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LCN Says

Imposter syndrome in the legal world

updated on 06 March 2023

Reading time: four minutes

International Women’s Day is an excellent opportunity to not just celebrate the successes and achievements of women, but also identify areas that need to improve to ensure women are given every opportunity to thrive, not just at work but in life too. Naturally, imposter syndrome tends to come up in relation to this topic as it’s often identified as a barrier to career progression.

Imposter syndrome – what is it?

Imposter syndrome is when people feel like a fraud in the workplace, despite being more than qualified for their role. Feeling like a fraud can obviously create feelings of unease and stress – especially if the person is consumed by the worry that they’ll be ‘found out’ and exposed as an imposter. Unfortunately, this is an issue that seems to impact women in the workplace more acutely. Research from YouGov found that broadly: “Across seven common signs of impostor syndrome most Britons seem to experience four: difficulty accepting compliments and praise, high expectations of themselves, criticising themselves more than others criticise them, and downplaying their own achievements in front of other people.” More women tended to experience these signs – for example, 72% of women say they have trouble accepting compliments, compared to 59% of men.

Feeling out of place in the law

As a high-pressured and, at times, still highly traditional profession, law is naturally a fertile breeding ground for imposter syndrome. In 2019, what was then the Junior Lawyers Division (now the Junior Lawyers Network) reported that more than 80% of young solicitors have at some point suffered from imposter syndrome.

The pandemic also stoked the fire of imposter syndrome for many now working in the office again, after such a long period of relative isolation – especially those just starting out in their career. Being physically more present can naturally feel more exposing and therefore give rise to imposter syndrome and the feeling of not ‘fitting in’.

In my role, I completely understand the barriers imposter syndrome can create for young legal professionals and why it’s so important to take this issue seriously and offer support and help. I’ve worked in paralegal roles for nearly 12 years and now manage a number of paralegals within the Pinsent Mason LLP’s Paralegal Centre of Excellence. I came into this role without the traditional legal qualifications. New paths, like the one I’ve taken, mean a career in law is increasingly varied and accessible to a much broader talent pool. However, I understand how imposter syndrome can creep in when faced with large corporate offices and partners asking you to work on multi-million-pound matters.

How to tackle imposter syndrome early in your career

As a result, I think it’s important that those embarking on their career in law do what they can to recognise imposter syndrome in themselves, and work hard to ensure these emotions don’t cloud judgement or stop someone from reaching their true potential.

But what can be done to tackle this problem?

Speaking about imposter syndrome at a Female Futures Forum event hosted by Pinsent Masons Dubai, Caroline Faraj, VP Arabic Services at CNN, said that mentorship plays a vital role in ensuring that everyone within an organisation feels included and validated. Authentic leadership approaches, with managers allowing employees to see a ‘human’ side, are also valuable, as this shows staff that managers can be vulnerable and experience stress too.

For individuals, this means seeking out a mentor, and creating opportunities to speak to managers and other senior people about any feelings of doubt or fraudulence you may be experiencing. Being open about this issue is an important and positive step forward.

We of course also work hard to give our paralegals the most support we can. We recognise a talented paralegal forms the foundation for a well-oiled legal team and it’s vital these individuals feel confident and comfortable to interact with senior lawyers and work on highly technical legal work. Imposter syndrome can create a barrier for career success, especially for women, but with more awareness and discussion it can be recognised and tackled effectively. 

Rebecca Kennedy is a paralegal manager at The Paralegal Centre of Excellence, part of Vario, Pinsent Masons.