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The Imposter Syndrome: Remedying Female Attorneys’ Self-Doubt in the Legal Profession

By Cara Mannion, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2020

In the 2019 series of student blog posts for Legal Problem Solving, students are digging into the American Bar Association's 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services to explore how far we've come in 2019 and what remains to do in the innovation of legal services delivery.

The legal profession carries with it a pressure to succeed. In law schools and law offices across the country, students and attorneys alike work long hours to be the best in their fields. Often this involves some sort of peer comparison, like students being ranked in their law school classes or attorneys competing for the role of partner.

Recently, social scientists have linked this intense level of peer competition to a psychological phenomenon known as the Imposter Syndrome — a mixture of anxiety and self-doubt that prevents someone from recognizing their own successes. Those who suffer from this syndrome feel inadequate amongst their peers, despite objective evidence showing they are quite skilled and accomplished. No level of success can convince them otherwise. They feel like a complete fraud whose accomplishments were born out of luck instead of skill or hard work.

One can see how law students and attorneys are particularly susceptible to the Imposter Syndrome. In a world that requires you to compare yourself to high-achieving peers, it is easy to feel “less than” or inadequate. In fact, those who suffer from this syndrome are often “Type A” perfectionists — a type of personality that is naturally drawn to the legal profession.

Notably, women are more susceptible to the Imposter Syndrome than men. Scientists believe this is because women produce less testosterone, otherwise known as “the confidence hormone.” As one author put it, men are more likely to push through the syndrome while women tend to give in to their self-doubt.

This disparate impact on women has particular importance in the legal profession: because there are fewer female attorneys occupying positions of power, they may be more susceptible to the Imposter Syndrome.

This susceptibility can have broad impacts on the legal profession as a whole.

First, it could continue suppressing the number of women who hold positions of power in the legal profession. Fewer women will stay on the partnership track if they do not perceive themselves as qualified or deserving. And even if they do receive these promotions, they may believe they do not deserve it or that someone “made a mistake,” thereby reducing their impact in those roles.

Second, it could cause female attorneys to shy away from asking for compensation equal to that of their male counterparts. Those who suffer from the Imposter Syndrome likely attach a lower value to their work.

Third, it could prevent female attorneys from seeking out job experiences that interest them. If a female attorney believes she would not complete the task as well as her peers, she likely will not seek out the opportunity.

Fourth, it could prevent female attorneys from speaking up during meetings. Inherent to the Imposter Syndrome is a fear of being “found out.” By being more vocal, a female attorney opens herself up to pushback or questioning that could “reveal” her perceived inadequacies.

Last, this could stifle the mentorship of younger female attorneys rising through the ranks. Strong mentors breed strong mentees. If female mentors discount their successes or chalk it up to “just being lucky,” they deprive their mentees of the opportunity to learn from their professional journeys.

So how can the legal industry overcome the Imposter Syndrome’s disparate impact on women?

It all starts with self-recognition. Female attorneys must track these thoughts and assess when they emerge. Context is important here: attorneys should determine whether there are certain individuals or settings that cause these feelings of inadequacy.

Next, attorneys suffering from the Imposter Syndrome should modify their thought processes. For example, they can tell themselves that nobody knows everything, or that they deserve success. It is important to be kind to yourself and recognize that everyone makes mistakes at some point.

Next, attorneys must foster discussion about the Imposter Syndrome and other feelings of inadequacy. Most people suffer this syndrome in silence. This makes sense: part of this syndrome is worrying that people will unmask you as a fraud. By promoting this type of discussion, attorneys can recognize through shared experiences that everyone doubts themselves now and then.

Finally, attorneys can seek support from others. This can provide a good reality check and allow individuals to know they are not alone. This support can come from a variety of sources, including a human resources department, a therapist, a coworker, a mentor, a family member, or a friend. Law firms and other employers may want to provide formal programming that discusses the Imposter Syndrome and lays out the internal resources available to help.

The above steps are not a cure-all for the Imposter Syndrome. The legal profession is dominated by peer competition and self-doubt, and women are especially vulnerable to these issues. But by recognizing and reacting to the Imposter Syndrome, we can more effectively work toward better female representation in the legal industry.