I remember once asking my father, the Psychoanalyst, to explain this thing called ‘sublimation’ that I kept reading about in his shrink books. His explanation went something like this. People often have urges that are socially unacceptable, like perhaps a desire to carve live human flesh with a sharp object. A lot of these people will give into these urges by, say, murdering people by slitting their throat with a knife. Okay, I replied, I understand how that might be viewed as ‘socially unacceptable,’ but where does the ‘sublimation part come into play?
My dad said that some people might find a socially acceptable way to satisfy that otherwise unacceptable urge. For example, that person might find their way into medical school where they would gravitate towards surgery. Surgeons get to carve live human flesh in order to save lives. This is not only socially acceptable, but is actually revered. And this brings me to an explanation of how sublimation probably comes into play with lawyers who are very good at cross-examination.
Obviously, cross-examination almost always involves attacking a witness’ credibility and making them appear untrustworthy or ignorant. It’s not generally socially acceptable to be mean to people. But if you are a litigator and you are cross-examining witnesses, it’s not only socially acceptable, it’s revered. Especially if you do it well. And I’ve noticed over the years that the lawyers who do it best seem to enjoy it. Some of them enjoy it because they are out-and-out assholes. These are not the most dangerous cross-examiners, although they will tend to be pretty good for the obvious reasons.
No, the most dangerous cross-examiners are the charming and seemingly easy-going lawyers who have an enjoyment of cross-examination that is not readily apparent. If that hidden urge is coupled with a keen intellect and quick mind, then you have the profile of a very dangerous cross-examiner. I’ve seen such a person operate and what makes them dangerous is that they use their awesome powers with restraint and precision.
If you are a bully and you are smart then you can get pretty far in developing your skills as a cross-examiner. But you’re not going to take down a sympathetic witness, and your efforts to do so are likely to backfire. However, an astute lawyer with a highly sublimated urge to attack people will often succeed in discrediting even sympathetic witnesses. And, of course, secretly enjoy the hell out of it. Those are the ones that you need to watch out for. Or to hire as your attorney.