Breaking the stigma: Understanding and overcoming imposter syndrome in the legal profession
Imposter syndrome acts as a barrier that keeps lawyers from fully unearthing their potential.
While several reports highlight the prevalence of stress in the legal profession, when I recall my early days as a city lawyer I did not even know my feelings were 'stress' - or possibly something else.
Whether you are a trainee, in-house lawyer or partner there are expectations, deadlines, and targets. Added to this lawyers often:
- have self-imposed high standards;
- compare themselves harshly to others;
- see others as their competition; and/or
- doubt their abilities.
Any of these can fuel a sense of 'not being good enough', and this fuel can then generate what has been coined imposter syndrome. Without action, this risks greater anxiety which negatively affects one’s wellbeing and performance. I didn’t know it then, but what I was experiencing in the early days as a lawyer was imposter syndrome.
What is imposter syndrome?
Imposter syndrome is the persistent doubt of your skills even when there is evidence to the contrary. It is a fear that you will be exposed as a fraud despite having demonstrated competence.
I understood that I had competence to begin my training contract and was on the way to becoming a lawyer; and I was the first in my Asian family, from a socially mobile background to do this. Surely, I could be proud?
Lawyers are typically high achievers. This risks self-imposed high standards as we often strive to complete tasks perfectly but, since perfection is unrealistic, the goalposts keep moving.
Procrastination or panic surfaces leading to, for example, overanalysing emails or contractual documents - and this causes more stress and time mismanagement.
In a nutshell, imposter syndrome acts as a barrier that keeps lawyers from fully unearthing their potential. I realised this much later in my career and now hear similar stories almost daily – at all levels. For example, a senior lawyer recently expressed doubt in their legal skills and use of new software after a career break; this manifested in procrastination and more self-doubt which sparked anxiety that they’d be 'found out'. This then activated sleepless nights.
What might make you feel like an imposter and increase anxiety?
Imposter syndrome removes the objective assessment of achievements and, as it prompts less self-belief coupled (ironically) with a need to not be seen as a failure, it promotes anxiety. Here are some examples of how it can be reinforced:
- you miss a deadline and are self-critical, or you complete the task thinking 'that was lucky!';
- you are a career changer but believe you are not good enough to be a lawyer;
- you keep checking your work while feeling you must work harder or longer than others for recognition - but without evidence;
- you think that 'constructive' feedback confirms that you do not deserve succeed;
- you compare yourself to colleagues and believe they are more confident, quicker or 'better' than you at drafting, presenting, delegating, building relationships or simply fitting in;
- you fear applying for a new role or promotion because you do not tick all the boxes; as an associate, you tell yourself that you’ll never be a partner because you hate networking;
- you are nervous about speaking up or, as I was, asking questions because you think others will discover your weaknesses;
- you undersell yourself or self-talk yourself into not deserving; for example, to lead a presentation or a client meeting. When you are invited, you doubt the reason why.
Imposter syndrome affects anybody including high profile lawyers such as Michelle Obama who said that it has “dogged me for most of my life.”
Minimising imposter syndrome and feelings of anxiety
If imposter syndrome is left unmanaged, you remain stuck in the spiral of 'not good enough'. Try the following:
- acknowledge your achievements, noticing how far you have come in developing resilience, professional growth and determination;
- accept positive feedback and keep a note of what motivates you;
- remind yourself that high profile lawyers, including Michelle Obama, have experienced self-doubt;
- assess whether your high standards are reasonable. Experiment with letting go and ask questions without judging yourself;
- catch your thoughts of self-doubt and ask if they’re actually accurate; Turn 'I cannot do this' into 'I’ll do my best to complete this';
- stop comparing yourself to others or feeling you must prove yourself to everyone. Observe what and who you admire rather than compare;
- focus on positive career drivers rather than being driven by fear. For example, of not winning a case, not securing a client, not getting something right the first time;
- if you believe that your imposter syndrome is based on a feeling of not fitting in (perhaps due to life experience, ethnicity or social background), join a group aligned with your interests or where others with a similar background are hanging out;
- create your own intrinsic system to mindfully measure your achievements that includes 'small wins';
- practice self-care and talk to someone. This may be a trusted friend, a professional coach or therapist or an organisation like LawCare which has volunteers who you can talk to without any judgment, and in a safe space.
With time, your experience of imposter syndrome can become a motivator for positive change.
What managers, leaders and HR can offer
Enabling lawyers at all levels to come to work as their whole self is essential for productivity and job satisfaction. It promotes a sense of belonging which helps to reduce anxiety. Try:
- appealing to senior lawyers who have experienced imposter syndrome to become role models: create a culture where this vulnerability is addressed rather than dismissed;
- ensuring an honest workplace culture where mental health is known to be taken seriously – and supported: individual lawyers may not know they are experiencing imposter syndrome or may feel it’s not serious enough to address unlike, for example, burnout;
- informing/training supervisors about the prevalence of imposter syndrome, how it manifests and how they can help, for example, with complete instructions, open conversations and by seeing the person as a whole person;
- encouraging those who experience imposter syndrome to explore mentorship beyond the department;
- providing lawyers with access to coaching, training, therapy or other support services to minimise anxiety driven by imposter syndrome before it increases, for example before the partnership process begins for a senior associate.
I have noticed that lawyers typically think that they alone experience imposter syndrome and the shame (mis)associated with it. However (1) there will be several colleagues in a similar position and (2) it can surface at any stage of one’s career.
With greater self-compassion and a collective approach of workplace inclusion, individuals, teams and entire organisations can thrive; the more equipped lawyers feel to address their anxiety the greater the opportunity to unearth their fullest potential.
Anita Gohil-Thorp is a former commercial lawyer and legal recruiter; she was the first in her family to attend university and was thrilled to begin her legal career at a prestigious global firm. Experiencing stress and anxiety however, she felt the stigma around this meant that she silently and painfully had to “tough it out.” She felt that she was not good enough and was being judged despite her achievements.
Anita has a personal interest in mental health and imposter syndrome and confidence for high achievers; she is a Mental Health First Aider and certified advocate for mental health in the workplace. She is a highly experienced professional certified executive coach keen to humanise the workplace and highlight the intersection between wellbeing and career performance. Despite not knowing herself, as a young lawyer, whom she could turn to for help, she wholeheartedly supports a diverse range of lawyers to thrive in all aspects of their work and personal lives.
Real stories of people in the legal community who have experienced stress, depression, anxiety and more.