Ottawa lawyers find harmony in the Verdict

OTTAWA — Ottawa family lawyer Gerry Yemensky divides his life between two passions: his love of the law and his love of rock and roll.

“I’ve been playing in bands for about 15 years longer than I have been a lawyer,” says Yemensky.

“It’s my first love. If I could be a rock-and-roll star, I would be a rock-and-roll star. But I can’t.”

However, Yemensky regularly gets a chance to crank up his Stratocaster and let his inner rock star loose as lead guitarist for the Verdict, an Ottawa rock band composed mostly of lawyers.

During the band’s more than 20-year existence, it has helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for local causes from cancer research to children’s charities.

It has helped raise so much money that in 2006, the band received the County of Carleton Law Association’s Gordon F. Henderson award for charitable contributions to the community.

But beyond helping charities, the Verdict has also become a way for six busy Ottawa-area lawyers to escape the stresses of demanding practices.

“It’s just fun, it’s sheer catharsis,” says Yemensky.

“When you’re playing rock and roll, you’re not doing anything else and that’s worth more than I can say.”

Yemensky, who practises with Campbell Clark Yemensky, is one of three original members still playing with the band along with vocalist Mike Van Dusen, a civil litigation lawyer who practises in Russell, Ont., and Jim Wilson, an insurance defence lawyer with Bell Baker LLP who plays keyboard.

Over the years, they have added vocalist Tom Ozere, a personal injury lawyer and partner at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, and family lawyer Alison Campbell to the band.

The most recent legal talent to join the band is guitarist Martin St-Onge, a real estate lawyer with Perley-Robertson Hill & McDougall LLP. He replaced guitarist Max Faille, who found it difficult to juggle the band with his busy aboriginal law practice as a partner at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP.

Only three members of the nine-piece band aren’t lawyers: Peter Van Dusen, a TV journalist and executive producer for CPAC on Parliament Hill; bassist Dave Weston, salesman for the Tippet Richardson moving company; and drummer Brant Scott, who works with Capital Ideas Communications.

While a surprising number of Ottawa law firms have their own in-house rock bands, what sets the Verdict apart is how long it has been around and the fact that it puts on public shows eight to 10 times a year for charity.

The band first came together in the late 1980s to play at the eastern civil litigation conference. The group of young lawyers, most of them not long out of law school, played music for the conference’s cabaret night.

In the early 1990s, they decided to play more frequently and help raise money for charities around Ottawa.

Over the years, the band members and their families have become a tight-knit group as they watched their careers evolve, their children grow up, and sometimes went on golf trips or vacations together.

Yemensky says the band’s audiences are typically people between 35 and 60 years old “who don’t get out very much anymore.”

“We try to feed them the songs that they danced to in high school.”

The fact that so many band members are lawyers means that music often harmonizes with their professional lives.

“You do shop talk while you’re setting up and breaking down and having a beer,” says Yemensky.
“You bounce ideas off people all the time.”

The fact that members of the band have different kinds of practices means they can give each other advice and refer clients among the group. Gigs have also resulted in business for some band members by increasing their profile in the legal community.

“The band is actually quite an interesting marketing tool,” says Yemensky.

However, it also means they can sometimes find themselves on opposite sides in court.

Wilson, for example, once found himself up against Van Dusen and Faille as all of them represented different clients in a lawsuit involving a fatal traffic accident.

“We often had differences of opinion as to where things ought to go on that one,” Wilson recalls.

Practices and performances have sometimes provided an opportunity for a pair of band members to chat about a case they’re both involved in and move it forward in a less adversarial atmosphere than a court of law.

Peter Van Dusen says the fact that most of the band members are professionals tends to be reflected in their music.

“You have guys who have spent their entire lives paying attention to detail,” he says, noting the lawyers’ legal backgrounds also come out when band members discuss new songs for their playlist.

“When these guys pitch songs, it’s like they have done the case work on why to pitch the song.”

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