If you were to ask a class of law students to define success in the industry, most would probably give an answer that resembles Carolyn Fairless’s (’98) career. The managing partner of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, a national civil litigation firm based in Denver, Fairless has risen to the top of the Denver legal market, while still having time to maintain a strong family life and assist the local animal community. Fairless has kept rescue dogs during her entire adult life and served as the president of the Foothills Animal Foundation for four years, all while working hard enough to rack up dozens of accolades for her legal work. None of the success has gone to her head.
“I was lucky enough to stumble into a profession I really loved,” Fairless said.
“Nobody does anything by themselves,” she continued. “I have to give a lot of kudos to the people who helped me reach the position I am in right now.”
Fairless was born in Saigon, Vietnam, before moving to Louisiana at a young age. She grew up in Louisiana and stayed through college. Fairless graduated from Tulane University in 1992 with a degree in computer science. She took a computer analyst job with IBM after graduation. While the work was good, Fairless didn’t enjoy the solitude of the job. She liked interacting with other people, and IBM was moving toward remote offices, with Fairless working from home four days a week. Even when she went into the office, there wasn’t much interaction with co-workers. Her favorite part of the job was problem-solving—so Fairless decided to make a career change and attend law school.
Her brother attended the University of Colorado Law School while Fairless was working at IBM. Fairless visited him and fell in love with the environment. When she looked into attending law school, she considered Colorado Law for its value and its location in a market in which she could foresee staying. She realized the value of the CU education made Colorado Law her best choice.
“Because I wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy practicing law, it made sense for me not to spend as much money and get an education from CU,” Fairless said. “It’s a great school. Tuition was a bargain. I got a great education for very little money. It freed me to take whatever job I wanted to.”
Fairless matriculated to Colorado Law in the fall of 1995. Participating in the Rothgerber Moot Court Competition sparked an interest in trial work and litigation that continued throughout her early experiences in the field. One of her first cases was an arbitration without much discovery. She couldn’t prepare any cross-examination for an opposing expert witness because she didn’t even have a report from the expert. Her thoughts raced through worst-case scenarios. She could always go back to computer programming or some other job. But when the expert began testifying, she thought of all the questions she needed—and found the cross-examination process to be exhilarating. Fairless won the case, and her certainty in her career path was solidified.
“It was at that moment that I knew this is exactly what I wanted to do with my career,” she said.
After graduating, Fairless earned a job at Otten Johnson, where she worked for two years. When two partners at her firm moved to Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell, they invited Fairless to follow. She’s stayed for more than 16 years, rising to managing partner. Along with her administrative role, Fairless maintains a full-time practice focusing on complex commercial litigation and professional malpractice defense. She is one of the premier professional malpractice defense attorneys in Colorado. Fairless’s accolades include recognition from Chambers USA, Colorado Super Lawyers, and Best Lawyers for her work in professional malpractice defense. For three consecutive years, Benchmark Litigation has named Fairless to the Top 250 Women in Litigation nationwide.
“I just fell in love with doing legal malpractice work,” she said. “Every case is different. You have the case within a case. I might be representing an estate planning lawyer and I have to learn about estate planning issues. I learn about all these different areas of law I otherwise would never come across. It’s something that I really enjoy doing.”
Fairless exudes humility and a love for her family. When asked to identify what about her career makes her the most proud, she selected having such a supportive husband. Her husband, Mike Villano (’92), is also a Colorado Law graduate. In fact, he graduated at the top of his class three years before Fairless enrolled at CU. In addition to the law, they share an interest in rescue dogs. Fairless said the couple usually has between two and four rescue dogs. They’ve kept multiple dogs together and fostered rescues for local shelters. Fairless’s work with the local animal community was so extensive that in 2009 the Foothills Animal Foundation asked her to serve as president of its board of directors. She maintained this role until Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell elected her as managing partner. Even with her administrative duties at the firm preventing Fairless from continuing as a foundation board member, she continues to support various animal welfare organizations.
“We still do a lot of work with rescue groups behind the scenes,” Fairless said. She and her husband currently have three dogs and a foster dog, all rescues.
From her achievements at Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell to her admirable work with rescue dogs, Fairless personifies success.
Playing pickup games of Ultimate Frisbee with a group of my fellow law students. We played every week—rain, shine, or even snow—and became great friends in the process.
I wish I had known then how all-encompassing the practice of law would be. Had I known that, I would have taken more time off when I had the chance!
Keep an open mind and try different things. You may find that the type of law or the type of job that’s the best fit for you isn’t the one you thought you would pursue when you graduated.
The biggest influence on my legal career has been Mike O’Donnell. Mike and I have worked closely together since I joined my current firm 16 years ago, and he has been a mentor, role model, and friend to me. He’s the kind of person and lawyer I aspire to be.
For many of my clients, being involved in a lawsuit is the worst thing they’ll go through in their professional lives. The best moments for me are when I can help them get some sort of vindication—an order of dismissal or a defense verdict. Seeing the smiles on their faces, and hearing the joy and relief in their voices, makes all the hard work worthwhile.