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.
I was an associate partner at a major firm in South Africa … Because I had to start from scratch to learn a new jurisdiction [in Australia], I felt self-critical and struggled during the transition period.
Are some lawyers more susceptible to impostor syndrome than others?
While any lawyer is susceptible to feeling like an impostor, there are particular groups within our profession – such as women, lawyers admitted overseas, and young lawyers – who are more susceptible to fraudulent feelings.
“I am 100 per cent a perfectionist,” says Lynda Babister, a sole practitioner in the Southern Highlands with 20 years’ experience. Babister is conscious of her perfectionism and the impact it has on her career, saying, “I will sit there drafting a document thinking to myself, ‘I have to get it right.’ All the while I know I am checking the document far more than I need to.”
Babister says she has suffered impostor syndrome throughout her life. “A lot of my impostor syndrome comes from being raised by domineering parents. I didn’t learn about myself until much later,” she says. “The way I came into law has also left me feeling on the back foot. I did a science degree first but I couldn’t get a job in my research area, so I worked as a paralegal and studied law through the Legal Practitioners Admission Board.
This felt different to studying law at a traditional university, even though the content of the course was the same.”
When asked if being a female in the legal profession magnified her feelings of impostor syndrome, Babister agrees. “As a sole practitioner who is also a middle-aged woman in a small suburban firm, people don’t always see or acknowledge my skills at first blush,” she explains. “I sometimes feel patronised by other practitioners.”
Joelene Nel has been a family lawyer since 2003. She studied and spent the first seven years of practice in South Africa. After emigrating to Australia in 2003, she qualified to practise in Australia through bridging qualifications at the University of New South Wales and College of Law. For Nel, the move to Australia triggered her impostor syndrome.
“When I first came to Australia, I was an associate partner at a major firm in South Africa. The soft skills I had were transferable but the substantive law was different,” she says. “Because I had to start from scratch to learn a new jurisdiction, I felt self-critical and struggled during the transition period.”
Even now, Nel still battles with aspects of impostor syndrome, particularly the “expert” category identified by Young. She regularly questions whether she should do further study and says, “I wonder if I should do my Specialist Accreditation in family law? Will that help my career? There is always a shiny new qualification to pursue. I see the same thought patterns with my senior colleagues. It seems we always strive to improve.”
Nel also actively mentors young lawyers, and says impostor syndrome is common amongst her mentees. “Across those I mentor, there is a generalised feeling that they are not worthy,” says Nel. “They reach the point where they have a practising certificate but they don’t know how to move forward. A lack of experience means they are embarrassed to call themselves a lawyer.”
I want to be brave and show people that we all experience these thoughts, and that they can be destructive.
Newly-admitted lawyer Jonathon Naef echoes Nel’s observations. His feelings of impostor syndrome began while at university. “Even through my studies when I received a good mark for an assignment, I would question whether the mark was really meant for me,” he says.
Admitted in October 2018, Naef found the first months of legal practice challenging but rewarding. But the adversarial nature of practice heightened his feelings. “There are times I come up against senior practitioners who are very confident and convincing,” he says. “It makes me question my ability, even when I am confident in my client’s legal position.”
Going to court has also been daunting. “I feel like I am not experienced enough to be at court,” he says. “I am worried that if I am asked a question I won’t be able to give the right answer, no matter how much I have prepared.”
Jennifer Harris, a special counsel at Clayton Utz, regularly mentors junior lawyers. She says more experienced practitioners can play a vital role in helping younger lawyers push past their impostor syndrome.
“A mentor can help a young lawyer identify skills and help them silence their inner critic,” she says. “By sharing their own experiences about battling the foe of impostor syndrome and encouraging their mentees to be honest about their tussles with it, a mentor can really help someone who is struggling.”
Harris had her own battle with impostor syndrome during her first years of practise, writing about her experience on her mentor blog. “What I remember most about this time is that I felt a staggering sense of isolation,” she says. “I had two university degrees and I was a real life lawyer, but I felt like I had ended up in a cage. A really weird cage, where the people on the outside of it trusted that I knew what I was doing and relied on me.
“I had clients who were at their lowest ebb, and I felt sick that their fate rested with me. Somehow, though, I made it through and nothing bad happened to my clients – I even managed to get some good outcomes. This surprised me and thrilled me. But the most pervasive feeling I had was one of sheer dismay that I could be part of good outcomes when I felt so overwrought.”
The most pervasive feeling I had was one of sheer dismay that I could be part of good outcomes when I felt so overwrought.
Overcoming impostor syndrome
Elizabeth Cox maintains that we all suffer from pluralistic ignorance where impostor syndrome is concerned. In her TED talk she says that most people have private doubts about their abilities but don’t often share them with others. Because we all keep these doubts secret, we believe they are exclusive to us when, in reality, the majority of people experience them. On the question of doubt, Young believes it is natural to experience a certain level of doubt, but when it spirals into obsessive worry or recurring critical thoughts, that is when impostor syndrome kicks in.
Breaking the silence of impostor syndrome is vital to establish that fraudulent feelings are normal, says Young, who suggests we share our feelings of being an impostor. “Shame keeps a lot of people from ‘fessing up’ about their fraudulent feelings,” she says. “Knowing there is a name for the feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing.”
Learning to move past shame is another of Young’s techniques to overcome feelings of being a fraud. Instead of feeling shame when a situation does not work out, Young suggests that a better response is to develop a new response to failure. That new response involves accepting that failure will occur and, when it does, understand the lesson we can learn from it.
Babister is one lawyer who has embraced the notion of sharing her feelings. “I want to be brave and show people that we all experience these thoughts, and that they can be destructive,” she says. “Now I have enough experience that when I start thinking I am not good enough, I look back on similar experiences I have come up against in practice and compare. The reality check is helpful.”
Nel believes self-awareness is key to overcoming impostor syndrome. “A lot of combatting impostor syndrome is realising that clients can be difficult to deal with in stressful situations. It is not because of you or a lack of skills, but the situation that is difficult to deal with,” she says.
By using this technique, Nel is developing “a new script for herself”. This technique works when the inner critic starts its internal chatter. The theory, according to Young, is that you can stop negative internal talk by creating a new script to reassure yourself that while you may not have the answers to deal with this client or problem right now, you are smart enough to work out how find the answer or ask for help.
As for Naef, he says the best way to keep a reality check on feelings of impostor syndrome is to surround himself with supportive colleagues and an encouraging employer. “This fills the breach while I am still finding my feet as a lawyer.”