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Overcoming Doubt

I distinctly remember the first time I was hired by a new client. I was nervous as hell. To be perfectly honest, I felt like a fraud.

I had done work for new clients before while I was an associate at a firm, but this was this first time someone had specifically decided to hire me. Somehow, someway, the client had picked me out of the thousands of other lawyers in the city. Didn’t they know there plenty of other lawyers who had more experience in this area of law than me? Weren’t they aware I was only a few years out of law school? What were they thinking?!?

Being a new lawyer is a tough road in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. If you look around, it’s not too difficult to find lawyers with a dozen years of practice under their belt unable to find new clients or even keep their doors open. What chance then for a new lawyer? If you’ve just graduated from law school, you’re likely thinking it it is impossible to measure up against lawyers with vastly more knowledge and experience than you. You’re likely filled with anxiety and self-doubt. You feel like an imposter.

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Imposter Syndrome

Dr. Stephen Brookfield, a researcher on adult education and learning, once described imposter syndrome as: 

…the feeling that you’re presenting a false self—you project a public sense of presumed competence and command that you know masks the fact that you’re just struggling to make it through to the end of the day, week, or month without falling flat on your face in front of colleagues, students, or supervisees/reports to. You live your professional life smitten with a fear that sooner or later something is going to happen—probably that you’ll make a mistake—that will cause people to recoil in horror and say, “How did we hire this person? Obviously they’re not up to the job.” Impostorship means living permanently with a feeling of false pretense.

It’s a natural feeling that many professionals develop at the beginning of their career. Despite spending years accumulating knowledge and skills in a certain area, upon graduation, you’re the new person on the job. Everyone you work with knows more than you – at least it can seem that way. People who have been in practice for years come across as cool and confident. In comparison, it’s easy to feel like a counterfeit.

But you just graduated from law school and likely have somewhere north of six figures in debt. A JD that looks nice when you hang it on the wall, but it doesn’t exactly do the work for you.* If you busted your butt in law school and were lucky enough to find a job, you’ve got to justify that you were worth hiring because there are plenty of other people ready to take your place if you don’t. Or maybe through choice or forced circumstance, you’re hanging your shingle. Out on your own, making your way in the world.Either way when work comes in the door you can either feel be paralyzed with self-doubt or push through it.

So that’s what you do. You double-down on work. Early mornings and late nights. Hours pouring over case law. Secondary sources, hornbooks, practice guides. Devouring everything you can to help you understand the law and facts of the case. Of course, you can’t bill the client for all of this. They don’t pay for your ignorance. So you bill what you can and chalk up the rest to getting up to speed on the issues. Once you have forced as much as possible into your brain, you tackle the issue. You write the brief, draft the contract, file the motion.

And somehow, miraculously, you were on point. Your managing partner congratulates you on a job well done. The client accepts the first draft of the contract. The judge rules in your favor. Success. All your hard work paid off. But this is how you feel:

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Harnessing Fear

Imposter Syndrome doesn’t go away just because you achieve some modicum of success. It sticks with you, sometimes for your entire career. When you become aware that you are likely to beset with these feeling for some time, it can seem as though there are only two options:

  • Learn to cope with it
  • Allow self-doubt to make a mess of  your life

Given that you don’t want your life to be a mess, you cope with the feelings of imposter syndrome the best you as you can. You try to keep the feelings hidden away. You don’t allow anyone to see your perceived weakness. You put on airs of confidence and control despite that you feel neither. Maybe it works.

Or at least, it works for a time. If not managed, imposter syndrome can gnaw away at you. What is a seed of anxiety now, can become a looming tree of fear. It can become crippling. But that is a disservice to your clients, to your family and friends, to yourself.

You have to find a way to use the feelings associated with imposter syndrome to grow as a person. Find a way to harness the negative stress and emotions you feel and use them to propel you forwards instead of holding you back. But how to do this?

  • Some people just grind through it. One day, ten years later, they look up from their desk and find they feel pretty confident in their job.
  • Others find some outlet – exercise, athletic competitions, or hobbies that act as a pressure release valve for their negative emotions.
  • Some find themselves on dark paths – drugs, alcohol, addiction.

You can wait until you stumble into one of these paths or you can begin to take charge of your life right now.

Self-Assessment

The key to tackling imposter syndrome is accurate self-assessment. Then you can begin to learn how to harness your anxiety and turn it into achievement.

Why You Feel Like An Imposter

The first step is trying to understand why you feel this way. Why do you feel like a fraud? Write it down. Seriously, stop reading this (or wait until you have the time to do so), and write down why you feel like an imposter. List out the reasons you don’t feel confident in your abilities. Try and look at the reasons dispassionately. Do other people say these things about you? Do you feel this way about anyone else?

List Your Accomplishments

Now that you’ve written down why you feel like an imposter, write down the good things that you have accomplished in your work. List out praise you have received.Document your competencies. Document your successes. Compare your accomplishments with your self-doubt. Do they measure up, or are they in stark contrast of one another?

Develop A Plan Of Action

As long as you’re suffering from imposter syndrome and not the Dunning-Kruger effect, the next step is to train yourself to recognize these feeling. When do these feelings of self-doubt occur? Is there something that triggers them? Some behavior, person, place, or activity that causes you to doubt your own abilities? Try to be mindful of when these feelings arise and then pause to examine them. What exactly happened to make you feel this way? Once you begin to recognize the stress triggers that cause anxiety and self-doubt to arise you have a starting point to modify your response to such triggers.

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Once you can recognize what triggers set off imposter syndrome feelings, you can begin to attempt to instead harness feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. So when you have a large, complicated brief that is due in four days notice suddenly dropped in your lap, instead of thinking:

  • “This is too much! It’s too complicated! There is no way I can do a good job in that short of time! Someone else with more experience should do it! I’ll have to fake my way through it!”

Replace it with:

  • “This is a tough situation. It’s going to take a lot of work in a short period of time to get this done right. But I’ve completed briefs in this period of time before. Plus this is an opportunity for me to learn about practice area X. Time to game plan on how to handle this brief. I’ll break it up into discrete tasks and set milestones for accomplishing x,y, & z, by the end of the first day. On the second day…”

When faced with stressful situations that fill you with anxiety, you can either passively accept your mind’s response, or you can choose to harness the situation in your mind and let it become energy to fuel your work. It will not happen right away. It will take concerted effort, mis-steps and failures. Ultimately you are going to have to decide if you have a fixed or a growth mindset.

It may takes years of practice, but with deliberate practice you can turn your anxiety into achievement.

You Are Not Alone

While you might feel like the only person who is doubting themselves, I assure you many, many other people are as well. Talk with other lawyers. Call a former classmate. Learn about their successes, failures, and concerns. You should also be able to ask for an honest opinion from a friend. Your friends should be able to tell you hard truths about yourself – that’s why they’re friends. But they should also be able to set your mind at ease. Trust genuine praise from people you respect.

Help Others

Maybe not right now, but eventually you will be further along the road than other people. Once you graduate from law school, you’ll be ahead of law students. Once you’ve been an associate for a few years, you’ll be ahead of brand new law grads. Once you’re a partner, you’ll be ahead of associates. Take the time to reach out to people who are on the same path. Letting other people who are struggling know that you have been down the same road will help both you and them. It will help them to know that these feelings are natural, and it will help you because you will be forced to think about how anxious you were when you were in their shoes – and how far you’ve come since then.

Changing The Way You Think

When I finished the work for that first client I had, I had put in tremendous amount of time and effort. If I’m honest with myself, I’m lucky if I even broke even on the work that I had done. But when it was all complete, the client was effusive in their praise for the work done. They even said something along the lines of “If you keep doing work like this, you’re going to change the way people think about lawyers.**” While they appreciated my work, I appreciated their praise and approval even more. Knowing that I had put forth my best effort and deliver value to the client beyond their expectations affirmed that I was on the right track and fueled my confidence in handling clients.

But you’re never going to get that feeling until you are willing to step forward, believe in yourself, and take that chance to do good work.

* For the record, my degree is sitting in a box in my closet.

** Hint: You should always be working this way. See Dan Hull’s Rule #4.

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About Keith Lee

I'm the founder and editor of Associate's Mind. I like to write, talk, and think about law, professional development, technology, and whatever else floats my boat. I practice law in Birmingham, AL.

3 comments

  1. This is so true. I’ve felt like this a number of times over my career. I’ve just worked twice as hard and hoped that people notice. Not exactly healthy or balanced, but it is what I felt like I needed to do in order to prove myself.

  2. Interesting article here Keith, and I think you’re right about the self doubt that plagues many of us. I think one of the things that can help us with this is to stop focusing on ourselves. It sounds trite, but many of our concerns about our own ability to acquit ourselves stem from a certain amount of pride (not that lawyers have big egos, of course…). Focusing on our clients and their issues is a great way to avoid getting caught up in our own “imposter syndrome”.

    • There’s truth to that statement. Imposter syndrome has to do do with being hyper-focused on the self to the exclusion of outside influences. Focusing on clients and doing sound work for them, is a good method for developing confidence in one’s own abilities.

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