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Thursday, 22 November 2018

Matisha Panagoda

Legalwise News Editor Caroline Tang interviews Carroll & O’Dea Associate Mathisha Panagoda about his professional cellist background and how balancing his musical commitments with full-time legal practice is a driving force behind his success as a lawyer. "When I was in high school, I remember specifically saying to my parents that I would never be a lawyer!" he reveals. 

A DECADE ago, Carroll & O’Dea Associate Mathisha Panagoda, 31, would have laughed off the suggestion that he would follow family tradition and end up in legal practice. The cellist had graduated with a Bachelor of Music (Performance) (Honours) from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and was focused on pursuing an orchestral career in Australia and internationally. Panagoda had performed at major events since his youth, including: the 1999 opening of the Olympic Stadium at Homebush where the then schoolboy was the first solo vocalist, the Sydney 2000 Olympics Opening Ceremony, and various festivals in Australia and overseas, such as the BBC Proms and London 2012 Olympic Cultural Festival. 

Panagoda As A Schoolboy With Human Nature At The Olympic Stadium In 1999
Panagoda as a schoolboy with Human Nature at the Olympic Stadium in 1999


Panagoda had always been looking for opportunities to shine on stage since childhood; he made ticket stubs for his parents so they could watch his home Christmas concerts atop cardboard boxes when he was age 8. He even wrote the songs and made his costumes. Those cherished moments are among his earliest musical memories. 

Panagoda During His Time With The Australian Youth Orchestra
Panagoda during his time with the Australian Youth Orchestra

"I started cello when I was four years old, which was pretty young. I had an older brother who played cello and an older sister who played violin. I kind of just wanted to emulate my brother; I had a tiny cello, 1/8th size, the size of a big violin or viola. Apparently it was one of the smallest cellos in Australia at the time," Panagoda said. 

"So, I was exposed to music from a young age, but neither of my parents are musical. I just loved music generally. I would do a lot of singing.  I taught myself to play piano and write my own songs. I was very interested in anything creative; I loved it."

The young Panagoda also loved the social aspect of music and joined almost every youth orchestra and junior choir he could find, in order to make music and travel and perform with like-minded peers, such as through the national children’s choir Gondwana Voices and the Australian Youth Orchestra. So, a full-time career as a musician looked promising as he achieved his Associate and Licentiate in Music from the Australian Music Examinations Board and made the natural progression to "the Con" after completing his HSC.

"When I was in my early 20s, I loved to travel all over the world; I was in a different city every week. Then, a couple of things happened, firstly, I went to the UK and successfully auditioned for the Royal College of Music and was going to start a masters there – I received a scholarship," Panagoda said. 

Panagoda Was An Artist In Residence For Several Months In Banff Canada
Panagoda was an artist-in-residence for several months in Banff, Canada

"But, I was still deterred by the cost of going through all that, and I also suffered a minor RSI injury and thought, if I have this injury now when I'm young, how can I be sure about a full-time performing career? It does get very tiring. I was travelling so much, that the idea of having stability, a 'normal' job, really appealed to me at that time."



Panagoda returned home to Sydney to find the permanency he was searching for. Looking back, he realises that his parents' legal careers had rubbed off more on him during his childhood than he first thought.

"I had never considered going into the law. I remember specifically saying to my parents that I would never be a lawyer, when I was in high school! But I eventually came around to the fact that I obviously had an amazing family who were very supportive of me doing what I wanted to do, whether that was music, law or something else" Panagoda said.

"So, I would have been influenced a lot from my parents being lawyers, probably without realising it. My Dad, in particular, has always fought hard on social justice issues; essentially that is where I picked that up from." His father, Maithri Panagoda, AM, is a Partner at Carroll & O’Dea.

Panagoda describes his career change as "a little naive" because back then, he knew little of the law or what area he wanted to practice in, despite his family's legal background.  His sister is also a lawyer.

Panagoda supported himself during law school through teaching the cello and working as a freelance musician. He graduated from the University of Sydney with a Juris Doctor and Master of Law. Panagoda had aspirations to practice in international law and travelled to the United States.

"After I graduated, I went to New York and did an internship. I was really interested in international law and had done a thesis on it," he said.

"I did well in the subject and the internship was an amazing opportunity, but it also made me realise that international law is a funny beast – it's a lot of bureaucracy – and it wasn't quite for me."

Back in Australia, Panagoda sought out mentors in the legal profession and found inspiration from one barrister, in particular, who was once a successful opera singer and found her passion for performance a transferrable skill to the courtroom. He also credits the "pretty inspiring role models" in his lawyerly family.

Panagoda was admitted to practice in early 2013 and has worked at Carroll & O’Dea ever since. He loves working as a lawyer and how his musician background has crossed over into his second career.

"So many of my skills I have learned from music have made me a better lawyer: the commitment, hard work and discipline involved in both, creative thinking, communication and empathy. There are a lot of transferable skills, I think, which I had not really envisaged before," Panagoda said.

"I love the interaction with clients and the practical way in which you can make a meaningful difference to their lives." 

Panagoda Performed In An Episode Of The Bachelor 2017
Panagoda performed in an episode of The Bachelor 2017

But, Panagoda still makes the time to pursue his passion for music. He still runs the Sydney Camerata Quartet & Chamber Orchestra, which he founded in 2008, and performs in regular lunchtime recitals in the Sydney CBD with them, among other commitments – such as an appearance on reality television show The Bachelor in 2017.

Panagoda also teaches adult cello students on weekends, some of whom have been learning with him for many years. "They come from a range of backgrounds. Teaching them doesn’t feel like work; it's more like a catch-up with a bit of music, and is still one of the highlights of my week," he said.

Nonetheless, what if Panagoda was presented with a "dream" opportunity to play cello as a full-time musician? "My legal career takes priority for me and I made that as a conscious decision when I started working at Carroll & O’Dea. I’m also lucky in that music engagements are usually booked well in advance so I can plan ahead (sometimes a year or more!) and book in annual leave or whatever I need to make things work," he said.

"The main thing is, I have to be super organised to make sure there are no clashes with commitments and allowing myself time to account for rehearsals and practicing. And, I receive a lot of support from colleagues which means a lot to me. Colleagues from not only Carroll & O’Dea but other firms and barristers often come along to watch my lunchtime recitals in the city. The managing partner even took time out to come to one of my charity fundraiser gigs at the Opera House."

Picture Roland Kay Smith
Picture: Roland Kay-Smith

Still, pursuing both the law and music professionally is a challenge. "I’m grateful to work at a firm that supports many of my musical endeavours, truly espouses a work-life balance culture and, it helps that I work for a partner who is also a musician," Panagoda said.

"It’s always a balancing act but that’s what I love about it. I think music and law really complement each other well. Each brings inspiration and value to my life in different ways. Each gives me a break from the other and keeps different parts of my mind activated and inspired. I’m certain that keeping up my music helps me to be a better lawyer."

As a talented and experienced musician and supporter of the arts, Mathisha Panagoda, is one of Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers’ most able entertainment law and intellectual property solicitors. Prior to commencing his legal career, he spent many years performing and touring the world as a concert cellist. Mathisha has previously served on the board of Australia‘s leading professional vocal ensemble, The Song Company, and worked as a pro-bono lawyer at the Arts Law Centre of Australia. He also runs his own blog about music, entertainment, media law, Intellectual Property and more. Mathisha acts for a range of clients in compensation law, civil litigation and in the not-for-profit sector. He has also represented clients at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Abuse and handles many related compensation claims. Mathisha knows that empathy and good communication are as important to clients as excellent technical expertise. “Being a musician, and running an orchestra like Camerata – which is encouraged at Carroll & O’Dea Lawyers – gives me the experience to understand what musicians need from lawyers: someone they trust to decipher the ‘legalese’ and give them practical solutions.” Contact Mathisha at mlpanagoda@codea.com.au or visit his website or connect via LinkedIn Linkedin

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