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Imposter syndrome is common in many walks of life, the legal industry included. Anita Gohil-Thorp, a resilience, wellbeing and legal career coach, explains how to recognise the signs in yourself and others, and how individuals and organisations alike can tackle it.
Imposter syndrome (IS) is not a new phenomenon. I recall feeling exactly that as a female Asian lawyer. I was the first in my family to attend university, after which I trained as a solicitor at a city firm.
It doesn’t seem too much has changed since then: in 2019, the Junior Lawyers Division reported that over 80% of young solicitors have at some point suffered from IS. Females below the age of 34 also appear to experience IS at work more than men.
In the 21st century, as the legal profession seeks to embrace diversity and promote belonging for all, what I notice is the opening up of conversations that enable voices to be heard.
I also notice, however, that many of those thinking of entering the profession, or currently at trainee level, already feel concerned about not being good enough.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has meant that, for over a year, most, if not all lawyers, have worked at home. This includes trainees and newly qualified lawyers, from a range of backgrounds, who have not had sufficient live face-to-face time with supervisors, partners and peers.
The lack of water-cooler conversations or opportunities to pass by an associate’s office whilst working alone for 10+ hours a day can be isolating.
The question of “am I good enough?” may well raise its head if you add to this:
Imposter syndrome is defined as “the persistent inability to believe that one's success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one's own efforts or skills”.
The term was first used by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance over 40 years ago, but it is not technically an illness.
In simple terms, it means that you do not feel good enough, deserving enough – a fake. This can occur even if you view yourself as a perfectionist or over-achiever.
Those impacted by IS may tend to think or feel one of more of the following:
However, believing it does not mean it is true.
Believing that your achievements are not legitimately deserved has a knock-on negative effect; you may feel like a fraud, insecure and fearful of being caught out.
It holds you back from clearly seeing, and taking up, opportunities.
Further, law firms cannot identify your full talents, as you feel ‘trapped’ from exposing them, worried more that you may expose weaknesses.
Your nerves stemming from IS may also be transparent and, whilst we are experiencing some cultural shifts in organisations towards openness, unhelpful assumptions or judgments that still prevail may hinder you reaching your fullest potential.
Imposter syndrome consumes energy and creates stress. This negatively impacts critical functions of the brain, such as:
These faculties can become impaired over time if IS is not healthily addressed.
Long-term IS, creating ongoing stress, can impact one’s confidence, health and wellbeing. The knock-on effect of this can be poor judgment, lack of concentration, time management issues, absenteeism, errors and so on.
People often feel that they are the only one experiencing IS.
It is also commonly believed that IS impacts only those at the start of their legal career, but this is far from the truth – I work with an array of senior lawyers who, for varying reasons, carry the weight of IS.
Not addressing it effectively can prevent you from being your best self at work, if it is experienced so strongly that your work is suffering. It can cause you to hide your talents, preventing timely recognition, promotion or even retention.
Imposter syndrome is hidden and complex. As it increases a person’s sense of stress and strengthens lack of confidence, symptoms may include a person being:
As people with different personalities face IS, there may be other responses. A person may:
The first step is self-awareness.
Being truthful to yourself about it, even if that feels uncomfortable, can help you take some appropriate steps to minimise the stress (and repercussions) associated with it.
Here are some tips:
Initially, it is important to be observant of any nerves or changes in your line reports. In the virtual world, this may be harder to notice.
Some nerves are normal and regular informal meetings with team members to ask how they are managing can be helpful, as can sharing your own stories about growth in your career, be it about IS, building confidence or anything else.
Build rapport with your team; let them know you care about who they are, not just what they can do for you.
If you sense that a person is dealing with IS, here are further things you can do:
As a firm, you should do the following:
Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.