Monthly Archives: September, 2012

Dungeons & Dragons (& Courtrooms)

The young lawyer is bent over a dog-eared book, preparing for the ordeal to come. He wants to know the rules cold, but rules won’t be enough. He’ll need to muster all his personality, his powers of persuasion, and his quick wit. His opponents have been preparing for months, laying traps and planning attacks, defenses, and counterattacks. All of his experience will help, but to a certain degree, it cannot guarantee success–too much rests on the whims of other participants and even a degree of chance. He’ll do everything he can to control the outcome, but the victory could easily go to his opponent.  Sure, he gets to go home tonight, no matter what happens, but the same can’t be said for the person who is relying on him.

He closes the book, gathers his papers, and turns to the door. “I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” he says to himself. “Time to Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.” 

I don’t imagine there are too many lawyers who will admit to playing Dungeons & Dragons in their youth. The stereotype of the socially inept youth bent over a table rolling dice to determine whether an orc lives for another turn doesn’t mesh well with the need to market oneself as a smooth and capable professional who can work a room, win over people, and steer even the worst case to success. But those attorneys who did play tabletop role-playing games (“RPGs”) (or still do), could draw some important professional lessons from the experience. And each of those lessons can be related to one of the principles of Stoicism.

Rules, Exceptions, & Playing Anyway

RPG’s and the law are full of rules.

Lawyers and gamers must both learn the rules of their chosen pursuit. They need to discover when the rules will let them achieve their objective directly, when they need to take another path, and when they need to face the reality that some objectives cannot be accomplished. Similarly, lawyers and gamers both deal with rules that are subject to some amount of interpretation and variation. To both, the rule used may be much different than the rule as written. And in both situations, a well-crafted argument can make the difference.

And the rules are full of exceptions. Sometimes, the exception is more important than the rule. A good claim or defense can be gutted by a single exception, and the adventurer who forgets that undead creatures are immune to the sleep spell is in for a rough night. So lawyers and gamers both learn to stockpile information that others would never care about, just in case.

Sometimes, neither the rules nor the exceptions are helpful. Still, as a gamer and a lawyer, one is faced with the reality that the rules are part of the experience one has chosen to dive into. Whether dealing with the reality that an interest must vest, if at all, within 21 years of a life in being, or with the reality that the blue dragon’s breath weapon has the potential to do more damage than your character has hit points,  you’re the one who chose the task. So you learn to play anyway.

And there’s where Stoicism comes in. A common theme for the ancient Stoic writers was acceptance. It was rooted in the idea of living in harmony with Nature. Stoics believed that one should not expect life to be easy; the world exists as it always has and does not mold itself for our convenience. Seneca put this well in Letter CVII: “One has to accept life on the same terms as the public baths, or crowds, or travel. Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair.”

You know the rules when you begin or you learn them quickly. If you find the experience unenjoyable, you can always quit.

Standing in the Shoes (And Letting it Go)

One of the hardest things to communicate about being a lawyer or being a gamer is the relationship between client and lawyer or character and player. Both are relationships of identity and distance in equal parts.

A lawyer must remember that her actions on behalf of a client are likely to be deemed the actions of her client. In many instances, as with a corporation, a client cannot act except through the lawyer. And obviously, a character can rarely do anything that is not directed by the player. A lawyer must also remember that it is her client’s interests that must be paramount during the representation, not her own. And a player will ruin her enjoyment and that of her fellow players if she forgets to always consider what her character would do. In both situations, there must be a mingling of identity to a certain extent.

But there is always, and must always be a distance. It would be delusional for a player to disregard the fact that he is not his character. He doesn’t cast spells or fight dragons. It is similarly dangerous for a lawyer to forget he is not his client. He has a different set of ethical responsibilities to uphold and cannot damage his judgment by losing objectivity.  The character is folded up and put away at the end of the adventure , the player goes about his life. And whatever happens to the client, the lawyer has another life to lead.

So both the lawyer and the gamer must walk a line. They need to identify with their counterparts, to take on their mantle to one extent or another. They may be judged by strangers based on the actions of their client or character. But in the end, both must learn to let go of the identity. Characters will be killed or turned into stone. Clients will go to jail or lose their fortunes.  But the gamer and lawyer cannot take those losses personally. To do that would only bring anguish without good reason.

This relates to another Stoic principle. The Stoic must learn to think of the body as indifferent as compared to the will, but must also consider how she must live in accordance with nature as dictated by the body. She must identify with her body and her nature as a human being, but she cannot let that identification override her imperative to maintain the supremacy of the will.

Playing at Dice

Lawyers and gamers both speak of rolling the dice. They are aware that their pursuits are, to at least some extent, controlled by forces above their influence. Whether jurors, other parties to a transaction, or actual dice, there are important factors that lawyers and gamers cannot control. For lawyers, this includes everything that happened before the lawyer became involved. There is only so much that can be done for the client who hasn’t paid taxes for the last ten years or who confessed to detectives after waiving rights to silence and counsel.

Despite that, gamers and lawyers alike need to learn an important life skill. While accepting that there are things beyond their control, lawyers and gamers (and people in all walks of life) must learn to use what they have to the best advantage. They cannot simply surrender in the face of a bad turn of fate.

Epictetus expressed this concept succinctly, “How then shall a man preserve firmness and tranquillity, and at the same time be careful and neither rash not negligent? If he imitates those who play at dice. How do I know what the cast will be? But to use carefully and dexterously the cast of the dice, this is my business.” Discourses Book 2; Section 05

And that is the common business of all of us, lawyers and laypeople, gamers and nongamers. We must learn to accept that we cannot control every eventuality. But, just as importantly, we must learn that we are always in control of how we respond to the situation presented to us.