Lawyers who’ve taken a stab at fencing say there’s no other sport quite like it. More to the point, they say competing with the blade sharpens their legal acumen and attacks the stresses of the profession.
“I’m always thinking about what my opponent is going to do next,” said Bill Dummett, counsel for Interactive Intelligence Inc., who’s an active fencer and board member of the Indianapolis Fencing Club.
A large part of Dummett’s professional work involves negotiating contracts and licensing agreements. When he started practicing law, Dummett said he had a negotiating style and largely stuck to it. “Fencing taught me to realize the situation, adjust my style and act accordingly,” he said.
Dummett took up the sport while a student at Indiana University Maurer School of Law. “I was just always studying pretty much 24 hours a day and figured I needed something to unplug,” he said.
“As soon as I tried it, I realized I wasn’t thinking about law school. Fencing requires such attention and focus it sort of forces you to forget about everything else.”
Dummett competes in epee fencing, one of three varieties that also include foil and sabre. Blades, rules, strategies and technique differ for each variation.
Wooden & McLaughlin LLP partner Tom Hanahan uses a track analogy to distinguish the variations: Sabre competitions are like the 100-yard dash, foil is like a quarter-mile run, and epee is like a mile run. The epee blade is heaviest, and epee is the only sort of fencing in which a touch with the blade tip anywhere on an opponent’s body counts as a point. Foil fencers score only with blade-tip touches to the torso; sabre competitors’ points come by landing slashing attacks above the waist.
About a dozen years ago, Hanahan said he was looking for an activity he could do with his then-fourth-grade son, Nick, when he discovered epee fencing. “It’s a unique sport in that, here I was in my 40s, and he was 10 when he started,” Hanahan said. “By the time he was 12, he was beating me pretty consistently.
“I think it’s a great sport for parents to participate in with their kids,” he said.
Now a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, Nick Hanahan is an Academic All-American on the highly regarded Fighting Irish fencing team. Dad’s no slouch either, with a “B” rating among competitive fencers. Nick has an “A” rating, the highest for rated fencers on a scale from A-E.
“I would love to get an ‘A’ rating, but they’re hard to come by,” Tom Hanahan said.
“What I love about fencing is the strategic, intellectual aspect of it,” he said. “I think my biggest thrill in fencing is when I go out on the strip and I’m fencing someone who clearly has better fundamental skills, better training and is in better shape than I am, and I beat them because I’m outthinking them.”
Dummett and others refer to fencing as physical chess. Hall Render Killian Heath & Lyman P.C. associate Ammon Fillmore has heard that expression, but he sees it differently.
“I sometimes refer to it as violent yoga,” said Fillmore, who’s also on the Indianapolis Fencing Club board. “I’m very conscious of everything my body is doing, but I keep my mind clear and I’m strategically thinking through everything my opponent’s doing.”
The work Fillmore does at Hall Render largely focuses on Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act issues and requires an analytical approach. When fencing, “I find my mind going to a similar place in methodically trying to map out beforehand, ‘This is how I want to approach an opponent,’” he said.
A sport that traces its roots back nearly 600 years is decidedly modern. In epee and foil fencing, blade tips are fitted with sensors. When a touch is made, a buzzer is triggered, and a point automatically registers to the scoreboard.
At the Indianapolis club, men and women fence against each other. “There aren’t many girls who do this in Indiana,” said attorney Stacy Hoehle, a contract analyst at Roche and a member of the club.
Hoehle fenced for fun in high school but began taking it more seriously a few years back as an elite international modern pentathlon athlete. Fencing is part of that multi-sport competition along with swimming, show-horse jumping, pistol shooting and cross-country running.
“Fencing is something I’m spending the most amount of energy on,” she said. “Most pentathletes, it seems like they have some area they’re always working on.”
She said it’s natural that lawyers would be drawn to fencing because of the strategy involved, but that’s just part of it.
“I’m sure that aggression plays some part since attorneys tend to be competitive,” she said. “The flip side is collegiality once you step off the strip. It’s very much a community of friends and mentors.”
Fillmore holds an “E” rating and Dummetta “D,” but could move up by performing well at tournaments. The Indianapolis Fencing Club slates monthly tournaments at the gym at Abundant Life Church in Fishers, where the club leases tourney space.
At tournaments, fencers are divided into groups, or pools, and each competitor will fence against every other competitor in his or her pool. In these preliminaries, the first fencer to score five touches against a competitor wins a bout. Those who fare best in the pool bouts win favorable seeding in a single-elimination, March Madness-style bracket tournament that follows.
The single-elimination bouts consist of three, three-minute rounds played out until a fencer scores 15 touches to win. Fencers say the sport gives no inherent advantage to youth. For those thinking about giving it a try, a complete set of starter protective gear and weapon can be had for about $100 to $200.
At 6 feet 8 inches tall and 245 pounds, Fillmore’s size isn’t necessarily an advantage, and it could be a liability. He certainly has a reach advantage, but he said speed and agility are important, and his size makes him a big target: “I’m more of a lumbering giant.”
Fillmore said Simon Property Group Assistant General Counsel Jim Owen is about a foot shorter and has beaten him plenty of times. But Owen has outfenced lots of people since he started in 1980. He nearly qualified as a foil fencer for the U.S. Olympic team in 1992.
Back then, Owen was working as a paralegal at Simon, focused on fencing and coaching with the full support of his employer. Law school came later. “Everything I put into fencing, I put into law school,” he said. He gave up the sport for a time, but now he’s back at age 55, trying to improve his “C” rating to the “B” he once had.
Owen said fencing draws a disproportionate number of lawyers. There are reasons for that – the conventions of the sport, its history and the direct competition, for instance – but there’s something more.
“You’re depending on yourself to analyze what’s happening and adapt,” he said. “It’s super fast, you have got to be quick on your feet and be able to understand and analyze what’s happening. If you get lost in there and can’t figure it out, you will lose that bout. You have to be in the game mentally.”
Fencing attorneys say there are plenty of misconceptions about their sport. “Don’t think it’s like what you see on the movies. It’s a sport, it’s not theater,” Owen said. “Everybody gets the idea it’s people in white uniforms and pretty poses. We are drenched in sweat and trying to figure out what’s going on on the strip.”
Injuries are rare, though some lawyers confess to receiving the occasional bruise.
Fillmore said his Fitbit device during a recent tournament showed he’d burned about 2,500 calories during his bouts, and the back-and-forth movements totaled nearly five miles. “If you want to lose weight, fencing is a fantastic way,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly you just burn through energy.”
The sport also helps Fillmore maintain a work-life balance. “Some partners I work with say, ‘So you feel better after you stab people?’” he said with a laugh. “It really just kind of helps you refocus.”•