No matter where you are in your legal career, you will likely struggle with feeling like you are undeserving and incapable. Law students and practicing attorneys alike are in a constant battle within themselves to measure up to their peers, when the truth is they already do. Like many legal professionals, they fall victim to “impostor syndrome” as they matriculate through their legal careers.
Impostor syndrome is no respecter of person and does not discriminate. Regardless of your level of achievement or success, impostor syndrome can impact how you view yourself internally and adversely influence your performance. Notably, impostor syndrome can have crippling effects on black and minority legal professionals. Moreover, the impact of impostor syndrome is compounded as we must wrestle with our internal feelings of inadequacy while navigating through the unprecedented barriers brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
WHAT IS IMPOSTOR SYNDROME?
The term “impostor syndrome” or “impostorism” was first coined in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. It describes the internal feeling that you are not good enough or that you do not belong. Impostor syndrome can make one feel disconnected from their own gifts, talents, and abilities. Instead, they believe that their success and achievements are attributable to fortune, random luck, and chance. Effects of impostor syndrome can also include experiencing severe levels of anxiety and paranoia that others are more educated or capable than you and that you ultimately will be exposed as a fraud.
It comes at no surprise that law students and young legal professionals are at an increased risk of suffering from impostor syndrome. Young attorneys and law students tend to be overachievers, as we often compare ourselves with others. It usually appears as soon as you take on a new venture or novel assignment, such as preparing for your first oral argument, drafting a challenging brief, or researching a complex legal issue. This feeling can be traced back to the competitive law school environment.
In law school, you are ranked against your law school peers. Grades are determined on a curve based on your various classmates’ performance. You are in constant competition for top grades and prestigious groups such as the flagship moot court team, mock trial team, and law review. As a result, it is easy for students and attorneys to be trapped in a perpetual cycle of feeling inadequate when things don’t go according to plan.
THE IMPACT ON MELANATED LEGAL PROFESSIONALS
Although impostorism affects people from various backgrounds, legal professionals, and law students from underrepresented, racial backgrounds are at an increased risk of this suffering from this pattern of negative thinking. Often, we feel like the other students are smarter, can grasp legal concepts effortlessly, have more experience, and have better connections. Notably, black and Latinx law students are often first-generation law students and attorneys. Unlike many of our peers, most of us do not come from a family or lineage of attorneys. In fact, we are often the first in their families to attend some form of graduate school.
Additionally, we are often one of the few minorities in our classes and within the workplace. As we matriculate through law school and into our legal careers, it is easy for us to feel out of place and without a blueprint to success. Accordingly, it is not uncommon for us to feel like we lack the pieces to put together a successful legal career.
While law schools, law firms, and other legal workplaces are shifting to the remote environment in response to the COVID-19 crisis, this can exacerbate the impacts of impostor syndrome as students and attorneys find it hard to focus and perform. It is hard enough to battle the internal feeling of not being enough in-person. Now, legal professionals have to jump through the hoops of remote working and learning as well.
DEALING WITH IMPOSTOR SYNDROME
1. Change How You View Success
One way to combat impostor syndrome is by altering how you measure success. Often, we burden ourselves with self-imposed high expectations and compare ourselves to others. From a young age, school, sports, and other social pressures have conditioned us to seek approval and define success through the lens of authority figures and how we measure up against our peers. Unfortunately, the competitive nature of the legal industry can reinforce this attitude and further fuel the toxic pattern of thought.
However, by exchanging a mindset reliant on external validation for the internal goal-oriented approach, you can tackle your insecurities by recognizing and measuring yourself against your values and personal goals. For example, instead of seeking to attain the highest ranking in your class or billing the most hours at your firm—an external form of validation—instead, strive to achieve goals that do not depend on the performance of other such as mastering your course material or becoming a more resourceful associate at your firm. In other words, remove goals that are based on comparisons or are contingent on the performance of others. At the end of the day, you cannot control what others do or their performance, but you can manage your actions and dictate how you define personal success.
2. Recognize That We Are All Impostors
There are two types of people in the legal world: (1) those who just realized they do not know what they are doing and (2) those who realized that they have no idea what they were doing a long time ago. Truth is, in the legal arena, most people do not know what they are doing. As a lawyer, many expect us to have instant answers, but the truth is we don’t. Our practice consists of navigating the gray and arcane areas of the law, and these legal skills require time to develop fully. That is why it is called the “practice” of the law. We are continually refining our skills and knowledge each day, and just like any form of practice (e.g., sports, instrument, etc.), you get better with experience. So trust the process, and recognize that, at some level, we are all impostors.
3. Fail Forward
Failing to meet your goals or accomplish a task is bound to happen. But, that feeling of failure does not define us and is not an indication of your potential or abilities as a lawyer or law student. In fact, people who are considered some of the best at their craft fail often. For example, Kobe Bryant—NBA basketball legend—holds the record for the most missed field goals in professional basketball history. Throughout his twenty-year career, he faced public criticism for missing shots and failing to reach certain sports-related milestones. However, currently, he is the fourth-highest scorer in professional basketball history, currently has the second highest-scoring professional basketball performance, and touts several awards and titles including All-Star, Hall of Famer, and even Oscar Award winner.
Despite his missed shot attempts and other shortcomings, he never let the previous mistake, error, or failure define him. Instead, he learned from the previous missed shot, adjusted, and moved on. So take on that new challenge and, if you happen to fall short, look at it as a learning experience, not a limitation or suspicion of your abilities. In the words of Kobe, “If you are afraid to fail, you are probably going to fail.” Put simply, failure is not a failure unless you fail to learn something from it.