The Rules of the Game; How Law School Changes How You Think

How long has it been since you’ve played Hasbro’s “the Game of Life”? I’ll bet you would play it differently now that you’re an adult. Once you’re in law school, you might play it differently still. Here is what I mean: in the Game of Life, you have to make a number of “life decisions”. The very first one is whether you will “go to college” or “not go to college”. Here are the results in the game:

If you go to college:

  • Take out $20,000 in loans
  • Take up to 10 turns more than non-college goers to become a salary-earner.
  • You get the ability to take jobs that require college (there are three: teacher, doctor, or accountant) PLUS degree-not-required jobs i.e., you can take any job in the game.

If you don’t go to college:

  • Choose a ‘career’ right away. (You pick a career card out of the stack)
  • Begin collecting a ‘paycheck’ whenever you pass over a payday square immediately.
  • You get the ability to take all but three jobs available in the game – but with no salary limitation.

As a kid, I would always choose to ‘go to college’ when I played the game because, after all, I wanted to go to college for real someday. In law school we often look at rules at think about the results and incentives they produce. When I played the Game of Life recently with some friends I did not hesitate when I decided to ‘not go to college’, because under the rules of this game ‘going to college’ did not actually guarantee a better salary nor better benefits. In this game, you pull your salary out of a deck of cards totally by chance – who cares if you’re the “accountant” if it makes no difference to how much you make, or how fulfilling your life is?

Soon, it was time for me to “buy a house” in the Game of Life. When you “buy a house” you pick three cards out of the deck face down, then flip them over and decide which one to buy. When I was a kid, I would choose the coolest house out of the three, assuming I had enough cash to pay for it. I was always dying to get the colonial house (it was basically a mansion). I also never bought an ‘insurance’ card to cover the house, nor thought about the costs of insurance or upkeep imposed by the Game’s rules when I chose which house to buy.

In law school we talk a lot about risk management, and also about financial decisions that third parties make. When I played the game this time, I got to choose between the mobile home, Victorian house, and colonial house. I chose the mobile home: it was the cheapest to buy, keep up, and insure. Since the goal of the game is to have the most money at the end of the game (note that the Game of Life houses don’t appreciate over time,) I didn’t want my money tied up in a fancy house, especially considering I wouldn’t actually get the benefit of living in a nicer house, since it’s just a game. I also wanted to make sure I didn’t lose any money if I were to land on a ‘disaster’ square, which is why I bought ‘insurance’.

Hasbro’s Life isn’t the only game I would play differently now. If e ever played the card game “kings”, you’ll know that in the game a player sometimes has to make up rules, which everyone must follow for the rest of the game. I got to sit in on a ‘kings’ game recently and I was keenly aware of the ambiguity left by each of the stated rules as they came up. For example, one person declared “no one can say the word ‘you.’” I thought to myself “can anyone say ‘your’, or ‘yew?’” Another person declared “No one can answer any question.” I wondered “do you break the rule if you shake your head instead of saying ‘no’ out loud?” I also wondered, “Should there be an exception to this rule that people can answer other’s questions about how to play the game of kings?” Before law school, I might have thought of these issues as they came up, or maybe not at all. This time I started thinking through the rules right away. Law school gets you to start thinking about the logical extensions, limitations, and ambiguities of rules as soon as you hear about those rules.

All of this is just meant to illustrate that I’m finding law school has changed the way I think about games, goals, and solving problems. I often look at risks now in terms of dollars at risk, dollars that might be won, and the probability of loss or gain. I think about rules in terms of how they might be used to someone’s advantage, or how they might be limited and defeated. Only a year and a half ago I didn’t really have these ideas or tools to work with – at least, not to the degree I do now. The more I learn in law school, the more aware I am that there is so much substantive law a lawyer must know about in order to best represent his or her client. These moments where I notice myself thinking differently from before, though, excite me, as I know I am learning not only substantive areas of the law but also how to think like a lawyer.



Evan Guthrie posted on November 2, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Good parallel between law school and game of life.

Hardy Mp posted on November 6, 2013 at 7:36 pm

It’s interesting how law school can develop you critical thinking skills and make you see differently what seemed obvious at first.

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