buffalo law journal/business first buffalo
Buffalo lawyer plays blues, too
Business First of Buffalo - by Kelsey Swanekamp
Theresa Quinn balances afternoons in the office with evenings in front of a microphone. In between, it’s the everyday tasks that become trying.
“My checkbook is not balanced, and my house isn’t always clean,” Quinn said one recent summer day, as she fiddled with a yellow highlighter from behind a glossy wooden desk.
And with good reason. The 42-year-old attorney, who practices at Magavern Magavern Grimm LLP, admitted that she doesn’t have much free time between her day job and playing the organ and bagpipes, teaching a theater class and performing regular gigs as one-half of a blues/R&B duo.
Seeds of talent
At age five, Quinn began experimenting with her grandfather’s beat-up piano in Wales, outside of East Aurora. “I grew up pretty far out in the sticks and there weren’t a lot of kids my age, so I taught myself to read notes and just started playing.”
Her parents recognized her interest in the piano, and she began lessons a few years later. Quinn said she doesn’t recall ever being told to practice. Instead, she always enjoyed sitting down at the bench to play.
“We didn’t have cable, so piano was how I passed my time,” she said.
In elementary and high school, Quinn accompanied chorus members on the piano during their private vocal lessons. She found herself surrounded by talented instructors who taught students the correct way to sing. By learning from these lessons, she established her own technique.
Quinn, music director of Lafayette Presbyterian Church, said she doesn’t consider herself a member of any specific Christian denomination. Her experience playing in different churches helped her to appreciate the best they all have to offer.
“I have a pretty solid sense of beliefs,” she said. “I consider myself to be very spiritual.”
Although she works regularly with musicians, the talents she acquired in her years of writing and performing music rarely enter into her legal work. But some aspects of the two jobs converge.
“I do use my performing skills sometimes. I’m someone who prepares everything. I never walk up on stage and play things off the cuff,” she said.
She uses the same frame of mind and systematic preparation whether she is preparing for a day in court or an evening performance. When planning for a performance, Quinn exchanges notes, music and occasionally YouTube links with the other musicians and arranges for rehearsals, when necessary.
Onstage at Root Five in Hamburg one July evening, her deliberate preparation is as obvious as her ease in front of the keyboard. She throws her head back and smiles openly as she plays, swaying side to side on the bench as she strokes the keys. After finishing a ballad, she jokes with the audience, saying, “I hate tunes with a sad ending.”
Motioning to the balcony overlooking Lake Erie, she said, “Don’t jump!”
Whether she’s working as a lawyer or a musician, Quinn interacts with everyone she encounters the very same way. She said she prefers to be forthcoming in her work and seizes any opportunity to joke around. Confrontational strategies fail to help her make her point.
“I find that really doesn’t get me anywhere,” she said. “I never approach opposition that way; I don’t approach people that way in life.”
Nashville and NYC
Her years as a full-time musician and songwriter sparked a curiosity in copyright law. Quinn moved to Nashville, Tenn., from Buffalo after she received an offer to work as a songwriter in the early 1990s. Living in Nashville, Quinn said she looked around and found that there weren’t very many women over 40 still performing.
“Women had a discernible end to their career when they stopped looking good in leather pants,” she recalled. “But I didn’t look at the option of going back to graduate school just to do something; it was something really focused. I knew I was going to go to law school for a specific purpose.”
Beginning studies at Brooklyn Law School immediately following her 1998 move to New York City, Quinn said it was challenging to adapt to a classroom setting from her nontraditional, musician’s lifestyle, but things clicked quickly enough. She found that many other students had come to law school in their 30s through similarly uncommon paths.
Time to move
Until her mid-30s, when she was first hired as an attorney, Quinn had never worked a typical day job. But she didn’t plan to give up her life as a musician to pursue a legal career. While the long hours as a new attorney in New York City didn’t allow her much time to perform, she played in a large wedding band on weekends.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Quinn considered leaving New York City.
“Around Sept. 11, I was dating a New York City fireman, and we lost a lot of friends. And I played just so many funerals. There were months and months and months that I did nothing but play funerals,” she said.
As she remembers those months, her speech slows from its upbeat, fast pace.
“It just changed the way I felt about the city,” she said.
She decided to move to Buffalo after realizing that the city met all of her qualifications: four seasons and an NHL team.
Now in Buffalo, Quinn maintains a vivacious and challenging musical career and handles an interesting combination of work in different fields as an attorney.
“It’s hard to dabble now,” she said, speaking of her legal practice, “so I’m lucky.”
Kelsey Swanekamp is a freelance writer.