I know I’m not the only one who graduated law school suffering from “impostor syndrome”—that feeling that even though I had graduated, there was no way I knew enough to represent clients on my own. It is that feeling that everyone else in the room is really an attorney, and I’m the impostor. Adopting a “just wing it” strategy may outwardly solve the lack of confidence, but it can put you in a problematic situation when you are out of your depth. Recognizing those moments when you need to ask for help, or get back to a client with advice, can help ensure that you are providing the best information and build your confidence in the process.
Embrace the Knowledge You Have
Time is your friend. Most people do not graduate and begin practicing law on day one without hitting stumbling blocks. You’re bound to have that “whoops, let me check with my boss” or “well, I don’t know off the top of my head, but let me research that” moment. And you know what? Your clients will be okay with that. If they’re coming to you as their attorney or prospective attorney, they already recognize that you have expertise that they don’t: you have a law degree and passed the bar. Once you recognize that, everything becomes easier. You have their respect simply because of the education you’ve gone through. You’ll keep that respect by being honest with them about your limits and knowledge.
That “You’re in over Your Head” Conversation
“Fake it ‘til you make it” can be good advice, but not here. There’s a vast difference between overestimating your knowledge on a law school exam versus overrepresenting how much you know to a potential client. The best policy is honesty. Sometimes there will be issues you need to research before taking a matter or providing advice. Other times, it truly will be something that is over your head. Ethically speaking, you, as the lawyer, must recognize this difference. The last thing you or your client need is to get too far into a matter and realize you’re out of your depth. They will be out time and legal expenses, leaving everyone upset.
The same goes for being honest with your boss. I’m lucky—my boss is very open and understanding when I ask for advice. Most of the time, he talks me through the issues, making me realize I knew more than I thought I did. Even if you feel like you don’t remember anything from law school, often, you know more than you think. Sometimes, all you need to do is take a step back, take a deep breath, and think calmly about the situation. You’d be surprised what that quick mental break can do for your confidence.
Do You Know Enough?
There’s not a great answer to this. Knowledge comes with time. I was terrified to give anyone advice for fear that I was incorrect. Then, one day, I felt confident in myself on a topic that had been a pet project of mine. I knew what I was saying to the client, and I knew what I was doing. I had to talk to another client about an entirely different issue right after that, and that confidence bled over into that next interaction. Build on each conversation you have and recognize your shortcomings while still recognizing that maybe, just maybe, you do know enough.
You can build your confidence by recognizing that you can be qualified and competent as an attorney not because you immediately know every answer but because you know where and how to find the answer. Impostor syndrome doesn’t simply disappear, but over time, it becomes one of those hurdles you cleared in your legal career, just like that 1L contracts professor who painfully kept cold-calling you.