The Most Expensive Orchestra Ever

The LA Lawyers Philharmonic measures time by the director’s beat rather than in six-minute increments

Published in 2020 Southern California Super Lawyers Magazine

The 80-member Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic and its offshoot choir and big band, which have been entertaining people in theaters, churches and halls since 2011, is where “lawyers, judges, law students and legal staff meet in harmony,” according to the group’s website. 

OK, mostly in harmony.  

For Erin Prouty, an estate planning and probate attorney at Hoffman Sabban & Watenmaker, who plays flute and piccolo, the first difference she noticed between this orchestra and others was how much nicer the cars were in the parking lot. The second? “When we’re having trouble with a certain passage,” she says, “people will want to voice their opinions and it’s like they’re arguing in court. The conductor is the one who makes the decisions, and he has to sometimes say, ‘Well, thank you for your opinion.’”

Many of the group’s performances are fundraisers for legal services and other charitable causes, but it’s often the musicians themselves who benefit most.

“Practicing law can be pretty stressful and tedious, and music is a way of taking you out of thinking about the law. It rejuvenates your soul,” says Roberta Burnette Elliott, an employment and labor attorney at Gordon Rees Scully Mansukhani, who plays viola. “During practice, it’s as though time stops. Lawyers are always really keenly aware of time, because we’re billing in small increments, and it’s wonderful that time isn’t measured by a clock in music. Time is measured by the director’s beat.”

Blake Rummel, an estate and trust litigator with Weinstock Manion, and an alto in the choir, picks up on that theme. “I account for every six minutes of my day,” she says. “I’m either billing someone or not billing someone for every six minutes of my time. So if you think of the donation of time—not every person in the choir is going to bill $850 an hour, but some do—but if you think of the cumulative donation of the sum of the hours invested, not only for the concert you see, but the group rehearsals alone, and you think about what’s being offered … it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that the attorneys have donated.”

Or, as Prouty says the orchestra’s founder and conductor, Gary Greene, puts it: “This is the most expensive orchestra ever, based on combined hourly rates.”

Operating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the philharmonic has performed more than 40 concerts at such prestigious venues as the Saban Theatre, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Shrine Auditorium. The philharmonic favors classical music and Broadway and motion picture scores, and serves as the umbrella organization to the Big Band of Barristers and Legal Voices.

“Gary started the group, and he’s just a delight to play for,” says Prouty. “He’s well-connected in Hollywood, and from time to time someone will come in and narrate for us or have some kind of connection with the orchestra.” Guest stars have included Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, June Lockhart, TV theme guru Charles Fox, and Richard Sherman, one of the famous Sherman Brothers who wrote music for the Walt Disney Company in the 1960s. “He actually conducted us playing a Mary Poppins medley,” says Prouty, “which was really special.”

For many in the philharmonic, music is the dream that got put on hold. 

“A lot of lawyers are musicians,” says trombonist Marc Sallus, an estate and trust litigator with Oldman, Cooley, Sallus, Birnberg, Coleman & Gold. “I’m playing in bands where people have union cards. People have played in some of those old big bands. One guy used to play with Frank Sinatra, another guy played with Streisand, and then other people have operatic voices and got trained in opera. But we all had to eat, so we all became lawyers. No matter how good you are, there’s always a Plan B.”

Prouty recalls the pivotal moment when she had to choose between Plan A and Plan B: “My flute teacher called my mother and my mother said, ‘Honey, your teacher thinks you can get a full scholarship to Eastman School of Music,’ which at the time was probably the top school for flute in the country. But I had just started at USC as a freshman and I would have had to start all over, and I asked my mom, ‘Is there any money in being a musician?’ And she said, ‘No, not really.’ I said, ‘I’ll pass.’

“But a lot of people play an instrument through high school and then they quit and they never get back to it and they always say, ‘Oh, I wish I hadn’t given it up; I wish I still played.’ But a lot of people do keep it up, and I think that’s great, and we’re the ones that can now play in a group like this and really enjoy it.”

“I went to law school, and I stopped playing very often,” says Burnette Elliott. “It wasn’t until my children were in elementary school and started playing their own instruments and their orchestra teacher played in a local symphony, and I took my kids to one of those shows, and I thought, ‘I can do this. It’s all about memory and it’s still in me.’ Within a few months I had dusted off my viola.”

They’re not alone in their enthusiasm for their second acts. 

“Whenever I am interviewed about my lawyer-connected music, I like to bring up the fact that my clients, family and colleagues don’t really care about what is new with my practice,” says trombonist Barry P. Goldberg, a personal injury lawyer at his eponymous firm. ”Rather, they always want to know ‘When are you playing next?’ And ‘Will you be local?’ And ‘Can I still get tickets?’

“Of course, people know that I am a top PI lawyer in the San Fernando Valley. But by putting it out there that I have a hobby and I am performing, clients see me as more human and relatable. I think it has made me a better lawyer as well. Music by its very nature requires collaboration and cooperation. These skills are directly transferable. Perhaps more importantly, many of the lawyers in the LA Phil and related groups are recognized as the top of their fields. Without the music, I would have no access to these top professionals.”

“It makes you feel better,” says Rummel. “Music is medicine for the soul. I can have a shit day at work, because dealing with lawyers all day long you’re ready to poke your eyes out. It’s a little painful to get there, but once you’re there, and once you’re singing, it’s all better. The time flies.”


 

NameInstrumentFavorite Piece to PlayFavorite Piece (Generally)
Roberta Burnette ElliottViola“Carmina Burana” in its entiretyPuccini’s “Crisantemi”
Barry P. GoldbergTromboneSymphony No. 9 in E minor; Mary Poppins medleyBuddy Rich Big Band, “West Side Story”
Erin ProutyPiccolo/FluteRachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2Anything by Tchaikovsky
Blake RummelAlto (choir)John Rutter’s “Requiem”Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov
Marc SallusTromboneAnything by Gershwin“Carmen”
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