Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2010
Profiles in the Law
Lyrics and Law:
Pilar French Finds Musical Inspiration in Her Work
By Melody Finnemore

As a legion of American youth spent the 1980s playing air guitar and singing into a hairbrush (this author among them), Pilar French was living our dream. French picked up an electric guitar when she was 10 and has been rocking ever since.

“I always liked rock music and my teachers always wanted me to play classical,” she says with a laugh. “It was quite an anomaly for a girl when I was growing up, but it takes less strength to play an electric than an acoustic guitar. So really, it’s an ideal instrument for a child to learn. Hence electric guitar is my first love, although I like being able to change up the sound and style of my songs by using acoustic guitars or mandolins.”

French, a shareholder and litigator at Portland’s Lane Powell, sometimes performs as the Pilar French Intention and other times as French/Slamp, depending on whether she’s sharing the bill with songwriter/bandmate Joshua Slamp. She says she generally plays electric guitar and bass in a full band setting, and acoustic guitar and mandolin for her solo shows.

The Indianapolis native fell in love with the blues as an undergrad at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Her appreciation for various musical influences continued to grow as she attended law school at Indiana University-Indianapolis, graduating in 1996 with an interest in civil rights and plans to become a criminal prosecutor.

“I guess I’m an idealist and the law seems like a good fit for me because although you don’t always win, sometimes you can, at least, try to help people find resolution,” she says.

French moved to Portland in 1996 and joined the Oregon Department of Justice, where for the first few years she did criminal appellate work and learned that particular practice area wasn’t for her.

“I quickly realized that the better you get in criminal law the seedier your cases get, so I decided that wasn’t going to be my long-term practice,” she says.

French joined Lane Powell in February 1999 as a litigator with a focus on cases involving financial institutions, a niche she developed while working in the DOJ’s financial fraud division. She often represents lenders and has observed the fallout from the mortgage meltdown and credit crunch from the front lines.

Her move to the Rose City also opened the door to new musical opportunities. French played in several bluesy, funky bands, including Soul Patrol Mission and a six-piece blues band called Swerve. She also collaborated with local singers Kate Mann and Lara Michell, also an attorney, from Stolen Sweets and Dirty Martini.

French released her first album, “Butterflies,” in 2007. Her new record, “Alive,” came out in October and is about perseverance and the strength people find within themselves during times of adversity.

“This time I wanted to express my passion more, my vision of what I was feeling when I wrote the songs,” she says. “I think I’ve evolved as a musician and found that one of the things I like to do when I write a song is have a lot of layers and changes to take the listeners to unexpected places.”

Several songs reflect her personal life. “No More,” which celebrates the life of French’s 97-year-old grandmother, is based on French’s conversations with her shortly before her death.

Her work at Lane Powell also has provided plenty of emotional experiences to write about. The songs “Higher Ground,” “Try” and “Catacomb” resulted from a long, harrowing trial in Salem. French was on the legal team that attempted to find justice for a woman and her son who had been brutalized, kidnapped and tortured by a prison escapee.

French worked “Try” out on a mandolin in the hotel room where she stayed during the proceedings. “Catacomb” deals with the bitterness and despair she felt as the case lost at trial, and her acceptance of the need for a second appeal after an already six-year battle.

“Although we did not succeed at the trial court level, the good news was that we made some appellate case law which ensures that tenants have a right to expect their landlords to take measures to protect them from reasonably foreseeable crimes intended by third parties,” French says.

Because her firm “takes on cases it deems being of public importance,” she says, “I’ve been fortunate enough to get to work on two of those cases, which were pretty big investments by the firm in terms of trying to do what is right.”

Another case on which French worked involved a Native American couple who was harassed by members of their community for practicing religious ceremonies on their rural Oregon property.

“Native Americans have actually been traveling to this parcel of land to practice sacred ceremonies for years. The husband was a high priest in his tribe and he had built a fire circle to do ceremonies,” French says. “According to our clients, some people in the community did not like that and tried to stop the religious ceremonies through various acts of intimidation.”

French’s team pursued the case under a civil rights statute that prohibits cross burnings, and the case ultimately settled.

French admits to being a workaholic who, between her legal work and her music, has little time for anything else except her Australian shepherd, Rio. She has two older brothers and enjoys talking shop with her brother, Peter, also a litigator.

“I love thinking about how the art of litigation is affected by each person’s individual personality,” she says. “Pete’s style is so different from mine. He’s soft spoken and calm. His nickname in various Indianapolis legal circles is ‘Whisper.’ I try to be calm and Obama-like, but sometimes the more passionate side of my personality flavors my delivery.”

French says her true mentor was Susanah Mead, who became the first woman and the first graduate to lead the Indiana University-Indianapolis law school when she was made interim dean in June 2005. French grew up with Mead’s three daughters and, when she was in law school, Mead was a professor there.

“The Meads were definitely a second family to me and, looking back on things, her wisdom and counsel undoubtedly helped me achieve a fulfilling career in law,” French says.

In a career filled with plenty of highs and lows, music has been good therapy along the way.

“It’s like they say, if it was easy everybody would do it. I learn something every day, and every day when I walk in the office there is a new challenge. Most of the time I think I’m able to find positive solutions for the people I represent, but it’s a tough game,” French says. “I wrote the CD because I’m a pretty pensive person, and I philosophize about these experiences I’m having as a lawyer.”

Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

Note: French’s music is available through a variety of online vendors, including cdbaby.com, iTunes and Rhapsody. 

© 2010 Melody Finnemore

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