Liza Farrow-Gillespie’s Heart Song

The lyrics tell of beating cancer, then sailing ‘round the world

Published in 2018 Texas Super Lawyers — October 2018

“There was no turning back,” says Liza Farrow-Gillespie, sitting under a giant Robert Rauschenberg painting in the conference room of her 37th-floor downtown Dallas office. “It required a full commitment on my part.”

Farrow-Gillespie is not referring to the six years she and her anesthesiologist husband, Alan, spent sailing around the world on a 54-foot sloop. Nor is she talking about starting law school at 36, nor about co-founding one of the first female-owned firms in North Texas, with Julie Heath in 2007. 

The particular “all-in” decision she is referring to is becoming a jazz singer at age 20. With Austin fusion band Starcrost, Farrow-Gillespie never sang a song exactly the same way twice. In fact, there has been nothing rote about her life’s path. Who takes a career break from age 45 to 51 for a circumnavigation of the globe that was mostly carefree, except for a bit of a rough start, a face-off against Somali pirates (a close call—read all about it when she finishes her memoir), and a sharp-toothed flying fish that made Alan rethink his “clothing-optional” rule on deck? Mostly, it was pure pleasure.

“If I knew my mid-life crisis was going to be so much fun, I would’ve had it sooner,” she says. 

 

It was a face-off with mortality that inspired Farrow-Gillespie to follow the dream that began when she was a 9-year-old reading Kon-Tiki. The month she turned 38, the second-year law student was diagnosed with breast cancer. Even with a six-week recovery for a mastectomy and reconstruction, she graduated on time (and was editor of the law review). She had a clerkship lined up with legendary Dallas Judge Barefoot Sanders and wasn’t going to miss it. 

A few days after Farrow-Gillespie was released from the hospital, she and her husband had the heart-to-heart talk that changed their lives. “Is this it?” she remembers asking Alan. “Will we just go to work every day and then eventually die?” Ever the king of levity, Alan replied, “You forgot TV.” Then, serious, he held Farrow-Gillespie’s hand and asked her ultimate desire. “I’ve always wanted to sail around the world,” she told him. Her husband, who had already sailed the Atlantic, admitted he had entertained the same fantasy. 

The lawyer and the doctor banked half their paychecks for five years, and sold their house, cars and furniture, raising a half-million dollars for their blue-water escape.  They started their journey in Fort Lauderdale, and stopped in about 50 countries along the way. 

“We thought we’d be gone three years, but our money lasted six,” says Farrow-Gillespie, adding that the journey started with broken parts and some navigational miscalculations. “If I could’ve taken a taxi home from the Virgin Islands, I probably would have,” she says with a laugh.  

The voyage of a lifetime ended in 2004, and the couple went back to Dallas, selling Heartsong III. “We thought our careers were over and we might have to get jobs flipping burgers,” says Farrow-Gillespie. “Who’s gonna hire a doctor or a lawyer who hasn’t worked in six years? It was still worth it.” 

They got their jobs back: Alan with Children’s Medical Center and Farrow-Gillespie with Sanders. 

“Judge Sanders is still in my head. I hear him say, ‘Move it along’ when I’m taking too long to make a point,” says Farrow-Gillespie. “Another one was, ‘When you’re winning, sit down and shut up.’” Sanders was a music fan who came to see her ’90s band of attorneys, called Rough Justice. 

“I’ve noticed that there is an inordinate percentage of lawyers who play music,” says Farrow-Gillespie. “It’s the same left brain/right brain discipline that the best lawyers have.” 

The firm she formed three years later with Heath, her good friend for 30 years, would be a female-centric practice (13 of the 18 attorneys are women) that encourages its associates to have outside lives. “We let them be in charge of their hours and pay them for how many they work,” she says. 

“[She] has fashioned a kinder, gentler firm culture, which brings out the best in everybody,” says Debra Witter, who became a name partner in June. “We have an informal rule when we’re interviewing: no mean girls, no drama queens and no mansplainers.” 

Farrow-Gillespie’s legal focuses include wealth management and estate planning, which seems fitting since she’s already experienced retirement. “We just did it in the middle,” she says. 

Married 34 years, the Farrow-Gillespies started dating as students at Temple High, sharing their first kiss as actors in a production of Arsenic and Old Lace; they went their separate ways in college. In the late 1970s, while Alan was going through medical school, then working as an Air Force doctor, his future wife had dropped out of college and moved to L.A. to pursue her musical ambitions. She played piano bars, sang for ads (a Taco Bell “Run for the Border” spot) and ooh-aahed in the background for the Carpenters and Joe Cocker. But one singing gig stands out: the soundtrack to Out of Africa, which won an Oscar. “It was on a soundstage with John Barry directing a 65-piece orchestra, with about a dozen singers, plus some of the top session players,” she says. “It was a magical thing.” 

The former high school sweethearts reconnected in the early ’80s in L.A., when Alan was there to attend a wedding. With some free time, he looked up Farrow-Gillespie. “Our first date lasted three days,” she says. They married in 1984, and she left her musical dreams behind. “Alan didn’t like L.A., and I wanted to go back to college,” she says. The couple moved to Austin and she got a degree in accounting. As a “nothing-to-lose” venture, she took the LSATs, which showed a high aptitude for the law, so she went for her J.D. at UT. 

Farrow-Gillespie has never stopped singing, most recently with the LCD Jazz Trio in Dallas. She was set to release her first album, interpretations of 12 jazz standards, in September.

“Falling in with that group of jazz musicians in Austin had a huge impact on me,” she says, comparing vocal improvisation to the “tacking” maneuver in sailing, where zigging and zagging is the best way to advance against the wind: “It may take a little longer to get there, but it’s a much more interesting route.”

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