Stop, imposter! Imposter syndrome in the legal profession

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.

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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:

  • the lack of live interaction
  • the wait to get a response, and
  • the anxiety around the draft client letter requiring approval

What is imposter syndrome?

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:

  • “I did not deserve that promotion”
  • “I was just lucky to get the results/job/promotion”
  • “The others better not find out I am not as clever as they imagine I am”
  • “I’m such a fraud”
  • “I do not belong here”
  • “I’m not good enough for this”

However, believing it does not mean it is true.

Why is it important to notice it?

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:

  • rational thinking
  • regulation of emotion
  • clarity, and
  • the ability to assess

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.

Is it just me?

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.

Recognising the signs

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:

  • unusually distracted
  • unable to effectively complete tasks in a timely fashion
  • overly tired
  • in a low mood, anxious, stepping away from tasks
  • stuck in negative language
  • in need of frequent approval on completed tasks or repeatedly asking for instructions

As people with different personalities face IS, there may be other responses. A person may:

  • strive to cover up how they feel
  • appear overly confident and on top of their workload
  • appear highly energised and motivated
  • stay at the office (or online) without a break

How do I address it in myself?

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:

  • observe your inner critic and learn to stop it in its tracks – follow your inner wisdom instead
  • adopt a growth mindset – acknowledge your unhelpful/negative thoughts and test yourself as to their truth; find the evidence that shows you are capable of learning, doing and fulfilling your potential
  • consistently acknowledge three daily ‘small wins’ – experiences that you enjoyed or went well, however small
  • talk to peers, your line manager (or HR), or a mentor and share your story – you will find you are not alone

How can law firms and management respond?

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:

  • do not judge the individual; diverse groups such as women of colour or the LGBTQ+ community are noted to feel IS more than white males, but neither must be stereotyped
  • undertake training and provide bespoke coaching on unconscious biases and prejudices
  • apply empathy with the aim of understanding the other person through their lens
  • observe whether your work environment, appraisals or other processes reinforce an atmosphere for IS; if they do, seek to challenge this
  • provide a safe space for individuals to talk openly without judgment as a means to understand and create an environment of authenticity where everyone can thrive

As a firm, you should do the following:

  • acknowledge that IS exists across all ages, cultures and social groups, stopping people from bringing their full true self (and potential) to work
  • provide safe spaces for authentic conversations to take place, including associates and partners talking about their previous experiences of IS
  • promote an open culture, offering staff networks to support more vulnerable employees and ensuring they know they are recruited for their talent and potential; psychotherapist Brian Daniel Norton says that “women, women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community, are most at risk”

Views expressed in our blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Law Society.

Related resources

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