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Lawyers take the licks into their own hands at the 'Battle of Law Firm Bands'

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010; C01

Shortly before the opening act came onstage Thursday at the Black Cat, a chauffeured Lincoln Town Car pulled up in front of the 14th Street NW nightclub to deposit a woman wearing a pressed pantsuit. Inside the indie rock haven, the ratio of clean-shaven to hipster scruff was abnormally high, as were the percentages of peep-toe pumps to black Chucks.

Clearly, it wasn't a Pitchfork.com kind of night at the Black Cat. Not with the "Battle of the Law Firm Bands" taking over a live-music venue that typically hosts indie-rock stars and their cool-kid fans, not weekend warriors and their legal-community colleagues.

"What's up, members of the D.C. Bar Associationnnn?" a singer shouted from the stage.

"Wooooooooooh!" dozens of members of the D.C. Bar Association shouted back.

One band's guest performer was introduced as "paralegal -- 12th floor."

"Are there any summer associates out there?" one of the emcees asked.

"Woooooooh!" the summer associates shouted back.

For those about to rock, we sue you!

No, wait: For those about to argue before the Supreme Court, we go all "Affidavit Lee Roth" on you!

Okay, none of the 11 bands that performed at the annual charity fundraiser and concert competition used that name. But the Chin Blossoms -- representing the Virginia firm Walsh, Colucci, Lubeley, Emrich & Walsh -- did channel David Lee Roth by including Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" in its opening set.

"The rock-and-roll dream never dies -- even though we practice law for a living," said Hemant Pathak, a senior attorney for Microsoft.

He was backstage, having just played drums -- and played them well -- with the otherwise non-lawyer Celeste Starchild Band, and he was elated. "I'm pumped," he said. "I was pumped all day at work. I love to play, but I don't get to do it that much anymore."

Another band -- the Precedents, with members from two firms -- was onstage, bulldozing through the old Jefferson Airplane hit "Somebody to Love." Pathak said that he'd once wanted to be a professional musician, and that he continued to drum after launching his law career: He played on Celeste Starchild's first album, and he used to gig with the singer regularly. "But I'm down to a few shows a year," he said. "I have a 4-year-old at home."

Thursday, Pathak stood out as the band's lone lawyer: Whereas the guitarist wore a porkpie hat atop his long hair and the bass player had a ponytail and a half-goatee, Pathak was clean-cut -- though, he said, he'd rushed home from his Reston office "to peel my lawyer outfit off and put my rock clothes on."

Lawyers? Rock? One D.C. punk icon was known to dismiss substandard bands by saying: "They'll be in law school before you know it."

"But there's some talented dudes here tonight," Pathak said. (And they were mostly dudes -- "sweaty middle-aged dudes," as Williams & Connolly partner Paul Hourihan observed onstage at one point, during a punk-leaning set by his band, Dangerous Communication Device.)

Pathak was not hopeful about winning the Battle of the Law Firm Bands trophy, which would be decided not by a panel of judges but by popular vote in which audience members would stuff cash (and checks) into jars bearing individual band names. The band that collected the most money would win, and all of the money would be spent on clothing for the area's homeless.

The Battle began seven years ago as a small fundraising event for Gifts for the Homeless, a charitable nonprofit founded by area lawyers. Conceived by Walter Lohmann, a rock-and-roll-loving partner at Kirkland & Ellis, the first Battle was held at the Grog & Tankard in Glover Park and raised $11,000. As the Battle grew, with more and more lawyers joining the cause, it moved to Madam's Organ Blues Bar in Adams Morgan, then onward -- and upward -- to the Black Cat, where one year, before the legal economy was turned upside down, Gifts for the Homeless raised $120,000.

Now, more bands want to play than there are slots available. Apparently, Washington -- which has more lawyers per capita than any other major American metropolis -- also has a high percentage of failed, frustrated musicians. It's just one big rock-and-roll fantasy camp waiting to happen.

"Although they're lawyers during the day, these are people who are very passionate about music," Lohmann said. "It's kind of a big deal to them."

He cautioned against giving the Battle bands "the same sort of critical eye as you would give to" a professional band performing at the Black Cat or 9:30 club, which fortunately allowed this reporter to recuse himself from having to issue summary judgments on the lesser bands. (Some of the musicianship and singing was solid-to-superlative on a night where the selections spanned from Bruce Springsteen to Lady Gaga; but one entry in my notebook reads, simply, "Yikes.")

"I've played for about 42 years; it's a lot easier practicing law than it is playing music for a living," said Tom Conner, a partner at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan. He was the guy who played a custom double-neck Gibson during an especially strong set by Sutherland Comfort, an ad hoc band formed two months ago after an associate at the firm, Dan Buchner, e-mailed an office-wide call for volunteers.

"The band is all partners, associates and staff," Buchner said. "No ringers," Conner said. Not even powerhouse singer Naseem Nixon, a Sutherland associate who was the most compelling, charismatic performer of the night, slaying the set from the very first -- a cover of the Who classic, "My Generation."

Throughout the set, some Sutherland colleagues sang along at the foot of the stage. They were easy to spot, wearing "Sutherland Comfort" T-shirts.

"It's nice to be able to get into something and have 500 other people rocking along with you," Conner said. (Organizers said they sold 1,200 tickets, but fans came and went throughout the night -- some sticking around to see a single band.)

"None of us really gets to play very much, so this is great," Buchner said.

He thought it might be his band's year. Never mind that they sounded great. They'd fund-raised even better, he said. Maybe even enough to displace Dangerous Communication Device, the two-time defending champs from Williams & Connolly who took the stage to chants of "D-C-D," threw beach balls and glow sticks into the crowd, and were pelted with female undergarments during a spiky set of pop-punk standards.

Shortly after the band finished, Lohmann was standing near the Black Cat merchandise table, where band T-shirts had been replaced by collection jars. Gifts for the Homeless volunteers were furiously counting the money that people had stuffed into the jars. He was smiling. "Somebody put in a $26,000 check for Sutherland," he said.

Then, shortly after midnight -- after Lohmann himself had sung, leading an "all-star" jam on a song from a Wilco-Billy Bragg album -- the results were announced.

Sutherland Comfort had, in fact, displaced Dangerous Communication Device as the Battle of the Law Firm Bands champ. One of the DCD guys shouted an expletive. Sutherland Comfort was awarded a trophy. Gifts for the Homeless had raised more than $130,000.

But there wouldn't be too much celebrating.

"We couldn't be happier," said Bart Epstein, chairman of the Gifts for the Homeless board and a senior executive and general counsel at Tutor.com. "If only I didn't have to be downtown in a suit at 8 a.m. tomorrow."

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