Imposter Syndrome in the Law – How Can You Combat It?

Imposter syndrome, the idea that your success is down to luck rather than talent, has generated hundreds of column inches in the past few years. Although there has been a growing awareness of imposter syndrome, it was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” It’s common too – 70 per cent of us have felt like imposters at some point according to a study from the International Journal of Behavioural Science.

Arguably we’ve all been talking about imposter syndrome all the more in recent years because a number of societal and technological factors mean comparison with others is easier than ever and platforms like LinkedIn and Instagram mean we’re all bombarded with images of others’ seemingly perfect professional and personal lives. Writing in Forbes, author Christine Michel Carter also points towards Millennials being the ‘trophy generation’ raised by parents who career between praise and criticism – behaviours which are more likely to prompt feelings of being a fraud.

Although everyone can experience imposter syndrome the research suggests that there is a disproportionate impact for women – for a number of reasons. In 2020, KPMG released its Women’s Leadership Summit Report which focused on imposter syndrome and it identified 85 per cent of women in executive roles in the US believe imposter syndrome is commonly experienced by women in corporate America. The report also identified that many women felt a lack of representation in senior roles, and that this leads to feelings they ‘don’t belong’. For women who experience multiple layers of prejudice and bias, expressed in the term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw as intersectionality, this lack of visible role models becomes even more pronounced. “We’re more likely to experience imposter syndrome if we don’t see many examples of people who look like us or share our background who are clearly succeeding in our field,” said Emily Hu, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles when talking to the BBC. In Hong Kong and the legal profession particularly, imposter syndrome can also be more prevalent. Hong Kong’s relative high achievement orientation and the demands of the profession can exacerbate the feelings of ‘covering’ associated with the imposter syndrome.

Taking all of this into account, is imposter syndrome something law firm leaders need to be thinking about? In short, yes. Imposter syndrome naturally holds people back; in everything from applying for the next role and the promotion they want, to asking for development programmes and even speaking out in meetings. It is likely that colleagues who don’t feel as though people like themselves are represented in partnership and senior roles, are more likely to feel fraudulent at work, holding themselves back from being their true and best selves and also perpetuating the lack of diversity across the legal profession.

Empowering everyone to be their true, authentic and best selves starts with acknowledging that imposter syndrome is real. Facilitated conversations in a trusted and psychologically safe environment, talking through the signs of imposter syndrome can be very helpful. And spotting the signs of those who could be suffering from imposter syndrome is important too; such as people who tend to talk their own accomplishments down, turn down opportunities and work so hard they burnout.

Secondly, normalising imposter syndrome and encouraging people from all backgrounds in senior positions to speak about the times they’ve felt out of place or like a fraud in their roles can go a huge way in helping people address their own feelings of being an imposter and reducing any stigma.

In the long-term, it’s also important that a law firm invests in a strategic diversity and inclusion approach to make sure the pipeline of talent, as well as the senior roles, are as diverse as possible and those people are encouraged to reach their full potential. Mentoring can also be a good way to deal with imposter syndrome – allowing those people who may worry they’re not ‘enough’ to discuss their concerns with senior counterparts, helping them come to realise their feeling and anxieties are normal and they’re not alone, and developing strategies when those feelings arise.

In today’s environment, stress is common in the legal profession, especially against the background of a global pandemic. Adverse stress can compound the worries and anxieties related to imposter syndrome, so a robust wellbeing programme for lawyers can be hugely helpful in promoting positive physical and mental health. An open culture led from the top which encourages all employees to speak out and talk about their challenges is very important. Building on the principles of the growth mindset, the fundamental belief that we’re more likely to improve if we believe we can improve, then recognition of hard work, application and continuous learning is valuable for high performance. Research by psychologist Carol Dweck shows that praising effort (“You worked really hard on this”) is the best way to create a feeling of self-accomplishment and that a success was earned rather than came about as a stroke of good luck. Adopting the principles of the growth mindset means reframing our language and approach to learning; for example, rather than dwelling on our feelings of failure, embracing the learning from the ‘fabulous struggles’.

Ultimately, imposter syndrome shouldn’t be dismissed as the latest workplace buzzword – it’s a genuine concern holding back individuals and impacting on collective performance. Recognising the signs of imposter syndrome, starting the conversation and opening up a law firm culture so people feel comfortable to talk about their own professional struggles is a great way to ensure lawyers at your firm feel empowered, engaged and connected to your firm, capable to tackle challenges and aim high.

Head of Brook Graham APAC, Pinsent Masons Vario

Justine has extensive experience as an HR leader gained over 25-years working with leading organisations in the financial, retail and professional services sectors. She has specialised in leading international HR strategies through transformation and has a proven track record both as an HR leader in complex, multi-stakeholder environments and in managing organisational structural & cultural change.