You’ve Just Turned Pro
While there were smart, insightful people in your law school class, you’re now participating on a professional playing field at an entirely different level. The rules are tougher and the stakes are higher. You can’t just worry about yourself anymore — your clients and your colleagues are counting on you.
For Most, the Transition from Student to Lawyer Is Overwhelming
At times you’ll feel like you don’t belong. But have faith: You’ve felt great discomfort before, and you overcame it. And you can again.
Just to be safe, let’s review.
You’ll soon hear, if you haven’t already, that voice in your head — the one that tells you that you’re not good enough. It typically creeps in as soon as you step out of your comfort zone and whispers warnings that you don’t belong. That you don’t deserve it. That you’re a fraud.
The voice cuts you down, and it builds others up. It tells you that your peers are smarter, better and more talented — that they have it all figured out. If you listen to the voice, you end up staying safely within your comfort zone and never move forward. Fear is paralyzing.
Psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes attribute this type of fear to “The Impostor Syndrome.” They describe it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” They “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”
Author Neil Gaiman explained that the impostor syndrome is a common affliction on the way up any career ladder: “The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you.”
If you’ve ever stepped in front of a podium to address an audience or been promoted to a job that you’re not sure you can handle, then you’ve likely felt like an impostor. Every time I write an article (and certainly after I wrote my first book), I’m forced to push back doubts about why anyone would be interested in reading what I have to say. And the feeling of inadequacy or incompetence doesn’t just affect people in a professional setting — virtually all first-time parents wonder why in the world hospitals allow them to go home with a newborn child.
Self-Doubt Can Be a Constant State of Mind If You Let It
Young lawyers who are crippled by this syndrome operate from a dangerous place — one of uncertainty and timidity. They don’t trust their judgment or intuition. They hedge and hide. In some cases, they ask too many questions in an effort to inoculate themselves from consequences. In others, they ask too few out of fear of exposing their ignorance. In the worst cases, they hide their mistakes, thereby compounding them.
Here’s what young lawyers should do instead:
1. Understand That We Are All Impostors
This is the most important step in overcoming the impostor syndrome. No one knows what they’re doing most of the time. For people who routinely step out of their comfort zones, uncertainty is a constant. As screenwriter William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything.”
So peer down the halls of your office. Look into the eyes of your colleagues. Talk to people. Almost everyone feels like an impostor to some extent. If you can come to grips with the fact that those around you are feeling the same sense of anxiety that you are, then pushing through the fear becomes easier. Instead of succumbing to self-doubt, embrace it. Successful people all “fake it ‘til they make it” to some extent, so just keeping moving forward.
2. Remember That Being Wrong Doesn’t Make You a Fraud
You’ll screw up and you’ll get yelled at. You won’t screw up and you’ll get yelled at. Such is life at a law firm. You must have thick skin.
If you accept that mistakes — an embarrassing typo, an errant email, a misinterpreted opinion — are inevitable, you’ll be better prepared for what to do in the immediate aftermath. Some people can let a mistake, and the criticism that may result from it, roll off their backs and move on. But for some, mistakes lead to longer-term harmful consequences. They become paralyzed by fear of making another one. They let their mistakes define them.
Remember: Making a mistake doesn’t make you a fraud in the eyes of others. That only happens if you hide under your desk and shirk from responsibility in the aftermath of the mistake. When you make a mistake, deal with it head on.
3. Have a Long-Term Perspective
Understand that you are not who you will be. You are in the first season of your career. You are changing and evolving. No one expects you to be an expert lawyer this early on — except possibly yourself. In other words, you may feel like an impostor, but no one else thinks of you as one. You are growing into something and someone different. You are getting better every day. In two years, you’ll look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come. Have patience, but at the same time work like hell to be the best version of yourself in this season of your legal career.
Jay Harrington is co-founder of Harrington Communications, where he leads the Brand Strategy, Content Creation and Client Service teams. He is author of the book “One of a Kind: A Proven Path to a Profitable Practice,” as well as the e-book “How to Start Fast as a Law Firm Associate.” Previously, Jay was a commercial litigator and corporate bankruptcy attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and Foley & Lardner. He earned his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School. He writes regularly for Attorney at Work. Follow him on Twitter @harringj75.