Careers, Study and Well-being / Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Life / Student life / Wellness

In Praise of Play

When I was in law school I amused myself in lectures by writing dumb jokes and asides throughout my notes, and referring to all male litigants as “Dude” and all male judges as “Judge Dude”. I was going to find a cool example and share it in this column, but I looked for a while and there were no cool examples.

That will not stop me, however, from waxing lyrical on the topic of play, and the virtue of inviting an attitude of playfulness into areas of your life that are otherwise boring, serious, or mundane.

Of all the things the universe has created, I think play might be one of my favourites.

There are lots of collective coercive forces in human society that do more bad than good over time, and the generalised loss of play among adolescents and adults is one of them. As Stuart Brown says, “A lack of play should be treated like malnutrition: it’s a health risk to your body and mind”. And he should know. He is a founder of the field of “play science”, which is a name so delightful as to knock you off your chair.

Children play a lot. It’s kind of their thing, and we not only accept it; we encourage it. But starting in adolescence, most humans give up their permission slip to play. We do it collectively, almost involuntarily, like we accept that we cannot hold both that permission slip and the permission slip to grow up at the same time. (We can though; we have both two hands and the option to sew pockets.)

Obviously some adults still get to play. Until recently it was basically just comedians and people doing amateur musical theatre, but we now know that tech giants like Google and Pixar have made play their norms. For the rest of us, especially those of us wanting to pursue Serious Business like law, there was a general understanding that we were to give up our impulse to play in exchange for money and an impressive business card. It’s not a great deal, since your average Big Tech employee gets those too.

I think the trouble starts when we mistake all non-disciplined activities for play. I have in my head an image of a harried parent trying to coax their disengaged 20 year old child to study when the child would rather drink alcoholic things and generally mill about, perhaps for years. But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I am talking about is bringing an attitude of playfulness to the things you do, a mindset of intent to find the joke and the joy and the delight, even in ordinary things. ESPECIALLY in ordinary things. Things like taking down lecture notes or making dinner or even whole endeavours like romantic relationships.

I’m not saying never take things seriously. I’m not saying always play at all times in all things, especially court hearings and funerals. But most law students and lawyers are not at risk of playing too much. Most are at risk of falling down a hole lined with grey pinstripe suits and filled exclusively with grey pinstripe thoughts. Law is difficult and intellectual and it goes with the territory. What I try to invite into my own life, and what I wholeheartedly recommend, is adding to that mix a touch of balance, or even more than a touch – a whole smidge. When most of the landscape is shaded in greys and blacks and the occasional deep blue, the addition of play to or around one’s legal pursuits can have such an impact. It’s like when the characters in Pleasantville first started seeing colours.

I forget to play a lot. But boy do I love it when I remember. I write dumb notes to myself (see above). I have running jokes with my partner that play out exclusively through the medium of the shopping list on the fridge, and of which we never speak. I went through a phase of putting googly eyes on public objects a few years ago (passé now, but bold at the time). When songs get stuck in my head I replace their lyrics with ones that better illuminate the ways in which my dog is like the Queen.

And, you better believe there are lawyers who bring play right into their public-facing work. Successful lawyers. Lawyers who have been promoted and received commendations. There is Marcus Elliott, now a coroner, whose volume of humorous essays Why Lawyers are like Lobsters may as well be titled “I am a lawyer who plays”. There is Francis Cooke QC (now a High Court Justice), who opened a seminar about judicial review with the sentence, “If I were permitted to take only one piece of legislation to a desert island, I would choose the Judicature Amendment Act of 1976”. (He was not kidding and his ensuing ode to its genuine beauty was wonderful.) There is, famously, Justice Hammond, whose 1993 judgment in Lowe v Auckland City Council regarding a German shepherd named Ben has by now reached the point of legend.

The point is, play is great. And lest you think I am beckoning you towards purposeless activity, I am not. Play in a sense can look like silliness and dumb, pointless joy (and there is inarguable virtue in dumb, pointless joy). But play is great not just because it delights or makes anyone feel good. It is also good for your work. Taking breaks to play or finding ways to play in little ways makes it easier to remember things and learn difficult concepts. It develops a happy sense of self. It breaks up writer’s block. It eases anxiety and fear and stress of all kinds. When you play with other people, you get a kind of cohesion that you don’t get otherwise, and relationships that incorporate play are more fun to be in. In improv we call that “finding the game”. And finding the games in your life is a worthy pursuit. If we zoom out a little and look at a life well-lived, we see that regular play wards against all kinds of anguish and malaise. It is the sort of thing that you would never regret having done when you found out you were dying (I have to assume).

And that is why it does not matter that there are no cool examples to draw from my decade-old law school notes. Their purpose was not to be impressive or durable; their purpose was to enliven how it felt to study, and to make it easier to remember content that was vast in volume and often dry in subject-matter. And they did their job.

So please, students, graduates, lawyers: keep hold of that permission slip to play, and don’t let anyone tell you you have to hand it in.



Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at Check out her website for more details at: Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.

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