Lawyer-Cellist Back on Stage

Standing on the platform waiting for the 1:05 to Trenton, I had with me two black containers.  One was a battered rolling briefcase, the bulging legal kind, which carried the tools of my trade – a motion to which I would be filing a response, caselaw to give my argument added traction, the netbook to write it down, a side-pocket assortment of highlighters, post-its and binder clips.  The other container was a cello case, and inside was an instrument I purchased in July of 1987, two months before I started a master’s degree at Juilliard, and two years before I improbably began studying for the LSAT to get into law school.

I needed a better instrument then, but my parents did not have $37,000 to purchase the outrageously fine Italian cello, a Rocca, on which I won the Aspen Cello Competition in 1986.  A teacher lent me the modern Italian instrument on which I played my Juilliard audition, but it was due back by the end of the school year.  I needed to find something quickly, before school started up in the fall, and on a small budget besides.

After playing a three week music festival in the Texas Hill Country that June (young musicians play “festivals” for a roof over their head and three hot meals per day in the summer), I got a ride to Los Angeles, which I heard had more reasonable prices than New York.  It was there, in Hollywood of all places, that I found the cello I still have.  It’s almost Italian – made in Rio de Janeiro by Vicente Lo Turco, who had emigrated there from Naples to make violins, cellos and inevitably, a lot of guitars.  My instrument has the red varnish and big singing sound of an Italian cello.  The art deco label which says “Rio – 1925” ensures that it will never have the trade-in value of a Cremonese cousin, but if this cello could talk, it would tell of green room jitters before going on stage, innumerable auditions, wedding gigs, church music, and the innumerable hours of practice which made it all happen.

Aside from the content, a good thing about a cello case is that you can lean on it.  The top of the case (underneath is the scroll and tuning pegs) fits perfectly under my right arm, and the support makes me bold and relaxed at the same time, an effect which I am told also comes with cigarettes.  Throughout my legal career, and particularly in the early days looking for a first job, I fought the impression that as a classical musician, I would be an undisciplined free spirit, a flower child with a folding music stand.  In reality, we are closer to Marines or gymnasts.  For the performance major, music school is endless training, much of it focused on strength, where striving for 115% ensures that even an off day meets standards.  This musical foundation supports a litigation practice which emphasizes proportionality, accountability, and tenacity rooted in the knowledge that “the show must go on.”

Throughout my big-firm years, I saw well-assembled and persuasive efforts, from briefs to oral argument, lose their spark when someone’s new issue needed to be prominently included, often at the last minute and regardless of the consequences to the whole.  From performance, I know that a simple piece well-played, even a three-minute Gavotte from one of the Bach solo cello suites, will outshine a hastily assembled symphony.  While proportionality in civil discovery is a relatively new addition to the Federal Rules, it has been a guiding principle of concert music for centuries.

To me, accountability means that nobody should be expected to attain an outcome which the boss himself is not ready to achieve.  This is a given on stage, where performance cannot be delegated.  In a law firm, sharing work by dividing responsibilities is essential, but that does not mean the associate becomes an excuse for the partner to lose focus.  Ideally, delegation should be like chamber music, where some parts are more complicated than others, but each is essential to the whole.  My goal is to strengthen the associate’s command over the part they will play, while never forgetting that mine likewise needs to be practiced and ready (without last minute, support staff “fire drills”) before argument.

Last, knowing that “the show must go on” equips me to deal with the unexpected, from the tripod refusing to unfold for the blow-ups I need to show the jury, to the boxes which are still on their way over to City Hall, to the jury pool for my very first trial, who all stood up when I asked them “does anyone think DUI is immoral?”  In Pablo Casals’ memoirs, he told of being so nervous for his first concert in London that his bow shot out of his hand, only to be quietly passed back towards the stage, from one audience member to the next, until the show could go on.  The tough, unexpected moments effectively reveal character and the extent of preparation.

Far from Royal Albert Hall, I waited at 30th Street Station for a train to Newark, for a rehearsal at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.  The occasion was a benefit performance of Something Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum, a 1963 Stephen Sondheim musical featuring togas and tunics, courtesans and eunuchs, multiple mistaken identities, and a challenging cello part which I was invited to play as largely as possible, since I was the only cellist in the ensemble.  The realized vision of New Jersey Law Journal publisher Robert Steinbaum, this “Celebration of Lawyers in the Arts V” was to benefit the NJ Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, through ticket sales and a gala reception before the show.

I was glad for the invitation to play.  After working up two movements from the Bach d minor cello suite for some church performances in June, I had hardly touched the instrument, the consequence of spending ten days in Poland on legal business, and then catching up with work and client invoices after returning in late July.  Fortunately, shows are ideal for recovering instrumental strength.  When played with alternative fingerings, a repetitive, “nothing” bass part becomes a useful intonation study.  After two, 3-hour rehearsals, I felt my strength returning, and thought of Théodin, King of Rohan, who wakes from an enchanted sleep to be urged by Aragorn that his fingers would remember their old strength better if they but held their sword.[1]  My fingers continued to remember their old places on the fingerboard, my bow pulled straighter, and after two roundtrips to Newark (typing briefs most of the way), the performance on September 14 went well.  It was good to be on stage again, where something always happens differently than planned.

The cast of singing actors, particularly Pseudolus (the slave who earns his freedom by uniting his bashful master with a courtesan pledged to a general) and Senex (the harried husband who briefly rivals his son for the courtesan’s attentions) far surpassed their efforts in rehearsal.  Backstage with the string players, plans were forming for a Metropolitan area lawyer’s orchestra.  A recurring theme in post-performance e-mails was how pleasant everyone was, how we worked for the most part seamlessly towards the common goal, how different this was from the ruder expectations of lawyer work.  In some of these messages I could hear a muted regret for the path not taken.  Yes, it was good to have a larger and more steady income as a lawyer, but high level performance made us younger, like Benjamin Button going backwards through time on a motorcycle.

I did not stay for the cast party, but it was still well past midnight when I returned to Philadelphia after “Forum” came to a successful close.  With a difficult client, answers to written discovery due, an emergency motion and then a motion response, ten days without practicing passed in a blur.  Inevitably, I started up again, this time working on the remaining movements of the Bach d minor suite, which I learned at age 17, and somehow remains intact in my memory.

My participation in “Forum” did not make economic sense, with train tickets and an endless drive to Upper Saddle River for the penultimate rehearsal.  It did not make time-management sense, shutting down my office computer at the last possible moment while conducting a mental inventory of what briefs needed to come with me but still forgetting my music stand.  But as a way to experience energy, purpose, and in the end accomplishment, my participation made all the sense it needed.

© 2011 Richard Hans Maurer

Richard Hans Maurer is a Philadelphia-based trial lawyer, with trial experience in a wide variety of cases, from products liability to 1st Amendment.  After three years as a Partner at White and Williams, Richard formed his own firm, Maurer/Song PC, in June 2011.  Richard can be reached at richardhansmaurer@gmail.com, or at 267-297-5470.


[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Twin Towers (Peter Jackson 2002).