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Imposter syndrome and the legal sector

Imposter syndrome and the legal sector

Matthew Dow

11/09/2019

If you have been on LinkedIn recently, you have probably encountered the public displays of celebration posted by fortunate individuals who have secured training contract offers. These social media posts are a great way to congratulate others on achieving their hard-earned goals.

However, I have noticed that these posts often have a recurring theme that is worthy of further discussion. A theme that is prevalent in professional services and that over time can be quite insidious to your personal development.

What is the theme?

For context, these LinkedIn statuses are usually quite humbling. There is no braggadocio about commencing the path to becoming a potential millionaire.

Instead, the future trainee or pupil more often expresses their gratitude to all of the mentors and the organisations which have helped them along the way. These updates also acknowledge the individual’s earlier rejections, their struggles and even comment on the occasions when they considered giving up.

Yet many of this summer’s updates are also quite revealing in another aspect. Many successful applicants openly share their earlier insecurities. They divulge how they never believed – given their character, grades, school and parental background – that they could reach their current level of career success.

Further, throughout LinkedIn, I saw this sentiment being frequently articulated. This is despite all of the evidence to the contrary about that person’s talents.

For example, the candidates in question spoke multiple languages, had won competitive awards, had taken leadership positions requiring extensive organisation skills and had dedicated hours to pro bono projects. Yet, put simply, the applicants had internalised a belief that a legal career was beyond them – that they did not belong in that world.

Not just junior lawyers

After curiously researching and asking around, I was surprised at the abundance of supremely talented actors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers and teachers who have all experienced this imposter feeling at times.

These individuals were laboured by the innate acceptance that they did not belong or that they were a fraud. Most feared that their ‘exaggerated’ abilities would eventually be found out by someone. They were convinced that their mask would be pulled off and the world would see them for their limited skills and who they really were. Suddenly, they dreaded, it would be game over, goodbye and see you later for their career.

These experts, rather than having a realistic assessment of their capabilities, still probed whether they were the beneficiary of a computer technical error, HR incompetence or quota assistance programme.

What is surreal about this viewpoint is that these individuals are some of the most talented people that I know and well-reputed in their industry. Therefore, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

Imposter syndrome

The feeling described above is called imposter syndrome. It can be defined as the persistent inability to believe that your success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of your own efforts or skills. This awful feeling of self-doubt affects some of the most unexpected people on the planet.

For example, Albert Einstein regularly questioned his academic contemporaries’ praise of him; David Tennant has stated that no amount of good reviews will make him stop seeing the minor bad one; Michelle Obama has described feeling insecure throughout her time as first lady; and Jodie Foster said she felt truly unworthy after winning her Oscar.

The feeling is not even time dependent. Jennifer Lopez had just sold 70 million records and shortly afterwards questioned her merit; and Maya Angelou even doubted if she could actually write soon after penning her 11th bestselling novel.

Common and a problem

Ultimately, imposter syndrome is far more common than you’d think. Multiple studies suggest it affects almost 70% of the population. However, I would hazard a guess that it is far more common in law. Legal sector jobs require a lot of skill and knowledge that is constantly being challenged. Thus, imposter syndrome is a tangible problem for the sector and the individuals who experience it.

Groups not feeling like they belong in any sector leads to skill shortages where merited applicants do not apply. Moreover, the corollary of this trend is the entrenchment of the ‘group think’ that can result from the subsequent non-diverse hiring patterns. This trend weakens the sector as it can lead to specific market demand failing to receive adequate attention.

On an individual level though, not believing that you are deserving of your current success levels can be toxic.

A fear of being found out prevents individuals from engaging in work projects beyond their comfort zone – affecting their potential career progression. In addition, intrinsically feeling unmerited inhibits lawyers from fully selling their knowledge levels to colleagues. Consequently, they lose out on the exalted status that their work warrants and possibly miss the cross-referrals between practice areas. Moreover, over-qualified applicants spend months upskilling through expensive continuing professional development training, preparing for an opportunity that is no longer present. Elsewhere, imposter syndrome often causes individuals to overwork to compensate. These highly talented workers can experience mental burnout, merely to prove to others that they are worthy of their current position.

Conclusion

A cure to imposter syndrome is beyond the scope of a short blog. Nonetheless, I just wanted to highlight how common imposter syndrome is, especially in the legal sector.

Further, I wanted to emphasise the value of acknowledging your misguided limiting beliefs. I think that calling this trend out is especially important right now. This is a time when strong applicants may be questioning themselves following university acceptance, vacation scheme rejections or trainees struggling at the start of their new seats.

Ultimately, everyone has their own beginning and, honestly, nobody around you fully understood all of the aspects of their role on day one. The notable truth about being a junior lawyer is that you are becoming a better lawyer with every line that you draft. This mastery takes time and is a continuous learning process.

Therefore, whenever the menacing self-doubt creeps in, just recognise your accomplishments up to now and remember that you were hired for a reason, your positive feedback is sincere and that you earned your position. Crucially, realise that if your role is what you want to do, then please do not let any mental gymnastics persuade you that you do not belong there. You are not an imposter.