If there’s one thing the pandemic taught us, it’s our need for nimble adaptation. Law has historically been slow to adapt to change and innovation. But the arrival of COVID-19 changed the way we conduct business, from navigating Zoom hearings and using VPNs to juggling child care and homeschooling for those with young children. Even turning off video filters proved challenging, as illustrated by the kitty cat lawyer Zoom hearing on YouTube.
But adaptation has spurred innovation and a reckoning to progress; the lessons we learned will hopefully help advance the profession. The importance of a “growth mindset” was on full display this year; the belief that intelligence can be developed rather than inherited allows growth in the face of challenge and adversity.
When we collaborate, innovate, seek feedback or admit errors, a growth mindset helps us learn and evolve. And for me, it was integral in helping me transition from my former career as a teacher, to my new career in which I find myself in the role of a student.
The truth is, my life choices long before COVID-19 forced me to incorporate a growth mindset. But it’s not easy to maintain without insecurity. I’ve learned to sit with the discomfort that comes with not knowing. However, having the experience of three careers over 30 years led me to believe that a “jack-of-all-trades is a master of none,” and as a result, I was never able to shake imposter syndrome. The legal profession has no tolerance for weakness. The familiar mantra, “Fake it till you make it” comes to mind. Since I became an attorney, I’ve struggled with self-confidence, and imposter syndrome is my albatross.
There’s a reason lawyers appear self-confident, even if they don’t feel it. If a jury senses an attorney’s lack of confidence, it can lead to doubts about trustworthiness and an adverse verdict. Equally detrimental, when law students smell fear in an inexperienced professor, the lack of trust can inhibit the learning process.
I’ve reinvented myself through three distinct careers: first in criminal prosecution, then in academia, and finally, in my current role in environmental law. These divergent paths forced me to work harder to be better—not necessarily by choice—but to avoid embarrassment and develop proficiency. A growth mindset has helped me in each of these paths.
As a young prosecutor in the 1990s in Los Angeles, I honed my skills in the courtroom through trial by fire. In each of the nearly 100 trials and adjudications I participated in, I learned. For example, in one trial, I discovered an important lesson about witness identification. When I asked the witness to identify the person who assaulted her, she didn’t automatically identify the defendant at the table.
Rather, as if in a movie, she looked deliberately around the room and pointed to a random person at the back of the courtroom. The Perry Mason moment taught me the value of ensuring the right person is at the table. In another trial, when the judge snored through my closing argument, I learned the importance of engagement, fluctuating both the volume and tenor of my voice for dramatic effect, particularly after lunch when everyone’s bellies were full.
Next, after a decade at home raising three children, I entered academia and became a legal writing professor at Michigan State University College of Law. I knew nothing about the pedagogy of teaching law. But as a former prosecutor, I appreciated the importance of self-confidence, so I stood in my superwoman pose in the bathroom before the interview, with my chest out and my hands on my hips, hoping that Amy Cuddy, the social psychologist at Harvard Business School, was accurate in her Ted Talk that promoted power posing as a self-confidence booster. I brought with me into the room all the positivity I could muster.
For 15 years, I leaned into the challenge of becoming an effective legal writing professor. I studied great writing, analyzed why it was great writing, and I embraced the pedagogy of writing. I incorporated a “flipped” classroom by creating podcasts for students to watch at home and using class for small group activities to apply students’ skills.
Although I was teaching my students legal writing, my own growth mindset allowed me to learn from them as I watched them adapt to the new class format that allowed them to share their strengths with each other in furtherance of their groups’ success. Watching their growth helped me to build my self-confidence as a teacher in the process. And yet, living in an ivory tower far from the practice of law nagged at me; an imposter who taught about the legal profession, but who hadn’t practiced since 1996.
When the hierarchy of academia became intolerable, I practiced the growth mindset that I preached to students and chose change once more. At 55 years old, when many people contemplate retirement, I embraced another new beginning that would fit into my socially conscious mindset; a job practicing environmental law.
I found myself in the precarious position of creating a resume that would convince leaders in the Michigan Attorney General’s Environmental Division why a middle-aged woman was qualified for the job, despite knowing nothing about environmental law. Fortunately, the interview focused on overcoming adversity, facing challenging situations and honing problem-solving skills rather than substantive law, and I got the job.
Phase Three of my professional life began three weeks before COVID-19 sent everyone home to telecommute for the next year. From this isolated setting, I am learning the complexities of environmental law. Despite my lack of experience with the administrative and civil process, I felt certain that hard work would enable me to conquer the imposter syndrome rearing its head again like a whack-a-mole.
One month into the job, I was assigned to second chair a complex case and the lead attorney was my former student, an excellent writer by any standards. The irony of the teacher becoming the student was not lost on me. The internalized pressure of a former student critiquing my work was overwhelming, and I feared the truth that I was an imposter would become public knowledge.
While I fancied myself a decent academic writer and had just completed a book chapter, writing for court proved challenging in the environmental arena. I felt defeated. My supervisor, aka former student, was frustrated with me and expressed his concerns with my brief. The legal profession is unforgiving.
In that moment, I remembered students who exposed to me their own fears of being an imposter. They told me how my redlining cut deep into their psyche because they believed they were strong writers. While I was empathetic, I warned them against personalizing feedback, because incorporating it would help them become more effective writers. I told them we all share the journey to becoming better writers, striving for perfection. But in truth, I could not empathize with them fully. Until now.
The singular experience of being the student again, with the meta-cognition of knowing how much I don’t know is frustrating and humbling but also healthy because it promotes growth. I use the discomfort to pull myself up by my bootstraps and lean in to the challenges of a new career, while embracing the fluidity of my ever-changing role in life, a student eternal.