Christina Womack Kelly
Associate, Polsinelli Shughart PC in Phoenix
Area of Practice: Civil Litigation
Year Graduated: 1998
Christina Kelly was born to be a litigator. "I was always the kid in the family who argued the most with my dad, and he saw something in me that I didn't see," she remembers. "He said, 'If you don't go to law school, you'll have missed your calling.' I didn't really know what that meant, but I always wanted to do something that helped others." After college, Ms. Kelly followed her father's advice and enrolled at University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, where she was awarded the Order of the Barristers upon graduation. Today, as an attorney in Polsinelli Shughart PC's Insurance Coverage and Bad Faith Litigation practice group, Ms. Kelly helps her clients protect their business interests and also serves children through her impressive involvement in pro bono work.
Ms. Kelly received her undergraduate degree in Justice Studies from Arizona State University. Knowing that she might want to become a lawyer someday, Ms. Kelly tested the profession by working in a law firm throughout college, first in a large firm and then in a smaller firm. "I got to see the day-to-day practice of civil law and civil litigation," she says. "It really helped me gain an understanding of what it would be like on a daily basis to work in a law firm. That was very helpful." When Ms. Kelly decided to apply to law school the year after she graduated from college, one of her law firm bosses encouraged her to look into his alma mater, McGeorge School of Law. "He said that it was a rigorous academic program, and he told me that Justice Kennedy was teaching there before he was appointed to the bench. I applied based on his recommendation. I was accepted, and when I went up to visit the campus, there was something about it that was very welcoming ...," she notes. "Of all the schools I looked at, it was the best fit for me."
Ms. Kelly transitioned from Arizona State to McGeorge almost seamlessly. "It's a school unto itself, and it's small, so you can develop close friendships," she points out, referring to McGeorge's stand-alone campus. "It's easy to feel lost (at the beginning of law school). At McGeorge, you know everyone you see is at the school, and within a couple of weeks, there aren't many people you pass by who don't know you. That made it very easy to make the transition from college to law school." Ms. Kelly's experiences in law school molded her for, and affirmed her interest in, a career in litigation. "The trial advocacy program was developing when I was a student, and I was happy to be part of the genesis of that," she explains. "My first year in law school, they started the first-year trial competition, and I won that, and then the next year, I was on the mock trial competition team. Our team went to the national tournament, and we won both the regional and state competitions. My participation on the team fueled my love of litigation and trial work. I felt that I had found my calling."
Joseph Taylor, a professor of Trial Advocacy at McGeorge, proved to be an influential presence in Ms. Kelly's law school days and beyond. "Professor Taylor was my Trial Ad[vocacy] professor. I remember everything that he taught me. I can still picture him standing behind the podium and demonstrating the exhibit walk," Ms. Kelly says. "To this day, I prepare every case I have the way Professor Taylor taught me to prepare the case. There's not a witness examination I make that I don't prepare the way he taught me or an argument I make that I don't prepare the way that he taught me." The skills that Ms. Kelly acquired through the Trial Advocacy program also served her well when she interned for the San Diego County Public Defender's Office during the summer after her second year at McGeorge. That summer, Ms. Kelly handled misdemeanor arraignments, argued motions to suppress, and acted as second chair in a domestic violence trial. "You were in court every day," she recalls of the experience, "and that was great."
After she graduated from law school, Ms. Kelly returned to Arizona to take the Arizona bar exam, after which she hoped to find a job with the local district attorney's office (called the County Attorney in Arizona). "Given my strengths in college — I was a criminal justice major — I went into law school thinking that I would be a criminal prosecutor or a public defender," she explains. However, fate intervened, and Ms. Kelly was introduced to a lawyer who had an insurance defense firm. "I met with him, and he offered me a job a few months after I passed the bar. That's how I ended up in insurance defense litigation. I just kind of fell into it. It was an opportunity and a great introduction to civil litigation."
Although Ms. Kelly ultimately made civil litigation her career, she did take a brief hiatus from the civil system before settling on her current practice area. "I did civil litigation for a year and a half, but I really thought that I needed to get criminal law out of my system," she says, "so I worked for the County Attorney for a year as a juvenile prosecutor, and that was probably the best job I've ever had in terms of being able to really affect change in the lives of kids." When she left the County Attorney, Ms. Kelly returned to civil practice, first working in-house for Farmers Insurance, then as an attorney at Jones, Skelton, & Hochuli. For the next nine years, she explains, "I did largely insurance defense litigation, and so I worked for insurance companies, trucking companies, and medical malpractice companies, defending claims brought against them."
In 2011, Ms. Kelly joined Polsinelli Shughart's Phoenix office, where she is an attorney in Polsinelli's Insurance Coverage and Bad Faith Litigation Practice group. "Currently, I represent businesses—both small businesses and large corporations—with respect to injury and accident claims brought against them. We also advise them regarding their insurance needs and any litigation or coverage issues that arise," she says. This work requires Ms. Kelly to engage in many different tasks: meetings, research, writing, depositions, and court appearances. When she meets with a client, her primarily goal is often to learn about the client's business and needs. "For the smaller businesses we represent, we're meeting with the owner. For the larger companies, we're meeting with in-house counsel or management," Ms. Kelly explains. Even though a substantial majority of Ms. Kelly's cases settle outside of court, she notes, "All of your effort and preparation from day one is with an eye to walking into the courtroom. When you're researching and analyzing an issue in the beginning of a case, you are already forecasting, 'If I had to go to in to court tomorrow and argue this case to a judge, what are our chances of success?' That kind of guides what you do. There's no better way to settle a case than preparing it for trial."
Pro bono work also makes up an important part of Ms. Kelly's practice. "The best thing about (Polsinelli Shughart) is that we get billable hour credit for pro bono work. I assist clients with guardianships and adoptions ...," she says. "There is nothing more fulfilling than being able to use the skills that you acquired in law school to assist those who have no access to justice. For them, it's this foreign universe. If you're not being of service, then you're doing yourself and your community a disservice." Ms. Kelly has received several honors in recognition of her pro bono work, including the Children's Law Center Attorney of the Year Award in 2011, the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services Top Fifty Pro Bono Attorneys in Arizona Award in 2009, and the Volunteer Lawyers Program Attorney of the Month Award in June 2008.
Ms. Kelly admits that it is sometimes difficult to manage her work, pro bono activities, and other commitments. "A challenging aspect of the practice is, and always will be, balancing your career with your life," she says. "To have a home life outside of work when you work in a private firm with billable hour requirements is always a demand on your time. It takes a lot of ability to focus and do well." However, Ms. Kelly appreciates that working in a large law firm also has its advantages. "The benefit of a large firm is that you have a lot more resources available to you. Just being able to get things done — you've got people who make the copies and send out the mail, all those things that make your life easier. You've also got the ability to market yourself to a larger range of clients, and we have the opportunity to work on cases across the country," she points out.
While Ms. Kelly enjoys the perks of working in large firm, she receives personal satisfaction from her career as well, even more so since she started representing small businesses at Polsinelli. "For the last thirteen years, my clients were always large insurers or high profile companies. One thing you'll find with a small business is that you're able to guide (the business owners) through their business to allow them to be successful," she says. "It is a great feeling to be able to provide that assistance to them and to see their businesses develop and thrive. You see that what you're doing affects their business directly. They have issues about insurance coverage or a claim that a customer has made against them. It's significant for them when we can resolve those issues; that's their livelihood. It's very gratifying."
The best civil litigators have strong people skills, Ms. Kelly observes; "I think being a people person is one of the biggest advantages in civil litigation—to be able to develop a rapport with people, whether it's the witness you're taking the deposition of, your clients, or the lawyers you're working with on the other side. Those skills allow you to see a case from the perspective of a juror. The ability to connect with people and read people is something you're never taught in law school, but it's a huge component of a case. The ability to evaluate those intangible factors allows you to bring a broader perspective and to more effectively evaluate the case and advise your client appropriately." It's also important, she notes, to be able to develop a position and defend it. "Essentially that's what you're being asked to do by your client or your boss," she explains. "That's one thing I think McGeorge was very effective in; the professors I had were great about teaching concepts through requiring students to take a position and defend it." Ms. Kelly adds, "Being an effective writer is always an important skill to have."
Ms. Kelly recommends that students who are interested in civil litigation focus their law school coursework on "classes that provide a basic understanding of the subject," especially Trial Advocacy. "It can really help you decide if being a civil litigator is something you would enjoy doing," she says. Clinics, jobs, and internships also provide students with the chance to try out civil litigation. "I think that's the best way to determine if civil litigation fits within your personality," Ms. Kelly notes. "You're going to spend hundreds and hundreds of hours at work, so you want to make sure that your work is a good fit."
Ms. Kelly cautions law students not to abandon their career goals in the pursuit of a job. "Some lawyers lose sight of the reason they became a lawyer because they just want to get by. You have to pay off your student loans and everything, but at some point in your career, it's important to look back and ask that question: 'Why did I go to law school?' Find a way to incorporate that into your work." Ms. Kelly explains, "I went to law school because I always wanted to help people. I think that law school, and the law, is an excellent way to be of service to others in the community." With her commitment to her clients and her long history of pro bono work, clearly she has followed her own advice.