my local choir, and I think there is an energy and enthusiasm that comes from people doing what they love in their spare time, rather than as part of their career, that often shines through in the performance. It’s also great to see and friends and family members see them onstage, demonstrating previously unrevealed talents and skills.”

Melbourne Lawyers’ Orchestra with Dora

She is particularly proud of a concert the MLO played last year, Hollywood Hits, which was dedicated to the music of the movies. Held at Deakin Edge in Federation Square, the concert was completely sold out. “We performed music from films such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight and E.T. The repertoire was some of most challenging and impressive that the MLO had ever attempted, and called for a much larger orchestra than usual. But with the support of our conductor, Robert Dora, and some very generous guest players, we delivered a fantastic, energetic and exciting performance that everyone was really proud of.”

For Jones, one of the orchestra’s biggest achievements to date was playing at the opening ceremony of the International Bar Association Conference in Sydney last October. “I lobbied extremely hard to get us that gig, and I think that was a terrific opportunity because it was the biggest legal conference in Australia for many years,’ he says. “There were about 5000 lawyers from all over the world who attended the conference, and when we played in the big hall at the International Convention Centre, there were at best guess close to 2000 who heard the orchestra play, so that’s far and away the biggest audience we’ve performed for.”

“After the concert, we ran into so many people who said ‘that was really great!’ We ran into someone who wants to start a world lawyers orchestra, we ran into several people from other countries, we ran into a Supreme Court judge in Queensland who was saying this is fantastic, and one person who said it was the best thing in the entire ceremony,” he says. “That is a not insignificant comment! We shared the bill with Bangarra, and I have huge respect for Bangarra.”

Suddenly reflective, Jones says, “this orchestra fills a void. A lot of people in this orchestra, music has been a big part of their lives, and there’s a deep emotional need there that needs to be fulfilled. And this orchestra helps them do that.”


Find out more about the Sydney Lawyers Orchestra and its upcoming concerts here

Find out more about the Melbourne Lawyers’ Orchestra here. The MLO will be performing Famous Cases In Song as part of Victoria Law Foundation’s Law Week