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Litigation News

Winter 2024 Vol. 49, No. 2

Are We Hiding in Plain Sight?

Brian Alain Zemil


  • The legal profession expects exceptionalism, is intolerant of mistakes, and promotes risk avoidance. 
  • This environment may induce stress-related problems such as the “impostor syndrome.”
  • The imposter syndrome exists when a person doubts his or her own skills, attributing any success to luck, leading to a relentless fear that the imposter will be “unmasked” as a fraud.
Are We Hiding in Plain Sight?
Olga Rolenko via Getty

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“Pressure, pushing down on me, pushing down on you…” —Queen

Did Freddie Mercury know lawyers are constantly responding to pressing client demands, tight deadlines, and a heavy drumbeat to develop more business? The profession expects exceptionalism, is intolerant of mistakes, and promotes risk avoidance. This pressure cooker environment may induce stress-related problems such as the “impostor syndrome” (also known as “impostor phenomenon”).

The imposter syndrome exists when a person doubts his or her own skills, attributing any success to luck, leading to a relentless fear that the imposter will be “unmasked” as a fraud. The syndrome is a common condition among overachievers and perfectionists suffering from self-doubt and feelings of intellectual fraud. It disproportionately impacts the legal profession—adversely affecting a lawyer’s performance and well-being. There are remedies, however, that can help attorneys address the negative thoughts and feelings associated with the imposter phenomenon.

“Are You Prepared for the Pretender?” – Jackson Browne

In 1978, psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes coined the phrase “impostor phenomenon,” describing the condition as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable, or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” The label describes individuals who “are highly motivated to achieve, but who also live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.” While not a clinical psychiatric diagnosis, the syndrome is typically accompanied by perfectionism, all-or-nothing thinking, and fear of rejection and failure. These thought patterns can cause insecurity, anxiety, and stress.

Self-doubt is a universal experience amplified in the legal profession. The Journal of General Internal Medicine published a comprehensive review of 62 studies encompassing over 14,000 participants, which revealed that the syndrome is a pervasive experience. That review indicated that imposter syndrome exists in as much as 82 percent of people, depending on the social context. Research from the International Journal of Behavioral Sciences similarly suggests that 70 percent of people experience imposter syndrome. A national study conducted by Access Commercial Finance found that lawyers in the United Kingdom are one of the top four types of professionals who experience impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome thrives in the legal profession, promoting “a culture in which vulnerability is often seen as weakness and attorneys are therefore reluctant to admit that this is a problem for them,” states Neha Sampat, CEO of BelongLab. Lawyers also attempt to hide their uncertainty behind façades of confidence and achievement they believe clients and colleagues expect. The hidden and excessive self-doubt can paralyze lawyers causing them to avoid challenging assignments, withdraw from speaking during meetings, and procrastinate over assignments. The impostor syndrome may adversely affect attorneys’ well-being, possibly preventing them from fulfilling their professional potential, which can ultimately lead to burnout.

For some lawyers, the constant doubts may fuel productivity, hoping to increase the likelihood of achievement through more effort and over-preparedness. The impostor syndrome maintains its hold through the “impostor cycle.” The cycle experience begins when the attorney starts a task, either with intense over-preparation or with procrastination, followed by frantic planning. After the attorney finishes the task successfully, the lawyer feels accomplished and relieved, but only momentarily.

The favorable results, the over-worker believes, do not reflect real ability, while the procrastinator attributes the success to luck. A combination of an impostor’s “beliefs about the mechanics of success and their perceptions of the key contribution of effort or luck influencing their success on a particular task reinforces the impostor cycle,” explains Clance. When facing a new achievement-related task, self-doubt may create a high level of anxiety, and the impostor cycle is repeated reinforcing the feeling of fraudulence instead of weakening the links of the impostor cycle.

“I made it to the end
I nearly paid the cost
I lost a lot of friends
I sacrificed a lot
I’d do it all again
’Cause I made it to the top
But I can’t keep doubting myself anymore
No, oh no, no, no, no
I can’t keep doubting myself, no.”
– Mary J. Blige

“Are You There for the Pretender?” – Jackson Browne

Law firms, leaders, and lawyers can adopt effective strategies to collectively address and overcome the imposter syndrome. Law firms can play an integral role in promoting and conducting a healthy legal culture that normalizes the imposter syndrome and removes the stigma for those suffering from the condition, so they are more likely to seek help. Specifically, law firms can:

  1. raise awareness through impostor syndrome programming and workshops; 
  2. offer professional development training to reduce perceptions of intellectual fraud; and 
  3. provide attorney access to mental health resources.

Leaders or supervising attorneys can also play a direct role in addressing the imposter syndrome. “Leaders do not have to be perfect in order to be successful. Quite the opposite. Admitting mistakes, being open and honest, and accepting foibles and flaws yields far more effective results than projecting an untouchable facade. Tough leaders may inspire through fear or intimidation. Vulnerable leaders inspire with authenticity and humanity. And it is the latter that is more likely to yield better results,” according to Augusto Giacoman, partner in Strategy&’s Enterprise Strategy & Transformation practice. Supervising attorneys can:

  1. inquire regularly with attorneys about how they are doing;
  2. provide stretch opportunities to improve lawyer capabilities while building confidence based on a foundation of realized substance; and 
  3. provide constructive feedback identifying strengths and specific actions for improvement.

An attorney experiencing impostor syndrome can develop and utilize skills to maximize workplace-related well-being. Psychologist Jessamy Hibberd recommends adopting a “growth mindset” that allows an individual to be receptive to self-doubt in a constructive way and helps to overcome imposter syndrome. A growth mindset sees challenges and failures as an opportunity to gain experience and grow, elaborates psychologist Carol Dweck, who created the term. A growth mindset nurtures consistent growth, as opposed to the static perspective that you are an imposter whose perceived shortcomings will someday be discovered. As attorneys, you can also:

  1. observe your impostor thoughts and critically analyze them when they surface, ask what specialized skills you have that add value to completing the assignment; 
  2. practice getting comfortable being uncomfortable and address impulsive perfectionistic responses to cure the feelings of fear from self-doubt with time limits on the amount of time you spend on the project; and 
  3. visualize your success and celebrate your victories as worthy accomplishments.

The Power of Authenticity

We live in a world of negative messaging that can condition us to believe we do not belong and question whether we are good enough lawyers. So we try to act like the one we think fits the profession while endlessly pursuing unsatisfied demands of success. I’ve been there, and I still catch myself questioning my work product, like this article, and at other times wonder how I got here. What I discovered is that the journey from impostor to well-being is in becoming who you are and not futilely trying to be someone else—an imposter.

Authenticity is a pathway to well-being and effective advocacy. No one is spared from self-doubt, and the practice of law can amplify the condition, creating anxiety and depression. We can, however, adopt practices to protect ourselves from unnecessary suffering and experience a more fulfilling and sustaining sense of well-being in life and the profession.

“Say a prayer for the pretender.” —Jackson Browne


  • David Bowie and Queen, “Under Pressure,” Hot Space (EMI 1982).
  • Jackson Browne, “The Pretender,” The Pretender (Asylum 1976).
  • Mary J. Blige, "Doubt,” The London Sessions (Capitol 2014).