Survival Situations: What’s at Risk?


I wrote last month about Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why and promised “much more later.” It occurs to me that the start of scavenging Gonzales’s work for criminal trial lawyers has to be relating survival to a criminal trial.

When Gonzales is talking about survival situations, he’s not referring only to life-threatening situations but, more broadly, to stressful situations.

Some people function better under stress, such as professional golfers, fighter pilots, elite mountain climbers, motorcycle racers, and brain surgeons. And some emotional responses are more easily controlled than others.

Elite performers, as they’re sometimes called, seek out the extreme situation that make them perform well and feel more alive. At the other end of the scale are people who don’t want any excitement at all. It takes all kinds. But it’s easy to demonstrate that many people (estimates run as high as 90 percent), when put under stress, are unable to think clearly or solve simple problems. They get rattled. They panic. They freeze.

Deep Survival is about balancing emotion and intellect in stressful situations.

In response to my post last month, prosecutor SCTexas (who think’s it’s all about him) wrote, “Why do I get the feeling that we are about to see a post telling us all how a criminal-defense lawyer is much better suited to survival than, oh I don’t know, a prosecutor?”

We aren’t about to see such a post. Trials are extreme situations. Trial lawyers seek out trials. Good trial lawyers — prosecutors or defense lawyers — are elite performers.

“But,” writes Gonzales, “even elite performers are not immune to the effects of stress.” Quoting Malcolm Gladwell, he writes, “Choking is about thinking too much. Panic is about thinking too little.” The best trial lawyers strike the best balance between choking and panic.

If you try cases or otherwise seek out stressful situations, get the book. Read it.

Much more later.

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0 responses to “Survival Situations: What’s at Risk?”

  1. This is a great book. The description of how the mind works in stressful situations explains a lot of funny things.

    I wrote a post a couple of weeks ago defending a bunch of people who saw a man get hit by a car but did nothing to help him as he laid there in the street. Based on what I’d read in Deep Survival, it was clear that they were deep in the stress response and not yet thinking clearly.

    I assume that high stress also explains why so many people like your clients talk to the police, give permission for a search, and confess to things they didn’t do. I know police intentionally ramp up people’s stress levels to keep them from thinking clearly.

  2. Oh Mark. I don’t think it is always all about me–it’s just my wishful thinking buoyed by low self esteem.

  3. One of the reasons I so enjoyed (and have often re-read) Walter Lord’s A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (the first and best book about the sinking of TITANIC) was that it was a great case study of how people react under stress.

    My favorite example was the card players in the first class lounge. Rich, smart, and physically large. They COULD have forced their way into a boat, either by bluster or just physical force…but that would not have been honorable with women and children on board. They knew that they would not be of any help on the boat deck, the crew had the situation as well in hand as anyone could. So they sat back and played cards for two hours till the lights went out and the ship made its final plunge.

    The band and the crew who stuck by their posts, the people who didn’t clue in till it was too late…those who waited for someone to save them… it is all there.

    From what I can tell Deep Survival is mostly about training. Those people Windypundit talks about likely never had even the most basic of training in anything that really matters, so they simply did not know what to do…the idea that THEY might be the ones who were supposed to do something probably never entered their mind. Not My Job taken to its’ logical conclusion.

    “Social Responsiblity” used to mean that as a citizen you had a responsiblity to help your fellow citizens… YOU personally were supposed to “do your bit” in the war, do your jury duty, and help out your neighbors in an emergency… but that has gone the way of the boy scouts and civil defense (both of which were great places to get first aid training) and the Shriners and Lions Clubs and such.

    Have you read BOWLING ALONE? I’ve caught some of it but have yet to read the whole book.

  4. Deep Survival is not mostly about training. We get into survival situations that we couldn’t possibly train for; some survive and some don’t. Sometimes it’s even our training that kills us.

    I haven’t heard of Bowling Alone. I’ll take a look.

  5. I just looked at the Amazon summary for Bowling Alone. I’ll order it — my theory about surviving when the SHTF is that it won’t be about what we have or even what we know, but about how well we work with our neighbors.

  6. I was evacuated off of a plane in Boston after the pilot smelled smoke and was amazed at the reactions of people. The biggest man panicked and ran while a petite woman remained calm and helped us all. I later gave a deposition over the phone for a woman who broke her leg when she hit the tarmac. I remember pulling her out of teh way, kind of roughly, because the crew was nowhere to be found and if I didn’t move her the “sliders” would have just stacked up behind her. It was a situation where your inner character was immediately on display and the results were fascinating.

    It was wild to see the diverse reactions, the cowardice and the heroism as panic set in quickly. One woman was just calm under pressure and was the most heroic. A guy I remember looked like “Jack” from lost but folded under pressure and dromve us all nuts with his complaining and cynicism later. Some were happy to have made it off alive while others just complained about the delay.

    Some thought themselves lucky and some cursed after having gone through the same experience.

  7. Mark,

    I don’t want to give you a big head, but when I get arrested, i’m taking a loan against my house and hiring you to represent me. I don’t know if its the organic food you eat or the brain enhancer injections, but every time i read you blog, I feel as though I learn more about the psyche of a “predator defense attorney” (top of the food chain) than I could ever learn from the touchy feely types.

    As for your stress blog in the military it was all about muscle memory. We would train day after day running drills andgoing through the motions of loading firing and clearing our weapons to the point of nausea.

    But when I was in the Gulf and the SHTF I was popping rounds off down range before my mind knew what I was doing. I had emptied two magazines of 30 rounds each into a second story window before I realized what I was doing..

    After the show was all said and done we cleared the building and found what was left of a two guys who decided to take pots shots at our patrol. We had disintegrated one guy’s head and chest cavity and the ceiling and wall behind him looked like a perfect square shadow of bullet holes and blood splatter. The other had his entire shoulder and right side of his chest shattered and exposed, from the exit wounds, it was clear that he was turning to run when he bought the farm.

    I remember talking about it with my buddies and we all agreed that we didn’t even know where the shots were coming from until it was all over with. It was almost like our minds were just inside our bodies for the ride. Our reactions were without conscious thought or reasoning.

    Our ears heard a shot and for some of us our eyes saw a rifle signature and we all aimed in and fired. Now some of the guys still had full magazines and others claimed that they didn’t hear anything but for most of the guys that I went to boot camp and School of Infantry with their was plenty of brass laying around our feet to show that all those drills we did were not in vain.

  8. Malum, no need to take out a second mortgage. I represent the brethren on whatever terms they can afford.

    Some would say that it’s too late on the big head thing. I would say that the humility that has been beaten into me by one-word verdicts is immune to flattery. Anyway, thank you for the kind words. And thank you very much for your service.

    I can do touchy-feely with the best of them (and in six weeks you’ll be able to as well); that’s one of the things I can put to work in the service of my clients. The government often beats me, but I never give the government permission to do so. When they do it (my record is nowhere near as stellar as yours) they have to work for it.

    Training is good. But Gonzales gives the example of an Army Ranger who fell out of the raft while white-water rafting for fun and, because of his training and the Ranger ethos of not needing help, pushed away the guide who was trying to rescue him. He wound up stuck under a rock, drowned. The point? Sometimes we get into situations in which our training fails us. The training that saved your life in the Gulf could really fuck you up stateside. (I know; I’ve tried that case more than once.)

    How many repetitions does it take to develop muscle memory? Thousands? A thousand? I can’t think of many stressful situations that will occur in trial a thousand times over the course of a career.

    We have to learn our technique well enough that we know that it’ll be there when we need it. And then we need to trust ourselves enough to be in the moment in the courtroom.

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