Column

We Are All Impostors

An interesting article in a US legal periodical last month discussed the rising incidence of an already widespread problem for new lawyers. Impostor syndrome — “the internal experience of doubting your abilities or feeling like a fraud” — has afflicted junior lawyers for a long time. But the pandemic has made it worse:

“Many [new lawyers] have spent very little time in physical offices, which means they have less opportunity to commiserate with peers and may feel as if they are somehow ‘uniquely deficient’ when they are not…. For many lawyers, a lot of confidence is instilled by being immersed in an environment where you’re seeing other people at your level of experience struggling as well.”

I think this is true, and firms could help address it by encouraging their newest lawyers to gather in person frequently. Partners could direct senior associates to lead group discussions about impostor syndrome, sharing their own harrowing experiences and encouraging their younger colleagues to do likewise in a safe space. It’s always an immense relief for a new lawyer to realize, “Okay, it’s not just me.”

But I would go further and say that it’s really the partners themselves who need to visibly demonstrate and testify to their own professional insecurities.

One of the key moments in my BigLaw articling term came when a friend and fellow student shared with me this observation: “You know, these guys are not rocket scientists.” He was right. We had come into the firm believing that BigLaw partners were little short of demigods, yet a few months in their company revealed them to be very much like us: Imperfect, sometimes unwise, driven by the same doubts and fears.

What the partners and senior associates seldom appreciated was that the most valuable thing they could have done for us was to be human — to show uncertainty, to ask for input, even to screw things up now and again. We needed to see and understand that lawyers aren’t expected to know everything and be right about everything.

Most of them, unfortunately, tried their best to hide that from us (and from each other), using bravado and arrogance as a cover for insecurity. But to some extent, we could make it out for ourselves — the more time you spend with a lawyer, the easier it is to see behind the mask.

But you need to be close to the lawyers to see it. I can’t imagine what it’s like now, trying to learn how to be a lawyer from faceless partners who send aggressively worded emails demanding results or severely marked-up drafts with no words of encouragement. It just magnifies the stress and anxiety of an already difficult job.

The only real solution to impostor syndrome in the law is a comprehensive competence-based system for the licensing and continued professional development of lawyers. We’re only at the earliest stages of that effort here in Canada, but I’m confident that by the time it’s complete, we will have transformed the legal profession for the better.

In the meantime, however, my message to new lawyers is simple: You know more than you think. You’re smarter and more capable than you believe. Those senior lawyers who seem so intimidating suffer(ed) from impostor syndrome just like you. They don’t know everything, they make mistakes, they constantly doubt themselves and their capability. They are not rocket scientists. They’re not supposed to be, and neither are you.

We’re all impostors in this profession. Only by admitting that, to ourselves and to each other, can we start to change it.

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