Feel Like a Fake?
If you are in your first few years of practice like me, I bet you’ve already been given the spiel: “Don’t quit in the first five years. It gets better”. I used to hear this all the time when I was an articling student and I always thought people were over exaggerating. What’s so hard about this – isn’t it just a job? Nothing can be worse than the LSAT, I am sure I will be fine.
But then you are called to the bar and the files start to roll in. Everything is new and takes you a long time to figure out. The tasks start to build up. It seems everyone needs your attention all at once and you are being pulled in every direction. The responsibility feels like it is skyrocketing beyond your control. And there it is, the reality of your first few years of law practice starts to settle in … I don’t know anything. I don’t even know what I don’t know. They’re going to find out I’m a fraud. I got here by luck. It’s only a matter of time until they realize. I can’t handle this.
These are the types of thoughts that run through every lawyer’s mind (whether they admit it or not), and that voice is always strongest in the first few years of practice, especially for women. If you were one of the lucky few to get through years of schooling and articling without having experienced this – let me introduce you to our good pal imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is defined as “the psychological experience of believing that one’s accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky or having manipulated other people’s impressions”.
If you read that and nodded your head up and down – I get it. Me too! As a young associate, I find myself in the thick of this psychological warfare with myself most days. I have come to realize that this voice will likely always be in the back of my mind. Below I have set out some tips for you that I have implemented myself to lean into the voice, rather than trying to shut it down completely.
Keep a Good Feedback Folder for Rainy Days
I have a sub folder in my inbox where I keep good feedback from clients, colleagues, and other lawyers. Let me tell you – the bar to get into my good feedback folder is low. Sometimes a simple “good job” or “thanks for doing this so quickly” will get you into the coveted folder. Now, the point of this folder is not to narcissistically relish in your successes, but more so a place to remember that you did indeed at one point have just that, a success!
The reality is, you will have those rainy days where that imposter syndrome voice creeps back in and is particularly loud. Thankfully, you can revisit your trusty good feedback folder and re-read the words that at one time were directed to you. That expressed gratitude to you. That acknowledged your job well done. Sometimes I find it helpful to actually read these positive words in order to convince my brain they were in fact said to me (and I trust that those words were true at the time).
Think of it like a reference point to look at when you are feeling down to remind yourself you have knocked it out of the park before and you will do it again. It is kind of like an emotional rainy-day fund!
Ask for Positive Feedback
As lawyers we are really good about picking apart things we don’t like, especially in someone else’s work. The reality is, a lot of practice (drafting, arguing, etc.) is stylistic. In your first few years you haven’t quite nailed your style yet. That’s okay – I am still finding my style too!
The point is, it is very common to get an opinion letter back from a partner that has been red lined backwards and forwards to the point you aren’t sure if you even got the date correct. While this is a crucial step to go through in the learning process, I think it is equally as important to ask someone what was good about your work. What did they like? What worked for them? While it is important to know what you need to improve on, it is also important to know what you are doing well on.
Spoiler alert – this might result in a good feedback email that can go in your good feedback folder!
Put Things into Perspective
One of the things I am constantly working on is reminding myself to keep perspective. It can be disheartening to keep getting work sent back to you with red lines up and down the page. It can feel defeating, like you are never going to get to that standard of writing where the partner places their golden stamp without a single edit. However, this needs to be put into perspective.
You are a new call, in your first few years of practice. The opinion you are writing is likely for a lawyer who has been doing this longer than you have been alive. They have written hundreds if not thousands of opinion letters. It wouldn’t make sense for that partner not to critique your work or spot issues you didn’t think to spot.
Keep reminding yourself – it is totally normal to get work back with tons of comments. It is not personal. It is rarely a reflection of your work ethic or desire to improve as a young associate. It is all part of the growing pains of becoming a lawyer, especially in the first few years.
Talk to Others
I’m not a fan of the ‘fake it till you make it’ mindset. Especially in a workplace that relies on teamwork. And a profession where people rely on your advice. Don’t pretend you know what’s going on because you’re worried about wasting somebody’s time. The more I open up to senior lawyers about the mental challenges I have faced in the first few years of practice, the more I see that every lawyer that has come before me has experienced this steep learning curve. Everyone has at one point or another felt overwhelmed, like they aren’t good enough, or that they will never “get the hang of things”.
The first few years are really challenging, but it is always comforting to know that is not a unique experience. Quite literally hundreds of thousands of lawyers have been here before you, and hundreds of thousands will come after you. And the one thing we all share in common are those days where we are plagued with our own insecurities. So talk to someone about it!
Play to your strengths
There’s a lot of value in shoring up your weaknesses. But it can be stressful focusing only on things that you’re struggling with. Try to spend time early on in your career figuring out what you like doing. That could be more “on your feet” tasks like chambers applications or discoveries. If that is the case, seek that work out. It might be that you like having a creative outlet to write law focused blog posts (like me!).
I highly encourage you to take the initiative early on in your career to look for tasks that draw on your strengths and that you are passionate about. At the end of the day, it is important for that imposter syndrome voice to not only feel you are good at something, but know you are good at something.
I hope these tips help you find little ways to improve your self- confidence and lean into that imposter syndrome a little bit. I am only in my third year of practice and I still consider myself very much in the thick of it. Every time I feel like I might have the swing of something, that steep learning curve humbles me. And that’s just it – the learning curve is incredibly steep. Think of the world’s steepest roller coaster kinda steep. Sometimes it feels like you are going upside down.
Make sure you are always reminding yourself that you are doing your best. Ask for positive feedback. Keep things in perspective. Talk to others. Play to your strengths.
Okay one last bonus tip – believe in yourself! If others can do this, why can’t you?
About the Author
Jaeda Lee is an associate at Harper Grey LLP practicing in insurance and health law. An avid volunteer, Jaeda gives much of her time to the ACTS Water Charity, an organization focused on providing clean, accessible water to those who need it most.