Rolling With It

Roller derby is a lesson and an escape for Kris Finlon

Published in 2024 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine

By Stephanie Hunt on December 26, 2023


A rousing bout. Jamming and blocking. Tactical maneuvers. Strategic pivots. Sounds a lot like courtroom antics—just add skates and full contact, and now you’ve got roller derby, the sport of choice for Kris Finlon aka Sensa Doom.

The parallels between practicing employment law at Gardner Skelton and whizzing around a roller derby track for the Charlotte Roller Derby may be greater than one might expect, but for Finlon, the differences between the two are equally important.

“As soon as I put my skates on, I forget I’m a lawyer. It puts my mind in a different channel,” says Finlon, who played with the Charlotte Roller Derby from 2012 until the pandemic. That mental escape, plus the camaraderie and sheer fun of it, appealed to her. “Being a good lawyer requires self care, and for me, derby is part of that,” she says. “It requires so much focus, discipline, and teamwork. It also means learning about people who are different from you, which strengthens my law practice.”

Finlon’s journey to being a defensive specialist with high-speed blocking actually began during law school, in a kickboxing gym. Her thick skin and knack for navigating conflict tracks further back to her post-graduate days in Durham, where the Duke graduate worked as a crisis line coordinator for a rape crisis center—“my crash course in active listening skills.” Then it was on to Manhattan and NYU School of Law. There she joined a gym, which happened to have trainers who were Muay Thai coaches. Finlon was intrigued.

“When you’re studying for the bar, watching people kick the shit out of bags is good entertainment,” says Finlon. “Also, being the person who kicks the shit out of bags is good entertainment.”

After she began Muay Thai training, she loved the community aspect as much as the physical challenge.

“Here were these people with this weird hobby who readily accepted anyone who wanted to join in,” she says. Muay Thai was a healthy contrast to the intimidating one-upmanship that comes with being “a baby lawyer, trying to sound like you know what you’re doing,” she jokes. “At least at work I knew no one was going to hit me.”

While mastering the skills, passing the required assessments, and “learning the rules, and how to play it with wheels on your feet” took months, the joy was immediate. “I walked into that first clinic and felt this welcoming environment,” says Finlon. “Roller derby has always been big on ‘Hey, we do this weird thing, come be our weird friend,’ and that’s been fantastic.” She loved the twice-weekly practices, scrimmages, and monthly bouts with other teams in the fully sanctioned Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.

After returning to Charlotte in 2008 to begin her employment law practice, Finlon looked for something similar to Muay Thai, to no avail. “I missed that sense of community,” she says. A few years later over lunch with a colleague, her ears perked up when she mentioned an accountant friend who played roller derby. “I’d never heard of someone with a grown-up job who did roller derby,” says Finlon. She immediately returned to her desk, googled “Charlotte Roller Derby,” and discovered the Roller Derby was hosting a clinic that weekend. Though she hadn’t skated since she was a kid, she went out and bought a pair. A few YouTube videos later, Finlon was off and rolling.

Since COVID, however, the exposure risks of a full-contact sport led her to trade her skates for endurance trail running.

But Finlon’s love of roller derby as a sport and community remains strong. She’s found being agile and tough on wheels alongside a diverse group of athletes parlays well into employment law. “The one thing you learn in derby is that you can’t be the superhero. You have to rely on others, and the same is true for being in a firm,” says Finlon, who joined Gardner Skelton in 2023. While her practice includes some litigation, Finlon prefers helping clients navigate issues outside of the courtroom. “I really like guiding people through the complexities of human relationships and finding different ways to solve employment issues,” she says. Less bouts and jamming; more conflict resolution—at least off the track. 

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Kristen E. Finlon

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