Impostor syndrome in legal profession

By Mylène Woehrlé

Law360 Canada (September 6, 2023, 2:14 PM EDT) --
Mylène Woehrlé
Have you ever asked yourself, “What am I doing here?” “I don’t belong, and surely they think so too” or “Do I bring any value to the table?” During my first year of law school, I often had these thoughts, as they did for many of my peers. If these sentiments resonate with you, it may indicate the presence of impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome manifests when an individual’s self-perception diverges from the perceptions of their peers and superiors. It encompasses feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt, despite one’s academic achievements, qualifications and professional experience. Those afflicted often believe they do not deserve credit for their achievements and “remain internally convinced they are [a] fraud.” They may attribute their successes to luck or good timing, rather than their actual ability.

To deal with the anxiety that comes with these thoughts, individuals with impostor syndrome frequently resort to overworking themselves and setting unachievable standards. Their motivation stems from a fear of discovery by others, a desire to conceal their perceived shortcomings, an effort to mitigate their perceived lack of intellect, or an attempt to alleviate potential guilt stemming from the belief that they are deceiving others. This persistent pressure can take a toll on their emotional well-being and professional performance, potentially leading to the development of depression and anxiety.

Impostor syndrome can impact anyone in the legal profession, affecting law students and seasoned partners at large firms alike. Notably, personality traits commonly associated with legal practitioners, such as being a high achiever or perfectionist, can both enable professional excellence but give rise to negative self-talk and feelings of incompetence.  

These tendencies typically originate prior to one’s law education and persist throughout one’s career. During law school, students often perceive their peers are brighter, grasping concepts more effortlessly, having more experience and more expansive networking circles. Given the intensity of the program and the successful nature of all candidates, it is easy to get trapped in these thought patterns. Awareness of these patterns presents an opportunity to intervene before they become all-consuming.

Upon entering the legal profession, lawyers encounter additional pressure, including an intolerance of mistakes and unrealistic expectations fostered by the profession’s inherent demands. Given these dynamics, coupled with common traits of lawyers, it comes as no surprise that self-doubt and thoughts of fraudulence may surface.

Having a clear definition of impostor syndrome, as well as its impact on lawyers, is critical in investigating ways we can target these feelings to show up more authentically and confidently in their work. Central to overcoming these thought patterns is a shift in mindset. First, you must acknowledge the feelings present, instead of dismissing them by working harder or relying on vices such as drugs or alcohol. This acknowledgment can help diminish the hold these thoughts have over an individual and allows for the reassertion control.  

It is also important to recognize and take stock of your own unique expertise and accomplishments, and remind yourself that you have earned your place in the academic or professional environment you find yourself in. Keeping a running log of your strengths can help increase your confidence and be a helpful tool to refer to when such negative thoughts incur.  

Instead of spending your time comparing yourself to others, try to turn that focus inward and measure your own achievements. Oftentimes, people can seem like they have it all together when in reality they struggle with the same obstacles as you do. Opening dialogue with colleagues or friends you trust, can reveal these mutual struggles, deepen your relationships, and create a sense of community facing the inevitable challenges to come.

It is important to understand that experiencing impostor syndrome is a normal facet of the human experience, even within the legal realm. Esteemed jurists such as Justice Glennys McVeigh and Justice Mahmud Jamal have grappled with their own feelings of self-doubt, even after many years on the bench.

In conclusion, the journey towards a transformed mindset is a gradual one, but it is achievable. Acknowledge the thoughts, remind yourself of your accomplishments and cultivate meaningful connections with trusted peers. In time, individuals will come to believe that they rightfully deserve their place in their academic or professional sphere.

Mylène Woehrlé is a second-year law student at the University of Ottawa. She recently completed the Public International Law Program at Bader College in England. She also ran the Federation of Ontario Law Association’s mental health focused social media page.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.  

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