Imposter Syndrome: Replacing Negative Self-Talk with Best Practices

By Winter Wheeler

 

The need to strengthen the mental health of legal professionals is a pressing and multi-faceted issue. Recently, one of those facets—Imposter Syndrome—has found resonance in legal circles and amongst my own professional network.

 

Imposter Syndrome is best described as a psychological pattern wherein someone generally regarded as accomplished tends to doubt those accomplishments and who experiences a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud.  Usually, the person distorts the reasons behind their success, believing their career advancements are due to luck or some form of deception.

 

Studies estimate that more than 70% of people experience the syndrome at some point in their careers.

With such prevalence, chances are that you have engaged in some of the internalized, self-talk associated with the Imposter Syndrome: 

 

I have achieved a milestone, yet there is no way I will be able to execute my ideas. There is no way I can possibly maintain the standards needed to deliver on what comes next.  And even if I could somehow keep acting the part, it is only a matter of time before I exhaust my luck and colleagues begin chattering about just how undeserving I am. 

 

When spelled out in this way, I cannot help but connect these feelings to what it means to be an attorney. To have the responsibility of being thorough, honest and assertive in providing counsel to clients while at the same time questioning your own merit. The legal field considers it good practice to present a façade of expertise in all things at all times—even though we all know intellectually that this kind of legal omniscience is impossible.

 

Add to that the reality that this profession is steeped in a “what have you done for me lately” attitude when it comes to merit. Your value is determined not by success in of itself but by a steady stream of successes. Such a metric can lead all too easily to situations where one’s value can rapidly rise or fall over the course of just once case, one hearing, one filing. And if we were to step back, we might more readily see that the practice of law requires constant study and continual growth, which means that there is room for outright mistakes and occasional failures. Yet these unrealistic expectations, set for us by the culture of the legal world and subscribed to by our own ambition, persist for attorneys across all levels and leaves us vulnerable to Imposterism. 

 

The hopeful news here is that best practices in client reporting and relationship development can create natural opportunities for us to un-learn the patterns of Imposter Syndrome. In my own litigation practice, I made sure to let my clients know everything that I thought about a case, often delivering my reasoning—along with current jury verdicts and demographics for the jurisdiction in which the case was pending—in written formal reports. Writing gave me time to work through my thoughts, making sure they made sense. Plus, having all my thoughts at my fingertips made unexpected client calls go all that much easier.

 

I also allowed myself to be okay with the fact that I may not always change my client’s mind on an issue. If I made my analysis available to the client with enough context for them to understand it and with enough time for them to thoughtfully consider it, that became my metric for client relationship success. Over time, it became easier and easier for me to self-correct any unhelpful self-talk and replace it with more productive forms of internal commentary associated with patterns of best practice:

 

I am the legal expert in this situation and my expertise is why I was hired. I must always be willing to tell my client the truth. I am not here to be a reflection of my client or to echo back to them their assumptions. I am my client’s source of reliable and honest feedback on how the facts relate to the law and its potential impact on the case. And when I share my honest opinions, I am providing a high level of service to my client whether they agree with me or not. 

 

With an experiential rate of 70%, I think it important that we as a field consider how the Imposter Syndrome is adversely affecting the individual careers of our fellow attorneys. My belief in this has been affirmed by legal media outlets that have shone a light on the issue as well as events like national Lawyer Well-Being Week (in which my colleagues and I at Miles Mediation & Arbitration were proud to participate). And while our field may possess certain characteristics that nurture Imposterism, I also believe that there are standards within the legal profession that if practiced diligently will greatly help us mitigate the syndrome in our own careers and workplaces.  

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Winter Wheeler mediates complex disputes in areas of wrongful death, catastrophic injury, personal injury, premises liability, legal malpractice, medical malpractice, products liability, automotive and trucking liability.