Interview: Tina Nelson: Turning Law Into a Game
Both Tina Nelson and her husband, Eric, are litigators. To teach their children what lawyers do for a living, Nelson invented a boardgame called Lawsuit!.
In the game, players travel around the board, facing the typical challenges of a career in law, from passing the bar to making partner. Using child-appropriate legal scenarios (e.g., "got hit by a tricycle"), kids learn what it means "to settle" or "to sue" (even how to appeal to the Supreme Court).
The game is now sold in retail outlets around the country ranging from toy stores to gift shops to Nelson's website: www.lawsuitgame.com.
Read our interview with Nelson below.
JD Bliss (JDB): Can you tell us why you originally went to law school and where you started in practice?
Tina Nelson: I had been drawn to becoming a lawyer ever since I was a child. After I received my J.D. degree in 1986 from Whittier College in California, I focused my practice on being a litigator. During law school, I interned with the California Attorney General’s office, then worked with two firms in Los Angeles: Lynberg & Watkins, and Sedgwick Detert Moran & Arnold. In the mid 1990s, I moved back to New York City for family reasons and worked as an attorney in the New York State Attorney General’s office, where I handled medical malpractice litigation. By this time I was married and had started a family, and in 1998, after my third child was born, I decided to leave active practice. Since then, I’ve taught at New York University Law School.
JDB: Did you leave legal practice primarily to spend more time with your family?
Nelson: Yes. I still enjoyed being in practice, but with three children, I simply felt I couldn’t make the time commitment that my practice demanded.
JDB: After leaving the practice of law, you created a boardgame called “Lawsuit” that is now sold nationwide and helps children learn about what lawyers do. When and how did you first get the idea for this game?
Nelson: I intended it at first as simply a creative Father’s Day gift for my husband Eric, who is also a litigator. This was around 2000, when our children ranged in ages from two to five. It seemed like a good idea that they should learn something about what their father did and their mom had done for a living, and since they enjoyed playing board games with us I hit on the idea of making my own game to show what lawyers did. The game emphasized lawsuits about issues that a child could understand, like being hit by a tricycle or squirted by a water gun, but everything in it was quite realistic: players win, lose or settle cases, pay bar dues, become partners, and can even appear before the U.S. Supreme Court. I kept things light, but also wanted to teach.
JDB: How did your children respond to the game?
Nelson: They loved it, and played it with us and with their many friends – who loved it too. Not only that, the parents of my children’s friends were enthusiastic about the game. As more people who we knew saw the game, they inevitably wanted one for their own children. It finally seemed to me that what I had created just as a simple gift could become something more, and that many more people could enjoy if I was able to produce it as a product.
JDB: What were the first steps you took to do that?
Nelson: Since my first version was home-made, I asked a professional graphic designer and an illustrator to develop a professional look to the game board and the various pieces, such as instruction cards and play money. Over the course of a couple of years I took everything one step at a time: I used an IP lawyer to secure a patent on the game and register it, and I did a lot of research to find a company that could manufacture it to the standards that I wanted. I finally found one with offices in California and production facilities offshore. At the same time I was developing a business plan that emphasized very extensive market research on the product. I learned that I couldn’t pigeon-hole it to a particular age, except that almost everybody over the age of six loved it.
JDB: At what point were you ready to start actually marketing the game?
Nelson: By 2005, I had over 2,500 of the games produced. My first real marketing step was to appear before a panel of judges that the big New York toy retailer FAO Schwarz had started earlier that year to evaluate new toy ideas. They were enthusiastic about it, not only for the quality of the product, but because many of their customers are attorneys with families. We got the game into the store in time for the Christmas selling season, and it took off from there. We also got favorable reviews in legal publications like The American Lawyer and the New Jersey Law Journal, and in general media outlets such as Newsday, New York Magazine and USA Weekend.
JDB: What is your distribution today?
Nelson: We truly are a national product. In addition to FAO Schwarz, the game is sold at retailers from California to the Southeast, and throughout the East Coast. It’s carried by a chain of children’s stores in Washington, DC, and is sold in gift shops everywhere from the U.S. Supreme Court to the National Judicial College. We also take orders through our web site, www.lawsuitgame.com.
JDB: What is your role in your company today? Do you find yourself using your legal skills?
Nelson: I have a hand in everything that goes on with Professional Games, Inc. We hire support people as needed, and whenever somebody calls or emails about the game I personally speak to or contact them. My training as a litigator definitely helps me keep on top of everything and gives me the ability to manage the details while keeping track of the big picture.
JDB: Have you ever considered returning to active practice of law?
Nelson: The pleasure that my game brings to people is immensely gratifying, and I want to continue doing what I’m doing now.
JDB: How would you describe the personal satisfaction that you get from your business today?
Nelson: When someone calls me and says their child loves the game and plays it all the time, that is my greatest satisfaction. I make it a point to answer all my calls and emails personally, and to be able to get that immediate and positive feedback is what I value most.