02 July 2008

Am I a Trial Attorney Because I Seek Stress?

A while back, Mark, over at HCDL, spoke of a book about how elite performers seek stress situations and uberperform in them. The thesis of the book seems to be that certain people "balanc[e] emotion and intellect in stressful situations" while the majority fail in this endeavor. Mark extrapolates this into trial lawyers as people who seek trials (extreme situations) and elite trial lawyers as those who shine in those moments. Perhaps even more interesting is the discussion in the comments when Mark and others discuss whether this is about people being trained to react correctly or just having it in them to do so. Mark states that the book asserts it is not a matter of training.

My gut level reaction was to reject all of this out of hand. "Certainly, this does not apply to my experience." On a day to day basis I'm not the guy who goes out and bungy jumps, or 4 wheels, or sky dives, or looks for and partakes in any number of adrenaline junkie activities. I'm one of those people who is generally happy living a fairly boring life.

However, if I take a broader look at my life, there is a tension which I note in it. I have tended toward academic pursuits and for a period of time I would be in hog-heaven in a job where I could just spend weeks researching in a library and writing papers. However, I have never been able to just do this. I've always sought some sort of application along side and in conjunction with this bookwormish tendency. I joined the Army and went into Military Intelligence, learning Arabic along the way, and got sent into two combat zones and a peacekeeping mission. I went to a college (Centre) which I chose in large part because it had a reputation for "true grading" and failing people out. I chose to go to a "top twenty" law school instead of an "easier" school (which would have given me a free ride and I've been kicking myself ever since). When faced with difficulties after law school, unlike some wiser friends who took contract work and held out until they got solid civil jobs, I opened an office and started doing criminal work.

Nevertheless, I must disagree with the premise offered. It's not about seeking stress, it's about seeking challenges. Now, that may seem nitpicky because challenges will almost always involve a degree of stress. The difference is that a challenge is a sought practical application of training and preparation. In fact, it usually starts when someone seeks the proper training and preparation. Every military trains people before sending them into action. Before a lawyer can ever practice he has to either go to law school or apprentice himself to a practicing lawyer (reading for the Bar).

Mark disputes this point and refers to a story in the book wherein it is claimed that an Army Ranger on a rafting trip fell out of the boat and "because of his training and the Ranger ethos of not needing help", drowned. This is supposed to show how training can cause a person to fail.

And it is absolutely wrong. Back when I was in the Army there was a term which was used derisively everywhere I was stationed. The word? Hero. I can still remember the Drill Sergeant in basic training yelling at whomever had screwed up, "You are a no-go at this station, Heee-row!" Heroes were not loved and beloved in the Army (I suspect Marines have a similar attitude). They are the idiots which somehow never got the basic message of military training: thou shalt operate as a team. Heroes act on their own, do stupid things, seek the adrenaline rush, and get themselves - and more importantly others - killed.

The problem is that you're filling a military primarily with 18 -24 year old men. They have an abundance of testosterone and it can take a lot to reprogram the "hero" stupidity out of them. While the military does an admirable job in the vast majority of cases, there are just some who cannot get the message that operating as, and receiving the support of, a team vastly increases the chances of survival. Sadly, the Ranger in the story told in the book operated contrary to his military training and paid the price.

That's not to say all training doesn't cause any incorrect reactions. In some cases it surely does. However, that's usually in a fish out of water situation. In high stress challenges it's always going to be the people who are trained for the challenge who survive at a higher rate. Surely, Mark's training and preparation prepare him better for a manslaughter trial than a pro se defendant. They'll both face a stressful situation, but it's the training that makes the difference.

But, you say, there will always be stressful situations which people aren't prepared for. Yet, people survive these situations. I've got a one word answer for this: Luck. Or, as one of my professors put it in college, we have evolved so that different people will react to the same crisis in different ways. An extremely angry lion walks into the middle of a village catching 10 people in the town square. 2 people freeze in place, 2 people scream, two people run, two people back away while facing the lion, and 2 people attack. This variance in reaction pretty much guarantees someone is going to survive. You only hope it is your reaction that works - and there's no guarantee that the same reaction will save you each time. One time the lion may face his attackers; another time he may chase those moving away from him; a third time he may go after the person screaming her lungs out. What determines the lion's choice? The whim of the lion on that particular day. In other words, from the perspective of the villagers, Luck.

Give me a person trained to handle the challenge over a person who is relying on luck any day.


Mark Bennett said...

Interesting. I'd like to hear your opinion after you read the book.

The guy who commented that Gonzales was talking about training has an Army background too. While there's no questioning the role of training, there's more than luck (according to Gonzales) to survival of situations for which we're not trained.

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