Bird & Bird partner talks how being a pro violinist helped him in building a stable legal team

Thomas Jones shares the crucial musician qualities he carried over into his law practice

Bird & Bird partner talks how being a pro violinist helped him in building a stable legal team
Thomas Jones

Bird & Bird partner Thomas Jones was “never disillusioned with music itself”, even though a career as a professional musician got tough at times.

In fact, Jones believes that there are important qualities that a musician like himself can bring into the legal profession. Empathy and emotional understanding are just two crucial qualities he thinks helped him to build “quite a stable team” at the firm.

In the second part of this interview, Jones talks the challenges he faced as a professional violinist, the Sydney Lawyers Orchestra’s (SLO) upcoming 10th anniversary, and being in the same class as a world-renowned violinist.

You were a professional-level player at some point – how did you make the decision to transition from that into law as a career?

It's a question a lot of people have asked, and I suspect I'm not sure that I've ever given anyone a satisfactory answer, except to say it wasn't a single decision. It wasn't like I woke up one day and said, “right, I’m gonna be a lawyer and not a violinist”. It was more of a progression. I'm a person who doesn't always know exactly what the path ahead is; sometimes I feel we see what opportunities life presents us, and we navigate our path based on a whole range of factors at the time – opportunity, circumstance, conscience. I was playing professionally in the States, and my mother became ill. I'm an only child, so I thought I should come back to Australia.

I was never disillusioned with music itself, but I was disillusioned sometimes with the profession of being a performer. Often it's tough – you don't have a great deal of autonomy at times, and there's sometimes a degree of envy and business and so on amongst professional musicians that was perhaps understandable, but I didn't always enjoy it. And so I suppose I originally got the law degree just to have an alternative because I thought, I really want to be a soloist, but it's an incredibly tough gig. And I was quite successful as a chamber music player and I really enjoyed that, but even then, it's not always easy to have security and enough money to start a family and so on.

I did the law degree while I was here. I was still playing professionally, I was leading ABC orchestras, I made a CD featuring the music of Fritz Kreisler. I was doing auditions for concertmaster roles in London and so on. Once I started practising law, I enjoyed it – I've always enjoyed intellectual pursuits as well as artistic ones. And I don't see them as that divergent, like some people do. While the orchestra is not about me, personally, it is about sort of connecting those two parts of my life again.

Has there ever been a point where your knowledge of music helped you in your practice?

I think people underestimate the importance of creativity and lateral thinking, as well as the importance of empathy and emotional understanding, in the practice of law. And I think that musicians are often very strong at those things – they're creative, they're good lateral thinkers. They're attuned emotionally to the world. And I think certainly those qualities, I think, have played out in my practice of law.

They've helped me be a good builder of teams. (I’d like to think!) As a lawyer, I'm fortunate to have quite a stable team at Bird & Bird, who have worked with me really closely together in a very interactive way. I think that's partly my musical experience – part of the experience of making music with others through chamber music and so on. And I think also, as a regulatory lawyer, I'm often looking for creative solutions to problems – I'm often dealing with regulators, and you have to understand things from their perspective as well.

Great musicians almost invariably are incredibly smart people, in my experience. And so I think certainly there are some skills that are common to both [music and law].

Was it difficult to bring people together for the SLO’s first performance?

At various points in the orchestra’s life, there’ve been people who I think had a particular influence and really helped reach out to other musicians. There were people at the early stages of its inception – one of the biggest supporters since the orchestra began was our patron, Her Excellency the governor, who was then president of the Court of Appeal in New South Wales, and who encouraged me to set up the orchestra. She thought it was a great idea, as did the late Sir Gerard Brennan, former High Court judge. But also, there have been various lawyers who have really helped me in getting people together. And that is a clear and present continuing need because it is often a real challenge to get everyone together.

How has the orchestra changed over the past nine years?

In that first performance, it was a small string ensemble. Now it tends to range between sort of the high 20s, 30 to 40 players. We certainly aspire to have full wind, brass, percussion, and timpani as well as strings [sections]. Ironically, what we're lacking most at the moment is strings – we're actually really short on cello, and we're even short on violin, who would have thought?

So the orchestra has grown. It's varied in size over time, but there’s been a core group of players who've actually been there pretty much since the beginning. There’s a range of abilities – there are people who are either full-time professional musicians or that level, people who have degrees in music. But there are plenty who are good, strong amateur-level players. There's a certain degree of proficiency, but they're certainly not all professional players.

Next year, it's going to be the 10th anniversary of the SLO. What's your vision for the orchestra moving forward?

There is a fairly significant concert in the planning stages for next year – perhaps of greater significance, it is also the 200th anniversary of the Supreme Court of NSW; the first sitting of the Supreme Court of NSW was in May of 1824. And I have been talking to the chief justice about the possibility of us doing a special concert to commemorate that anniversary; the concert will probably be at the end of May next year. Details are being worked out, and I'll leave it to the court to provide more information about that. But it will be quite a big event, I think, and there will be some Beethoven in it!

On a deep level, law is about rights – human rights and the way we interact with each other as a society. It’s about people and history and society. And that is what music is about in many ways, and these things – music, law, literature, theatre – all occur in a social context. They are all a way of responding to, making sense of, regulating what happens in the world, in our society.

Who is your current favourite performer, and why?

There's a great violinist who you may have heard of called Leonidas Kavakos. He and I were in a class together at Indiana, and I love his playing because there is a profound individuality to it. There is an elegance of poetry, a deep sense of personality and individual expression. He’s a lovely man.

In terms of conductors, it's very timely given the movie that's just coming out, but I suppose my idol would be Leonard Bernstein, for a number of reasons. He was a hugely talented musician, he was a very imperfect man, as many of us are (because I certainly am). But he was hugely inspirational – I think he conducted some of the most incredible performances of [Gustav] Mahler, [Anton] Bruckner, Beethoven. He was always unafraid to do things differently. And he was very conscious of music's role to unite, and music's role in history. I think particularly of the famous concert held when the Berlin Wall came down, when he conducted Beethoven's 9th Symphony under the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin – that has to be one of the all-time great musical events of recent history. I certainly don't pretend to be anywhere near the caliber of conductor Bernstein is, but that spirit is something that animates me.

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