May 31, 2020

Managing Imposter Syndrome: You Are Not Alone

Impacts of Imposter Syndrome

If we all feel like a fraud sometimes, is this an issue that even needs to be addressed? In the legal profession, the answer is yes. Dealing with imposter syndrome is an issue of lawyer wellness.

Lawyer and professional coach Amy Gardner suggests that when attorneys struggle with imposter syndrome it can “hold back their careers but also negatively impact their clients.” This issue may be exacerbated in small firms and solo practices where there isn’t the built-in credibility that comes with working for a more established firm.

Even if the work itself is not directly affected, Gardner warns that “without dealing with your imposterism, you won’t be able to fully enjoy the fruits of your labours because you will be so focused on worrying that the other shoe is about to drop.

The impact of imposter syndrome can go beyond failures of confidence. Like other sources of career stress, imposter syndrome can lead to burnout, depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. In November 2018, Joanna Litt published an article in The American Lawyer about the circumstances leading to her husband Gabe MacConaill’s death by suicide. Litt discovered that her husband suffered from  maladaptive perfectionism, a condition “that combines unrealistic standards of achievement with hypercriticism of failing to meet them.” She writes that MacConaill “felt like a phony who had everyone fooled about his abilities as a lawyer and thought that after this case was over, he was going to be fired—despite having won honours for his work.

How To Manage It

Clearly, the consequences of not dealing with imposter syndrome can range from simply uncomfortable to catastrophic. Recognizing the impact of imposter syndrome is essential to lawyer wellness. Fortunately, there are several ways the issue can be addressed at both an individual and systemic level:

  1. Build self-awareness: As an individual, you can manage imposter syndrome by becoming more aware of your own strengths, weaknesses and motivations.
  2. Create a growth mindset: Lawyer and executive coach Jay Harrington suggests that a growth mindset is “the key to understanding that you’re someone who is capable of consistent growth, and not merely an imposter who’s bound to be found out for their shortcomings.”
    • Firms can help develop a growth mindset in their attorneys by changing the way they provide feedback that (a) positions positive comments as strengths that are not fixed, but can continue to develop, and (b) reframe gaps or failures as “welcome opportunities to learn and grow.”
    • As an individual, you can get to know your strengths and limitations and accept that both provide opportunities for professional growth.
  3. Talk about your experiences: Discussing common feelings can go a long way to alleviate stress associated with imposter syndrome.
    • At a systemic level, senior attorneys can be more open about their own experiences with imposter syndrome, a process that builds connections with colleagues and reduces stigma.
    • Firms can also establish mentorship programs that help create an environment where all staff feel supported.
    • As an individual, build your own support system where you are able to freely share experiences and emotions. Consider including a mentor, colleagues, friends and family outside of work, and a professional coach or therapist.

The high expectations of the legal profession mean that many attorneys experience imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. Because this experience is isolating, the most effective way to combat imposter syndrome is by recognizing that it is a common phenomenon. You can take action in many different ways to manage these feelings of inadequacy and not measuring up.

Most importantly, remember that you are not alone.



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