The legal profession is laden with the pressure to succeed. For most young lawyers, once hard-earned university grades are in the bag, landing the first job is one of the first significant career hurdles, sometimes involving fears of countless applications, interviews and assessment days.
For most, an armor of thick skin is required as merciless rejections pour in, commencing with the dreaded, “We regret to inform you …”
Then, once your foot is in the door, the pressure does anything but let up. Lawyers work long hours and put in immense effort. New business comes from recommendation and reputation, so peer comparison is embedded in the culture; junior lawyers compete for assignments and promotions, and senior lawyers strive for partnership.
Highly competitive environments provide a ripe breeding ground for a phenomenon known as imposter syndrome. The term “imposter phenomenon” was originally coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes and refers to a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts his or her skills and achievements, and has an all-encompassing fear of being exposed as a fraud.
Those with imposter syndrome feel inadequate and that they deserve success less than their peers, often despite considerable evidence to the contrary. It is a pattern of thinking that can lead to missed opportunities.
Imposter syndrome causes individuals to ask themselves: “What happens when they find me out? When they realize I’m a fraud — that I’m not as good as everyone else?”
An inner voice will tell them: “You’re a failure, a total failure. You don’t know what you’re doing. It’s only a matter of time until you’re exposed.”
If you recognize this voice, then take heart. Up to 82% of people suffer from it at some point in their lives, and you’re among countless high achievers and extraordinarily successful people like Maya Angelou, John Steinbeck and Albert Einstein, to name but a few.
Angelou once said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.'” In her lifetime she was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, won three Grammys and received a plethora of other awards, proving that the trickster voice of imposter syndrome can create self-doubt even among those with every reason to be self-confident.
Personally, I know the imposter voice well. I remember on the first day of university peering around the lecture hall of first-year law students, convincing myself that everyone else was better than me and that I was bound to fail.
When I later secured a training contract with a Magic Circle law firm in the U.K., I did exactly the same thing.
I was several years into my career before I realized this inner narrative was not only seriously unhelpful, but also completely untrue.
Imposter Syndrome — a Killer of Diversity
Research suggests that we are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome if we come from an underrepresented group within our community.
In the U.K., solicitors from racial minority groups are underrepresented in larger firms, especially at the partner level, and earn approximately £20,000 less annual salary a year.
In the U.S., just 4.7% of lawyers are Black, 4.8% are Latino and 2.5% are Asian — while each of these ethnic groups count for 13.4%, 18.5% and 5.9% of the U.S. population, respectively.
Women, too, are still on the whole woefully underrepresented at partnership level in both countries. In the U.S., while 47% of associates are women, just 31% of nonequity partners and 21% of equity partners are women. In the U.K., in the top 100 firms, only 20-29% of the partnership are women.
The unspoken message is: “These types of roles are not for people like me.” If the people around you don’t reflect something back that you recognize in yourself, then it’s much more likely you’ll feel you don’t belong and that you don’t deserve to be where you are.
Research is divided on whether women suffer worse than men, but it does show that outcomes are different. Women are more likely to open up about imposter syndrome, whereas men tend to struggle in silence.
Women are also much more likely than men to deflect praise, as well as voice their faults and mistakes rather than their achievements, particularly in response to positive feedback.
Men will likely push through it, which can negatively affect their mental health, but women will more likely let it hold them back from claiming opportunities.
Effects of Imposter Syndrome
Imposter syndrome can mean that affected individuals:
- Don’t pursue promotion;
- Don’t voice their opinions or ideas in meetings;
- Don’t put themselves forward for high-profile work;
- Become perfectionists who adopt maladaptive coping strategies, such as procrastinating, as a result of intense fear, or overprepare because they believe this is the only way to be successful; and
- Even quit their jobs.
Working hard to appear confident and capable when this isn’t how you feel on the inside can lead to anxiety, depression, low self-esteem and professional burnout.
Legal mental health charity LawCare’s September 2021 study, “Life in the Law,” puts forward the urgent and alarming case for positive change in the arena of lawyers’ mental health and well-being in the U.K. To name but one shocking statistic: 69% of participants in the study reportedly experienced mental health issues in the 12 months before completing the survey, and only
about 57% of them said they talked about this at work.
What Firms and Managers Can Do to Combat Imposter Syndrome
Acknowledge imposter syndrome.
In acknowledging that imposter syndrome is a cause of distress, we take the first step in tackling the issue.
Cultivate a supportive environment and put the right people in managerial roles.
So often in the legal profession, individuals are promoted based on legal aptitude, with little consideration given to managerial training or experience.
As it turns out, the happiest teams are the most productive, and these are led by caring, empathic and supportive managers.
If an individual feels valued and supported, and believes that the firm cares about his or her well-being and individual contribution, then this is likely to help prevent imposter syndrome from surfacing.
Both the firm and individual are winners in this scenario, because the individual will feel more confident, more self-assured, and will perform better.
Cultivating a positive and supportive environment can involve:
- Scheduling frequent check-ins with team members;
- Doing your best to set reasonable standards;
- Not demanding team members work to arbitrary and unreasonable deadlines;
- Assigning work with consideration, taking into account workload and individuals’ strengths,
as well as the support available to them;
- Giving regular, constructive feedback;
- Demonstrating vulnerability in sharing your fears and mistakes; and
- Promoting self-care among staff.
Provide workshops and training on imposter syndrome.
Once imposter syndrome is recognized, we can begin to understand and normalize the phenomenon, in turn supporting those who suffer from it and helping to reduce associated feelings of shame.
Promote diversity and inclusion.
Make an effort to provide role models in the firm.
For example, if you are one of a handful of female partners, or you’re the only lawyer who is a member of a minority group, you may feel as though you don’t belong.
The key is to help people feel as though they can identify with and relate to others in the organization.
Offer mental health support.
Provide staff with confidential access to mental health resources, such as employee assistance programs, and mental health experts. Such programs can be helpful in tackling imposter syndrome as well as other issues that affect mental health.
It can also be helpful to offer training on mental health so that lawyers can better understand how they are affected by their own feelings.
What Individuals Can Do to Combat Imposter Syndrome
There are a lot of ways in which we can work to combat imposter syndrome individually. Here are some top tips to start you off.
Give it a name.
Give the critical and demeaning narrative of imposter syndrome that’s constantly criticizing you, telling you that you’re not good enough, a name.
You can call it anything you like. I’ve known people who refer to it as the Judge or Little Miss Perfect, and talk about it in the third person.
Naming the inner critic allows you to see it for what it is and gain objectivity from it. Your critic loses some of its power over you this way, because you see that you are not the problem and don’t need to be fixed. The true problem is that you’re believing everything the critic tells you.
Research on naming emotions shows that when you name what you’re feeling, the parts of the brain responsible for emotion present decreased activity.
Labelling, therefore, helps you steady your mind, and feel calmer and more in control. You can then send your critic on its way, replacing it with a more compassionate narrative.
Befriend the critical inner voice.
If we try to deny the voice of imposter syndrome by silencing and ignoring it, it only gets louder. This is because rejection of our feelings tends to result in further stress and frustration.
It also doesn’t allow for underlying anxieties that fuel imposter syndrome to be addressed. If you offer the critical voice curiosity and kindness, you can explore this.
For example, instead of dismissing the voice or becoming instantly anxious over it, you can pause, take a deep breath and ask the voice why it thinks a certain way. You can also ask what it’s afraid of.
Offering yourself the same compassion you would to a good friend allows you to reassure your inner critic that there’s really nothing to fear, and all is well.
Make a list of your achievements.
As we’ve learned, imposter syndrome prevents people from recognizing their successes. The critical inner voice will have no problem telling you everything that you are not and everything that you lack.
To counter this, make a list of your achievements, and keep a file where you store positive feedback from others. Read this through when the self-deprecating narrative kicks in.
Know that you are only human.
No one is perfect, but for lawyers, that can be a hard pill to swallow. When we learn to accept that none of us can be superhuman, we take considerable pressure off our shoulders.
This actually means we are in fact better positioned to do well and reach our potential. Being human requires us to embrace our imperfections.
Find a safe space to share your feelings.
When we realize that others experience the same fears and have the same vulnerabilities as us, we realize that we don’t have to be silenced by shame.
Through sharing your experience of imposter syndrome with a good friend, colleague, family member or mental health professional, the negative inner voice of imposter syndrome will lose its power over you.
This article first appeared in Law 360.
Helen Pamely is a partner at Rosling King LLP, and a wellbeing consultant, coach and psychotherapist.
The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.
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