Guest blogger, Raminder Hayre, reflects on how the lack of transparency and mentorship in the legal profession can lead to imposter syndrome and eventually anxiety and depression.
Former colleague Kim Jakeman and I were recently chatting about the prevalence of imposter syndrome and the links between the development of imposter syndrome in law school and how important transparency and mentorship is during articles/junior lawyering to combat it. We shared some of our personal struggles and she asked me to write a blog post on the topic. I follow Life in Law and was eager to contribute, I hope you find this post helpful.
I am often asked, “How can you have so much confidence as a junior lawyer?” I am always taken aback by the question because I never think that I am “more confident” than my peers – but when I reflect on it perhaps it is because outwardly, I appear to be. However, this has come at a mental cost, and a lot of lonely times spent trying to figure out my place in this profession.
I am open about my struggle with imposter syndrome and anxiety. It plays a role as I continue on my journey to find my niche as a person and professional and seek my calling as a lawyer, and I am not alone in this. I believe many lawyers are pre-disposed to and struggle with imposter syndrome whether they realize it or not.
So what is “imposter syndrome”? Simply put, imposter syndrome is when you look to achieve something almost unachievable such as striving for perfection; for example, thinking that you will never be a “true lawyer”, or “successful” if you do not succeed in getting a desired result. Interestingly enough, this is almost impossible in law. Ours is a subjective profession where lawyers are continually battling and considering different opinions, perceptions, and applications. In my opinion, we will probably never get a 10/10 result, despite what more senior counsel may claim.
One of the ways imposter syndrome is perpetuated, and I’ll use myself as an example, is that as a junior lawyer I have been made to feel like a number and a commodity. I can appreciate that this feeling isn’t specific to the practice of law and can apply to any individual at the beginning of their career path. You’re often assisting those more senior to you with their own goals and likely not doing so to the standard of perfection to which these individuals hold you. As we develop in our careers and make mistakes, we leave ourselves vulnerable to criticism which only heightens feelings of anxiety and spiralling negative thoughts about what we could have done differently. It’s the praise which keeps us focused on all we have done and accomplished as junior lawyers but is often lacking.
The lawyers that I have talked to about imposter syndrome range in years of call and include both law and articled students. Students especially are fearful of their future careers in law as they assume that the only way to succeed is to get no sleep to prove themselves, or to bend over backwards for somebody that may see them as replaceable.
Rather than receiving the feedback we hope for when we ask “how am I doing?” we are met with silence or indifference. This void and space enhances our anxiety which leads to further spiralling and sometimes depression when we feel that we will “never be good enough” to make it or succeed. We then try to be perfect as we look to achieve the unachievable. This is imposter syndrome inherited from our work family.
One of the biggest triggers of anxiety is uncertainty. Many of us live in this cloud of uncertainty in regular life, and at work too. As a litigator, I can speak to the fact that though the outcome of something may be plausible, there is still uncertainty. Mixing that with a shot of confusion or criticism is a cocktail for disaster when already anxious and struggling.
While this may all sound negative, on the bright side is the fact that we are now talking about these things, and there is space to talk about them, which means that it can only get better.
I would like to give recognition and praise to those lawyers that I have worked with and around that are accommodating and empathetic to junior lawyers. They remember how they felt, and share their stories, which in turn helps us realize that we are not alone in this profession. While this profession is one built on comradery the reality is that it can feel adversarial when lawyers step over one another to further fill the void caused by the daily struggle of imposter syndrome.
In order to help one another, we should start being open and honest about where the struggles occur for all of us, as well as checking in on our colleagues to ensure that no one is being so overwhelmed that it is affecting their life outside of the office.
We should normalize the fact that we all struggle and have struggled to get where we are. Once we appreciate and acknowledge that, the “need to fit in” will dissipate as we recognize that we all fit in because of how individual the journey of becoming a lawyer is in the first place.
Raminder Hayre, B.A., M.Bus, J.D., is an associate with Dolden Wallace Folick. She is a strong advocate for mental well-being in the legal profession and passionate about encouraging open conversations around mental health and removing the stigma attached to this issue. She is a sought after and frequent speaker and presenter on this topic. Raminder is a member of the Lawyer Well-Being Mentor program at Peter A. Allard School of Law at UBC.