There is no shortage of one-dimensional caricatures in popular culture depicting lawyers as mercenary and unfeeling. Those of us who have devoted ourselves to this noble profession know that lawyers actually are deeply and emotionally invested in our communities, including our civic institutions. In this vein, I have long noted with interest the number of attorneys who not only harbor a love of the arts, but who also have a unique artistic passion. This resurrected — (praise be!) — column will feature such practitioner-artists in hopes of gleaning valuable insights from their experiences.
We all have them — friends who amaze and inspire us, whose energy is dynamic and infectious, and candor refreshing. Over a decade into our friendship (full disclosure: she’s one of my dearest), Stephanie Sackellares Penninger never ceases to astound me.
Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Stephanie earned her degrees from the University of Michigan and the Michigan State University College of Law. After law school, she moved to Indianapolis, eventually joining the Litigation and the Transportation and Logistics practice groups at Benesch. She is also the chair of Benesch’s Maritime Transportation group.
Our conversations trot, canter, gallop, and jump — unbridled — from subject to subject, never reining ourselves in. And we never fail to discuss Rose.
Ten years ago, I remember our book club meetings ending with impassioned talk of elusive fulfilment in our work. Many in our club, including Stephanie, were young lawyers. We bonded over our respective quests for holy grail work environments in which our skills and our interests not only aligned, but also allowed quality of life and balance to flourish. I both admired and balked at Stephanie’s nerve. She knew instantly that a setting was not the one, and she bucked conventional thinking that she had to “ride it out” for an acceptable time before she resumed her hunt. Call it horse sense, which brings me back to Rose.
Stephanie first mounted a horse at the age of 2. Her mother owned a horse named “Shiloh Bay Kardo.” She recalls asking for a horse of her own when she was 8 years old. By then, Stephanie was becoming a proficient equestrian, well-versed in cross country jumping. “My mother and I loved to ride on Mackinac Island. I remember that on a particular trip, my family was exploring leasing a horse named Santana for me.” Around that time, Santana’s owner suffered a riding injury. She gave Santana to Stephanine, knowing Stephanie would give the horse a good home.
Stephanie’s competitive equestrian life exploded soon after with horse showing and stadium- and cross-country jumping in local shows. Stephanie set her sights on the dressage discipline of equestrianism. According to the International Equestrian Federation, dressage “is the highest expression of horse training,” intended to showcase a horse’s athletic prowess and performance ability such that the horse and rider — who must appear relaxed, composed and detached — execute “from memory a series of predetermined movements.” Or as Stephanie puts it, “Dressage is the golf of horseback riding.”
By the time Stephanie reached high school, Santana was getting old. “We sold Santana and got Aspen, a thoroughbred who was younger and better suited to jumping.” Stephanie and Aspen continued with horse showing, stadium jumping, and cross-country jumping. “Because Aspen was not a fancy dressage horse, I competed in dressage using other riders’ fancy dressage horses, including a German warmblood named Aloha.” Aloha and Stephanie placed second in a dressage competition.
More years passed, and Stephanie attended UM, where she played Division I field hockey. With school, too many activities and mounting expenses, she took an extended hiatus from riding. In the ensuing years, she completed law school, married and began practicing law.
In 2009, Stephanie resumed horseback lessons in Zionsville and leased a horse, resuming local jumping and competing in a few horse shows. The allure of resuming dressage training proved undeniable — “it is very technical, requires a great deal of precision and technique, and is less risky than jumping horses. As a full-time attorney, I just couldn’t risk an injury.”
At the Greystone Equestrian Center in Lebanon, Stephanie worked with a trainer who also trained Rose — “a chestnut mare with a white stripe on her face and a white sock. She is strong, energetic, and fast.” Rose was bred for “eventing” or horse trials, which are equestrian events in which horse and rider compete in the three equestrian disciplines — dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. Rose became part of the family.
Stephanie joined the Litigation Group at the Indianapolis office of Benesch in May 2011, focusing on general commercial litigation. At the time, she occasionally worked in the area of transportation. Six years later, her practice is comprised entirely of serving transportation clients. In January 2017, she transferred to the firm’s Chicago office. Rose made the move, too, and is now stabled in Bristol, Wisconsin.
“Riding is my break from the law,” Stephanie says. “It’s my time to get away. I ‘think law’ virtually 24 hours a day, unless I’m literally on a horse. You can’t think of anything else when you’re riding. You have to be fully present to connect with your horse, to be safe, and to make the sudden corrections that might be necessary if Rose decides to suddenly go galloping across a field or is spooked by a squirrel.”
Beyond the need to overcome unplanned distractions, riding and lawyering dovetail in other interesting ways. Riding mimics the give-and-take dynamic inherent in attorneys’ relationships with our clients and colleagues, Stephanie explains. “You have to be able to adapt. To be in tune with one another’s movement. Paying attention to cues lets me know if I need to make an adjustment with the reins, to nudge her with my calf. Rose and I have a partnership. She can’t fully control me, and I can’t fully control her. Riding is a constant study in reading cues, assessing how best to connect, and acknowledging that conditions can change on a dime and being able to adapt and respond in real time.” Stephanie adds, “You have to stay sharp. The competitive aspect keeps me on my game,” she says, “And I still get to compete in a day when most cases settle.”
From the outside looking in, I observe another parallel. Appearances matter. As in dressage, a polished and unruffled appearance belies missteps, painstaking preparation across various disciplines, and perseverance through grueling trials. And the toughest rider invariably gets back in the saddle.
They say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Well, they haven’t met Stephanie. In the case of Rose, my preternaturally intrepid friend has managed to do both.•
• Wandini Riggins is a judicial law clerk for the Indiana Court of Appeals. The opinions expressed are those of the author.