Despite years of legal training, experience and a proven record of success, some lawyers still believe they are frauds. LSJ explains imposter syndrome, and how to overcome it.
Does it feel like you have only succeeded in your legal career because of luck? Do you believe it’s only a matter of time before you are revealed as a fraud, even though you have multiple university degrees? Are you worried you don’t know enough about the law, but at the same time are scared to ask for help for fear of looking stupid?
If you can relate to these thoughts, you may be suffering from impostor syndrome. Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first identified the syndrome in the 1970s. It can strike anyone at any stage in a person’s career. In her TED talk, “What is impostor syndrome and how can you combat it?” Elizabeth Cox highlighted that Albert Einstein suffered from impostor syndrome. He described himself as, “An involuntary swindler whose work did not deserve as much attention as it received”.
It is hard to comprehend that someone as brilliant as Einstein had those feelings. But what it shows is that fraudulent feelings can strike anyone, no matter how brilliant or accomplished they are. In his Journal of Behavioural Science article, “The Impostor Phenomenon”, Jaruwan Sakulku estimated that 70 per cent of people experience feelings of being an impostor during their lives.
In her book, The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women – Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It, Dr Valerie Young identified five categories of impostor:
Perfectionist – a person who has high expectations of themselves that they can never meet;
Soloist – scared to ask for help for fear of looking stupid;
Expert – a person in constant pursuit of further qualifications to prove their knowledge;
Superhero – believes it is only a matter of time before they are found out to be a fraud; and
Natural Genius – this person feels shame if they do not immediately master a new task.
Young speculates that feelings of incompetence are enhanced when those impacted by impostor syndrome belong to a professional group where there are socially accepted stereotypes of competence. Lawyers fall squarely into a group stereotyped as having a high level of competence. Clients rely on this competence and hire them because of it.