Ten Things: In-House Lawyers and Imposter Syndrome

A while back, I wrote about how in-house lawyers can reduce stress in an otherwise pretty stressful job.  I picked the topic because it was an issue that had come up several times when speaking with in-house lawyers.  I am going to continue that trend and take up another topic that comes up frequently.  The topic is “imposter syndrome.”  I can imagine that a lot of you reading this instantly took note and said, “I know exactly what he means!”  Others may be thinking that I am going to discuss all those cool fake masks in the Mission: Impossible movies.  Regardless of which side of the line you fall, it is an important topic and one worth discussing because, as you will see, almost everyone deals with it at some point in their career.  I certainly did.  The important thing, in my opinion, is recognizing what’s going on when it hits and knowing how to escape its clutches.  This edition of “Ten Things” does just that, i.e., what is it and how do you move past it:

1.   What is “imposter syndrome.”  There are a lot of scientific descriptions I could set out.  But I’m not a scientist and science is hard.  So, no thanks.  I’ll just give you my take on what it means in the context of working in-house (and hope I am not crossing into the area of unauthorized practice of psychology – if that’s a thing).  Basically, imposter syndrome is the fear that you are a fraud and not deserving of the job/position you are in.  You have substantial doubts about your ability to handle things – or a specific problem – and believe that at any minute you’ll be exposed as a charlatan and shown the door.  For most, these episodes are sporadic but for many, it is a chronic problem.  In a profession that seems designed to induce stress and insecurity, throwing bouts of imposter syndrome on top of the pile just feels unfair.  Fortunately, there are some things you can do to minimize the worst parts of the problem.

2.  You are not alone.  The most important thing to keep in mind is that you are not alone.  Studies estimate that 70% of lawyers (in-house and outside) experience imposter syndrome to varying degrees.  This means that the feelings you have are, to some extent, normal and part of the job.  You can take some comfort in the fact that feeling this way doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  It means you’re normal.  I can recall more than a handful of times throughout my career where I felt totally inadequate for the job and had no idea how I was going to move forward, from my first year as an associate at a big law firm to being general counsel faced with massive bet-the-company litigation.  It’s not a fun feeling.  But I got through it.  Yet, because the syndrome is so common, that means you can almost always find someone to talk to who can sympathize and help you over the hump – which is critical.  More on that below.

3.  Perfection is impossible.  At the root of many bouts of imposter syndrome is the fear of screwing up or, if you do screw up, that you cannot recover and will be fired.  Rest assured from someone who has screwed up plenty of times (potentially more than the daily allowable dosage); perfection cannot be your measuring stick.  And, unless you work in a very unusual environment, screwing up is something everyone does.  From the CEO to the CFO to the general counsel to the security guy sitting at the front desk.  Everyone screws up.  The only “superheroes” are in comic books and the rest of us mortals make mistakes.  Fear of failure cannot become fear of trying.  In the in-house world, doing nothing is usually not an option.  If you make a mistake, the world – and the company – will likely keep moving along.   If you keep this in mind, you can start to get away from some of the most crippling parts of self-doubt that make up the syndrome.  The only test I apply to my decisions is the following: have I thought the issue through properly, have I considered the right variables, and have I acted in good faith and with good intention?  If I can answer “yes” to these questions, then the fact that I may have come to the wrong answer or given the wrong advice is something I can live with.  You can too.  And if that’s not good enough for whoever you work for then you are working at the wrong company.

4.  List your strengths.  Dealing with imposter syndrome is in large part mental, but there are many “factual” things you can do to help you in those moments when you feel overwhelmed by the sense of not being up to the job.  One thing you can do is list your strengths.  Everyone has strengths, though, unfortunately, we all often spend too much time considering our weaknesses.  The process is simple.  Whenever you get the feeling that you are a fraud or not deserving of your position, grab a piece of paper (or open up a new document) and start to write out your workplace strengths.  For example:

  • Good writer.
  • Quick learner.
  • Hard worker.
  • Loyal and dedicated to the company.
  • Not afraid of challenges.
  • Can simplify complex topics.
  • Responsive.
  • Proactive.

Whatever your strengths are, list them out.  By the time you are done, you will feel much better about yourself because no one with your strengths is undeserving or a fraud.  It may mean you have things to learn, but that applies to all of us.  And we discuss that part of the equation below.

5.  List your accomplishments.  If you thought listing your strengths was helpful, then brace yourself for the “alpha-list.”  Whenever you feel the pangs of imposter syndrome, grab some paper and start to write out your work accomplishments.  Things like:

  • Graduated college and law school.
  • Was an associate at Mega Law PLLC.
  • Applied for and got my job based on my talents.
  • Saved the company $1M by settling the Smith litigation.
  • Created new contract templates for the business that will save time and money.
  • Created a compliance program.
  • Implemented contract management and e-billing systems.
  • Am a board member of my local ACC chapter.

Spending 10- or 15-minutes thinking about and writing down all of the great things you have accomplished over the course of your career can be incredibly helpful.  I am betting that you have a good number of accomplishments and, to an impartial eye, they are very impressive.  Celebrate them!  No one running a legal department Ponzi scheme could accomplish these things.  Similarly, when you get positive feedback from your boss or the business, save those notes and emails and look back on them whenever you need to reassure yourself that you are both talented and worthy.  Believe me, no one hands out thanks and good jobs to lawyers unless they really mean it.

6.  Don’t compare yourself to others.  I know I am starting to sound like Stuart Smalley here,[1] but one problem many lawyers have is the continuous need to compare themselves to others in the profession.  Like everything in life, there are always others who have more, know more, make more, are more recognized, and appear to be more accomplished.  When we compare ourselves to others, we almost always imagine the other person as better and ourselves as inadequate.  Depending on your definitions of “better” and “inadequate,” it may be true.  But, more likely it isn’t true.  Here are three things to keep in mind: a) the only person who matters is you and what you have accomplished.  Comparing yourself to others is almost always a losing game – don’t play it, b) you have no idea what the other person is really like.  They may be more successful on some level, but less successful on another (including being a giant asshole, which is not a measure of success except in politics).  The world’s greatest trial lawyer probably cannot draft a SaaS contract worth a crap.  But you can.  Focus on that, and c) it doesn’t matter where you went to law school, whether you were on law review, or whether worked at Mega Law PLLC.  All that matters is that you have a law degree and you are (hopefully) now working for a company you like and a legal department you enjoy being part of (even if it’s just you).  If you have those last two things, you are already ahead of most lawyers.  However you got there, just enjoy the fact that you are there.

7.  The power of “not yet.”  Let’s start with the fact that no one can know everything.  If you agree with this, then guess what?  You don’t know everything and there is no way you can.  As in-house counsel, you must constantly be ready to learn new things (and, hopefully, that is one of the things that brought you in-house).  If you are feeling inadequate because there is an issue you are dealing with that is beyond what you know, you are 100% normal.  The key is how you react to this problem.  Your reaction should not be, “I’m a loser and a failure since I don’t know what to do with this problem.”  It should be, “I don’t know what to do with this problem… yet.  But I am smart enough and dedicated enough to figure it out.  And I will.”  You must embrace the power of “not yet” because it means you have the opportunity (and ability) to learn something new.  Here, anxiety is productive because it means you know your limitations and are ready to work to expand your skills and knowledge.  When faced with something unfamiliar or unusually complex, don’t shy away.  It may be you need to learn a new area of the law.  You can do it.  It is a superpower all lawyers have.  It may be that you need to call outside counsel.  Nothing wrong with that.  It may mean you need to ask for help.  Definitely, nothing wrong with that plan either.

8.  Ask for help.  Another common problem among in-house lawyers is the “go it alone” ethos that dominates our culture.  If there is one thing that can make a bout of imposter syndrome go from average to critical it’s being alone and spinning yourself up into a god-awful mess because your worst critic is – gasp! – yourself.  Every lawyer (in-house or outside counsel) needs a support system and the mental toughness to realize that asking people for help with solving an issue is not a sign of weakness.  It’s a sign of maturity and confidence.  If I didn’t know the answer to something or even where to start, I was never shy about asking other people, including people who reported to me, for help in figuring out the next step.  I still do this.  There is no weakness in recognizing that you do not have all the answers.  The people you ask for help will often be flattered you thought of them as someone who could help you solve a problem.  You will also find that talking out an issue with someone will reveal that you know far more than you thought you did about the topic and that your ideas or plans are often on target.  Likewise, when you find yourself falling into the rabbit hole of self-inflicted “unworthiness,” reach out to someone (or multiple someone’s).  It can be a mentor, a colleague in the department or at the company, your best friend from law school, a coach, your significant other, or whomever.  Every in-house lawyer should be building a network of friends and colleagues.  Your own personal board of directors to lean on.  The odds are incredibly high that just 10 or 15 minutes of conversation with someone in your network, especially another lawyer, will be enough to snap you back to the realization that you are not the worst lawyer of all time (many others are frantically laying claim to that mantle).  They will help you realize that you are exactly where you’re supposed to be – and you deserve everything thing you have gotten.  Try it.  You will feel immensely better.

9.  Help others.  If you are a manager of people, you should always be on the lookout for signs that the people you manage may be suffering from imposter syndrome.  In fact, you may be the cause.  Managers not setting clear expectations or trusting people to do the job without micromanaging consistently leads to people feeling unsure about their abilities.  Don’t be that manager – learn to delegate properly.  The same is true for lack of real feedback, good or bad. Good employees are coachable and crave feedback.  If they are not doing something correctly, they want to know.  Tell them (just be constructive).  And when people do good things, celebrate and recognize those accomplishments.  Everyone enjoys recognition. My single rule for managing people is to be the type of manager I would want to report to.  If you keep this in mind, you can go a long way in ensuring that your team feels good about where they are and, more importantly, where they are going in their careers.  Similarly, be the mentor, colleague, or friend that someone can call when they’re feeling overwhelmed or feeling like a sham.  Helping them see their accomplishments, their strengths, and their potential to do even more will go a long way.  Share your own “imposter” moments, help them think through the next steps to solving the problem that has them stumped,[2] and show them that there is opportunity in not knowing something, i.e., the power of “not yet.”  And feel free to share this post if you know someone that can use a little bucking up.

10.  Learn to laugh.  I want to end with what I think is an important tactic to battle imposter syndrome, and that is the ability to laugh.  At yourself, at the situation, at the absurdness of it all.  You have picked a profession that dispenses stress like Pez candy.  You can let it swallow you whole or you can shrug your shoulders and say “Yeah, this is a tough one.  Good thing they have the world’s greatest legal minds on the job.  And when those guys get here, we’ll be in good shape!”[3]  The ability to poke fun at yourself or the situation is a critical survival skill for lawyers.  It is one way to not let a tough situation turn into a bad situation, i.e., accept that things are a bit rough at the moment but you are smart enough and talented enough to work through it.  There were definitely times when I was completely lost over what to do next or whether I was the right person to lead the fight.  I found that having the ability to take the situation seriously, but not myself so seriously was incredibly helpful in getting into the right mindset to start to solve the problem.  A well-placed quip can break the tension and help the entire team refocus and just feel better about their ability to deal with whatever has caused so much stress.  You may not have the answer right then and there, but if you can make yourself relax, others will follow your lead and get to work.

*****

Imposter syndrome is a real problem for many in-house lawyers.  I don’t have all the answers and if you have something you think would help others, share it in the comments to this post.  For me, the key thing to keep in mind is everyone has moments of doubt, moments where they feel like a fraud or somehow unworthy of the position they hold.  When you realize that you are not the only one who feels this way, it makes dealing with imposter syndrome much easier.  List out your strengths and skills – you’ll be surprised at how good this makes you feel.  Keep in mind that not knowing something is just the first step in learning how to do it.  Take joy in the opportunity to learn something new.  And, most importantly, reach out to your network when you’re feeling like you are failing.  Talking it out is the most effective way to help your brain see the light – you are smart, talented, and capable.  And you deserve your spot.  Don’t let anyone – especially yourself – tell you otherwise.

Sterling Miller

June 30, 2022

My fifth book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department: More Than Just a Cost Center is available now, including as an eBook!  As the ABA says, “Buying this book is critical to the defense of our nation!”  The ABA knows what it’s talking about so just buy a copy of the book and keep America safe.  You can buy it HERE.

Cover of Value Book

Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies Volume 2, are on sale now at the ABA website (including as e-books).

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I have published two other books: The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, webinars/CLEs, coaching, training, and consulting.

book_two

Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.  If you have questions or comments, or ideas for a post, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net, or if you would like a CLE for your in-house legal team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at smiller@hilgersgraben.com

[1] If you don’t know what I am talking about, check out this Saturday Night Live skit from the 1990’s.

[2] I know I have said this before but this was literally the basis for the blog.  My habit of calling people into a conference room and asking them to help me whiteboard ten things we need to know about something when we had no idea how to tackle it.  It works!

[3] Yes, I actually said this once during one of the many insanely tense meetings I attend as general counsel.  It broke the tension in the room and helped everyone relax a bit and start to focus on next steps vs. panic.

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