Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Legal Aid Lawyer Moonlights with His Own CD,"
Minneapolis Star Tribune
By Doug Grow

"Pressure? Pressure, Lawrence McDonough said, is standing before the Minnesota Supreme Court, arguing that a woman shouldn't lose her home because of the mistakes of her son.

Compared to that case, which he (and the woman) lost, McDonough's performance at the Dakota Bar & Grill at St. Paul's Bandana Square on Saturday night should be anxiety-free.

I play gigs so much that I don't think I'll be nervous,' McDonough said. Well, maybe a little.'

On Saturday night, McDonough, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis by day and a pianist by night, will release his first CD, Small Steps.'  This isn't the sort of entertainment event that's going to put the Twin Cities at the center of the U.S. jazz scene. McDonough figures that if, over the next few months, he can sell 250 CDs, he and his friend Mark Browning Milner, who produced the CD on the Mark Music label, should recover most of their investment.

I think I've got enough friends and relatives to do that,' McDonough said.

But this little event is a reminder that in a celebrity-conscious society, we often look past the extraordinary characters around us.

McDonough, 44, fits in that extraordinary category. On all but the most foul days, he commutes by bicycle from his St. Paul home to his Legal Aid office in north Minneapolis (When you're on a bike, you can think more than you do when you're in a car,' he said.) He's an active father, whose crowning achievement a year ago was to arrange and direct a piece for the band at St. Paul's Webster Magnet Elementary School. And he carries two business cards: Legal Aid lawyer and musician available for clubs, weddings or parties (jazz, classical, rock).

Once upon a time, McDonough, like every kid with a musical instrument, was going to be a star. He started playing piano in fourth grade, by junior high he was playing in garage bands and by the time he was a student at Bloomington Lincoln High School, he was picking up club gigs as a pianist.

He pushed on with his music dreams at the University of Minnesota. After getting a degree in music education, he worked as a part-time band instructor at his old high school and at Minneapolis Edison High School, and he played with as many as six bands. He was playing everything from the jazz he loved to pop to polka. He could make a living with his music, but . . .

Music seemed isolated from everything else that was going on in the world,' he said.

And so, in 1980, he left the isolation and enrolled at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul. He thought he'd end up as an environmental lawyer, but in 1983 he worked as a Legal Aid clerk in Minneapolis and he was hooked.

His office is proof that Legal Aid money isn't squandered on luxury. Furniture is cheap. Desks are stacked high with files. Typically, the cases involve unglamorous disputes between tenants and landlords. The waiting rooms usually are filled with people who look hopeless. For the lawyers, pay is low and pensions don't exist.

But McDonough remains excited about the cases, the clients, the principles of access to legal services that Legal Aid represents. He's the first to acknowledge that the 1960s-style words he uses to describe his work sound cheesy' in 2000.

The caseload is huge and the hardest thing you have to do is say 'no' to people,' he said. But for me, the romance is still here. My attitude hasn't changed from the first day I started.'

He has become recognized in the legal profession for his work -- but it's not exactly a wide-ranging reputation.

For example, Lowell Pickett, owner of the Dakota   where McDonough and Bozo Allegro, a jazz, rock and blues band he plays with, will be performing -- was startled when he learned McDonough is an attorney, to say nothing of a Legal Aid attorney with a reputation for good work.

Attorney?' Pickett said. I know him as a good pianist. He's not out there with some of the other pianists in town, but now I know why.'

McDonough is slightly embarrassed about releasing a CD. It's humbling to think that it's me as opposed to somebody else,' he said. There are a lot of piano players better than me.'

Last fall, his intention was to have Browning Milner help him with a short demonstration tape, which he wanted to send to a woman who was interested in hiring him to play for a wedding. Browning Milner did the tape, liked what he heard and urged McDonough to do a solo CD. McDonough decided to take the leap, which for one night has put him center stage at the Dakota."