Most Valuable Player

Rachel Splaine Rollins has channeled the competitive drive that made her a top lacrosse player into a groundbreaking legal career

Published in 2005 Massachusetts Rising Stars — May 2005

Rachel Splaine Rollins keeps time with a SpongeBob watch. "Do you like it?" she asks, turning her wrist to look. "My husband's bought me all kinds of nice watches, but my favorite one costs $2.99 at Burger King."

It’s a non-pretentious touch for a non-pretentious person. Drinking coffee in the 28th-floor conference room in Bingham McCutchen’s Federal Street office, it’s easy to forget that this charming and down-to-earth associate comes with a list of honors and awards a mile long — often averaging more than one a year, by the looks of it. Then again, perhaps Rollins’ greatest talent is that she manages to make it all look easy, even halfaccidental.

In fact, it’s only when listening to the conversation later on tape that you discover something about Rollins: The whole time she was agreeing with you, she was going exactly where she wanted to go. This is when you realize that the former lacrosse player knows a thing or two about keeping her eye on the ball.

From Lacrosse to Professional Basketball

Rollins grew up playing sports in Cambridge, a biracial kid in a diverse neighborhood. The oldest of five children, she joined local teams at an early age — “Cambridge youth soccer, Cambridge youth baseball, Cambridge youth anything that got us out of the house,” she says. Her parents were teachers, strict and structured, with reading lists in the summer and mandatory violin practice.

By the time Rollins hit private school, she’d discovered lacrosse, a sport that won her a four-year scholarship to UMass-Amherst. Although she didn’t know it at the time, it would also set her on a path to the law.

“Very shortly after my freshman year in college, the lacrosse team was cut due to budget cuts and so were a few of the other women’s teams,” Rollins says. Her scholarship was safe, but she wasn’t satisfied — particularly when she realized that the school’s underachieving football team had been spared. “My sophomore year, a few of the women went to speak to an attorney.”

Rollins was among them. And she paid attention when, at the mere threat of a Title IX lawsuit, Amherst reinstated the team. “It was amazing,” Rollins recalls. “Not even a lawsuit — just the threat of a lawsuit, just involving an attorney. It got results.”

As someone accustomed to getting results herself, she thought the law seemed like a natural next step, particularly now that she saw it could encompass her love for sports. After graduating from college, Rollins entered Northeastern Law School. After her first year, the school’s Cooperative Legal Education approach required her to alternate semesters in school with full-time work in the legal field, which usually means interning at private firms or clerking with judges. Persistent, and with a knack for opening doors no one had opened before, Rollins resolved to use the school’s co-op programs to pursue her unique combination of interests.

Early on, she set her sights on a co-op with the NBA Players Association, even though its office had never had a legal intern. She began by volunteering at the Center for the Study of Sports in Society, which was headquartered at Northeastern, though not attached to the law school. Her first project for the Center involved talking to high school athletes about domestic violence. Then, in a project intended to help professional sports teams find qualified women and people of color, she assembled a database of various organizations — for instance, Hispanic MBAs — that the teams could contact when jobs opened.

Once the database was done, she brought it to the Center’s executive director, Richard Lapchick. “And I said: Why don’t I be the first person who benefits from this?” she says.

Under the Center’s auspices, she sent letters to several major professional sports organizations, seeking an opportunity to create a legal co-op there. When she got a response from the NBA Players Association, the union that represents NBA athletes, she flew out to New York and met with executives. Although they didn’t immediately offer her a job, she kept in touch. “Every time I won an award, every time I got a new reference letter, I would gently send them a note,” she says.

Meanwhile, the awards were arriving fast: National Outstanding Law Fellow of the Year, Massachusetts Black Judges Book Award, National Outstanding Law Student of the Year and a clerkship with Judge Robert E. Keaton. In her third year of law school, she received the Massachusetts Association of Women Lawyers scholarship award.

Eventually, the NBA Players Association took notice. “When they called me, I literally thought they were going to say, ‘If you write us again, we’re going to press charges,’” she jokes. Instead, they offered her the internship she wanted. There, she sat in player-team arbitration and helped to draft collective-bargaining agreements.

By the end of the four-month co-op, she had a firm interest in labor and employment issues and an informal pro sports network that could and did create job opportunities for her. When she returned to classes at Northeastern, she took an internship with the Celtics. And after she graduated and moved on to pursue an LLM in labor and employment law at Georgetown, she took an internship with the NFL Players Association in Washington, D.C.

Quiet, Subtle Determination

Rollins came to Bingham three years ago, after several years as a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) regional office in Boston. Eager to transfer into the private sector, she applied the same tenacity and focus that had opened doors in the sports world.

“Like most decisions in my life, I did my due diligence,” she says. “Why send out 50 résumés if you know what you want to do? I applied to two colleges [Amherst and the University of Vermont]. I applied to one law school. And I applied to one law firm.”

As usual, she was shooting for the top. A national legal powerhouse, Bingham has 850 attorneys in 11 offices, in both the United States and abroad. And she obtained an interview there with a single phone call to partner John Adkins, who had impressed Rollins when he represented a client before the NLRB.

Since joining Bingham, she’s argued a First Amendment case in federal bankruptcy court, helped defeat a $70 million conspiracy claim against consulting giant Bain & Co. and, recently, launched what looks to be a landmark suit challenging the Boston Police Department’s use of hair samples for employee and new hire drug testing on the grounds that it leads to discriminatory results for African Americans.

Partner Joe Kociubes, who served as lead counsel on the Bain case, has nothing but praise for Rollins: “Everybody hired by a big firm is smart,” he says, trying to explain what makes a young attorney stand out. “But the biggest distinguisher has to do with qualities of judgment. And Rachael has wonderful judgment. She grasps the underlying goals and doesn’t get distracted by tangential issues. And she does it with unfailing good humor.”

He’s not the only person who thinks so. Says Harriet Gould, vice president of labor relations at the Boston Globe, a Bingham client: “She’s tons of fun — her sense of humor is incredible.” Gould has seen firsthand the work ethic that hides beneath the easygoing exterior: “She worked on one case until the day she delivered her baby,” Gould says. “And she was so dedicated that she came back before her leave was over.”

Rollins has also gained acclaim for her work for pro bono organizations, including the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP), which recently presented her with its Denis Maguire Pro Bono award. In recent years, she’s headed up a partnership in which Bingham’s summer associates work with VLP to represent clients in unemployment hearings.

“Rachael holds the whole thing together,” says Lynn Girton, VLP’s chief counsel. And then she tries to explain what most people try to explain when they talk about Rollins — how she does it. “She’s not forceful, but she’s very effective. She’s got this quiet, subtle determination and you just know that, whatever it is she’s after, she’s going to get there.”

The cofounder of a popular mother’s group at Bingham, Rollins lives in West Medford with her husband, Eric, also a Cambridge native, and their 1-year-old daughter, Peyton. When she has time, she serves as a referee for kids’ lacrosse games. “I do miss playing competitive sports,” she says. But she sees similarities between a lacrosse game and a trial. “While I don’t get to run around outside,” she says, “I get some of the same joy from being an attorney. You have to problem-solve. You get to be part of a big team. You compete for your side.”

In court, as on the lacrosse field, only one team can win. And, based on her results, it’s never a bad idea to get Rachael in the game.

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