Jennifer L. Cairns
The goal of this column is to enlighten our readers about the private endeavors of attorneys who are part of the MCCA network. By examining lawyers and their work practices by day in contrast to the personal interests that they pursue outside of the office, it is our hope that this series of articles allows our readers to see the other side of lawyers who manage to pursue unique interests despite their demanding careers.
Jennifer and Bailey
You can tell when it's football season just by catching a glimpse of me without my suit jacket on—I'm covered with black-and-blue marks,” says Jennifer L. Cairns, a products liability group associate in McGuireWoods' Pittsburgh office. Those bruises are not the result of Cairns' elbowing her way through the stands at a Steelers game—far from it. Cairns plays defensive back for the Pittsburgh Passion, a women's professional full-contact football team and the National Women's Football Association's (NWFA) undefeated (12-0) 2007 champions. The team has jumped to the Independent Women's Football League (IWFL) for the 2008 season, and hopes to be crowned champion for a second time.
A member since the team's inception in 2002, Cairns first learned of the Passion toward the end of her last year at Syracuse University College of Law. "After graduating, I returned to the Pittsburgh area and walled myself off from the world from May through July, studying for the bar exam," she remembers. Cairns resurfaced in August, and soon learned from a friend that she had missed the Passion tryouts. Undaunted, the young lawyer began considering teams outside of Pittsburgh when, unexpectedly, the team held another set of tryouts. Cairns made the cut, and was handed her black-and-gold jersey emblazoned with #44, a number of great football significance to her beloved Syracuse Orange.
Initially, the Passion coaches wanted her to play offense. "Because I'm tiny [5'3"], quick and shifty, with good footwork from my college lacrosse days, they thought I might make a good wide receiver," recalls Cairns. "But I've got this aggressive streak in me, and I far preferred the idea of delivering the hit than trying to avoid it."
For Cairns, her zeal for the courtroom and the gridiron alike makes perfect sense. She believes that playing sports for all of her life made litigation an obvious practice area choice. Like organized sports, litigation takes self-discipline, self-motivation and an ability to rebound from adversity and disappointment — and, more important, both arenas demand a winner and loser.
"People often think that practicing law and playing football are polar opposites, but I disagree," says Cairns. "Litigation and football require many of the same traits: controlled aggression; poise under pressure; the ability to think quickly on your feet; strategic planning; and mental, physical, and emotional stamina."
Because of her intense love of the game, Cairns is willing to do what it takes to balance a law career and a demanding, though nonpaying, spot on the team. "If you want something bad enough, I've found that the sacrifices associated with your goal become easier to accept and manage, and that the discipline required to get you there seems to take over," says Cairns. "Luckily, I am surrounded by a supportive and understanding network of co-workers, friends, and loved ones. Their support has allowed me to continue on my journey with the Pittsburgh Passion, even as my professional responsibilities continue to grow at a rapid rate."
Jennifer playing tailback, rushes for a touchdown against Roanoke.
At McGuireWoods, Cairns is involved in litigating everything from forklifts to pharmaceuticals, and because her product liability practice is national, she has a heavy travel schedule. Meanwhile, the IWFL's eight-game season runs from April through June, with playoffs in July that conclude with the championship game in August. Passion players meet at least three to four times each week in the evenings and on weekends throughout the season, as well as during the fall and winter for practice and conditioning. Home games are played at George Cupples (South) Stadium in downtown Pittsburgh (in front of crowds regularly numbering 2,500, and up to 5,000 during last year's undefeated championship season) and are matched by away games that require the team to travel.
Juggling this type of intense schedule requires immense energy and a lot of last-minute travel, often at her own expense, but Cairns would not have it any other way. Growing up in Donora, Pa., a small town 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, Cairns learned early on the importance of academics and time management. "My mother was a high school math teacher and single parent. My twin sister and I, as well as our older brother, were allowed to play sports only if we kept our grades up," she recalls. "That was never a problem for us. We liked keeping busy."
In fact, shortly after entering law school at Syracuse, Cairns experienced an unsettling void—she missed the daily lacrosse and swimming practices that she'd known as an undergraduate on athletic scholarships at Duquesne University. She had no idea how to fill her early mornings and late afternoons. "As a person who operates most efficiently when her time is fully scheduled," reflects Cairns, "I quickly remedied the situation by swimming in a nearby Masters League, where I ultimately began to coach as well."
Like Cairns, the Passion's eclectic 55-woman team comes from a wide background of competitive sports, including touch football, with a few of the younger women having played in co-ed tackle leagues. "Growing up as an athlete in 'Steeler Country' made my decision to play football an easy one—I'd been such an avid fan of the sport all of my life that I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to actually play football the way it was meant to be played," explains Cairns. "Sure, I had played powder puff football in high school, and took my bumps and bruises while playing football in the backyard with my brother and other kids in the neighborhood. However, until the Pittsburgh Passion came along, I had never been given the opportunity to strap on a helmet and pads and see what I could do. Much like most football players, once I tried it, I was hooked."
Cairns happily reports that her colleagues at McGuireWoods are very supportive: "On my last day at work before the championship game last summer, they decorated my office for a little send off party, and every spring I see them in the stands cheering us on at our Saturday night home games," she says. "But they, like my family, also worry about me getting hurt."
And her co-workers' concerns are not unfounded: Throughout Cairns' tenure with the Passion, some of her more significant injuries have included a torn ACL in her left knee, a broken hand, and a broken nose. She fractured her nose during a game in Baltimore a few years ago; despite the injury, Cairns notes, "I got taped up, changed face masks, finished the game, and helped the Passion bring home the win. After the angry Irish-Italian in me settled down and the adrenaline wore off, I felt the full effect of the pain on the bus ride home."
Prior to McGuireWoods, Cairns was an associate at Eckert Seamans in Pittsburgh for two years; before that, she clerked for Superior Court Judge Kate Ford Elliott (also in Pittsburgh). "Similar to my mother, the judge taught me by example not to let anyone place restraints on me," recalls Cairns. "I learned that I needed to define my own goals and go after them with tenacity. It's another lesson that I've taken to heart."
The Passion has no official age cap for its players; according to Cairns, most of the women continue playing until their bodies say it is no longer a reality. "I think I'm at the tail end of my playing days—maybe a few more seasons," she says. Interestingly, as Cairns' professional football career draws to a close, her prospects for making partner at McGuireWoods appear to be opening. "Whatever the next few years bring," she says, "I'll always make room for law and sports in my life." DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the March/April 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®