A call to deal with impostor syndrome, a hidden source of attorney distress
It’s my third time reading Joanna Litt’s brave piece in the American Lawyer about the death by suicide of her beloved husband and accomplished lawyer Gabe MacConaill, and I’m still stumbling through it in tears. As she describes the pressures Gabe experienced as an attorney, I lose my breath because I remember from my time practicing law experiencing a similar pressure, similar stress and similar feelings of not measuring up in spite of tremendous effort and ability. Many of the lawyers I know and a number with whom I work describe to me a similar misery stemming not from the substance of the work but from the lifestyle, structure and culture of the profession and the unreasonable standards they nurture.
Litt writes, “Though it’s only the beginning stages of trying to figure out why this happened, I came across a concept, maladaptive perfectionism, that combines unrealistic standards of achievement with hypercriticism of failing to meet them.” She goes on to describe how this manifested for her husband: “He said he felt like a phony who had everyone fooled about his abilities as a lawyer and thought after this case was over, he was going to be fired—despite having won honors for his work.”
Does this sound familiar?
Yes, that’s right, this is a textbook description of impostor syndrome, the feeling you are not cut out for the work you are doing or want to be doing, often in spite of evidence to the contrary, combined with a fear of being discovered as a fraud.
I feel so frustrated and upset reading this because, in spite of its rampancy in the legal profession and its destructive potential, impostor syndrome remains relatively unaddressed in the profession. In my work with lawyers and law firms, I see a pervasive disconnect: Individual lawyers (including some senior in the profession) describe to me their impostor syndrome and how it negatively impacts them and their enjoyment of their work and lives. At the same time, many law firms as organizations deny that their lawyers struggle with this issue, definitively stating, “Look, we don’t have that problem!”
Data tells a different story: According to a 2011 article in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, an estimated 70 percent of the population will experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lifetimes, and there are certain aspects of lawyering and legal training that exacerbate the problem among lawyers. The workshops and webinars I offer lawyers on busting impostor syndrome and building evidence-based confidence are over-subscribed by individuals courageously able to acknowledge their impostor syndrome and asking for some relief. So, bad news, law firms, you do have this problem.
But the good news is that for many, and with the proper structural support, impostor syndrome is very addressable. Additionally, although there is still much pushback in the profession, some law firms and legal departments are starting to acknowledge it as a problem they have to address.
To best address it, firms and legal departments should take a comprehensive approach to impostor syndrome (and other wellness issues). That means, in part, empowering individual lawyers to identify and address impostor syndrome within themselves and others through workshops, webinars, courses and coaching (as I’ve seen some law firms do at the new associate and mid-career levels). It means, in equal part, training senior leaders, mentors and practice group heads on what impostor syndrome is; why they should care about it; how to identify common signs and symptoms of it in their mentees, peers and teams; how to empower their attorneys to address it, and how to create a culture in the firm or department that reduces instead of feeds it.
To that end, law firms and legal departments in which senior attorneys open up to junior attorneys about their own self-doubt neutralize the stigma surrounding impostor syndrome, creating a culture of connection and compassion in which individual attorneys feel safe sharing their struggles and seeking support in surmounting these struggles. They also normalize it, sending the message that the syndrome and success are not mutually exclusive: “Well, if [superstar lawyer] has impostor syndrome, then maybe my impostor syndrome doesn’t mean I am a failure because [superstar lawyer] certainly isn’t a failure!”
Additionally, legal departments and firms should provide attorneys with a more balanced view of their skillset; better value their unique perspectives; and regularly recognize their ability to grow, learn and improve. This can be tough, as we are trained to focus more on failure than we do on success. Athlete and author Christopher Bergland wrote in a 2017 Psychology Today article, citing Carol Dweck’s seminal work, that we operate from a fixed mindset, viewing failure as defining us instead of viewing it as a temporary situation that can be used as a stepping stone to future success. This mindset pervades the legal profession, contributing to lawyers’ unreasonably high expectations of themselves (and others) and to the suffocating pressure they often experience (and perpetuate).
Shifting that mindset and giving fair dues to attorney strengths can start simply by changing the way (and incidence at which) compliments are given and received. More positive feedback can be given with specificity, pointing out the unique perspectives an attorney brings and the unique strengths they can leverage and grow. That means not only taking the time to provide positive feedback, such as “Great job in the client meeting today,” but going a step further to be specific about the unique strengths and perspectives that led to that great job: “Great job at that client meeting today. You read the client well and discovered some unspoken priorities that will allow us to provide a more comprehensive solution for them. You also communicated our next steps in a way that was clear and thorough.” On the compliment-receiving end, all attorneys have to be trained in how to better internalize positive feedback to build their evidence-based confidence and how to reframe knowledge and skills gaps as welcomed opportunities to learn and grow.
These are just a few of the many approaches, tactics and cultural shifts that can help disrupt and prevent impostor syndrome and the distress it commonly causes. The ABA’s Well-Being Toolkit for Lawyers and Legal Employers is another great resource to address other aspects of attorney wellness. But none of this matters if we are unwilling to prioritize these issues.
I hope Gabe’s story and the uproar of grief and resonance it is garnering among lawyers is a watershed moment for our profession on attorney wellness as a whole and specifically on the role of impostor syndrome in attorney distress. If not this, then what will it take for maladaptive perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, inhumane working hours, and lack of connection and compassion to be taken seriously as causes of lawyer distress? Or maybe the right question is: What will it take for lawyer distress to matter enough to the profession as a whole?
At the end of the day, the problem isn’t Gabe or the scores of lawyers who, in safe spaces where they are not judged as weak, acknowledge feeling similar anxiety and pressure. The problem is our society and our profession. Why are our standards so unreasonably and inhumanely high when it comes to so many functions of our jobs, and why are our standards so unreasonably and inhumanely low when it comes to attorney wellness?
It’s time to recalibrate.
Neha Sampat is a lawyer and CEO of GenLead’s BelongLab. Through consulting, training, coaching and writing, she addresses hidden barriers to belonging such as impostor syndrome and internalized bias, unconscious bias, generational diversity and distrust in teams. She created the ABA webinar “Silencing the Voice of Self-Doubt: How to Build Evidence-Based Belief in Yourself.” She is the author of The Beyond Blog and can be reached directly at [email protected].