“Imposter!” said no one to you ever

“Imposter!” Said no one to you ever … 

Yet, we are plagued by nagging thoughts of self-doubt, inner criticism and imagined terrible possible outcomes. These unbidden thoughts are overprotective psychological constructs designed to keep us “safe,” yet they can literally sabotage our efforts and interfere with the trajectory of our careers.

For lawyers, this perfectionist tendency is amplified. For those of us who didn’t enter law school with perfectionist tendencies, we acquired them in our 1L legal writing class. A typo, we were warned, would get our briefs thrown out by a judge, causing irreparable harm to our clients, and exposing us to legal malpractice. (I went to law school before laptops, which meant long nights propped up on black coffee, typing my briefs on a typewriter, tiny bottles of whiteout in various shades of white littered my kitchen table. I have a vague recollection that even whiteout wasn’t allowed; if you graduated pre-2K, let me know … ) 

As if the responsibility of representing another human being—be it in a transaction, litigation, or a fight for their freedom—wasn’t great enough, we’re terrified of typos.

So it’s no wonder that lawyers sweat over every possibility, real and imagined. As practice progresses, even with our ever-expanding knowledge, understanding and experience, the doubts persist. Perfection robs us of our confidence, punishes our productivity, and usurps time better spent doing anything else. Perfection is an illusory threshold that no one has ever met.

  • We spend three days on a motion that is only marginally better than the first draft written in 45 minutes.

  • We ruminate about our mediation performance and all of the ways that we might have handled it, sometimes down to the choice of words, depriving ourselves of the peace of leaving the matter with the decision-maker, often re-analyzing issues that we spent hours preparing beforehand.

  • We miss out on business development opportunities because our discomfort overrides our courage.

This issue dovetails with imposter syndrome, often cited as a factor impeding the advancement of women, yet it doesn’t discriminate:

  • At a retreat program I facilitated last year, a senior male litigator asked me how to overcome his persistent fear.

  • Similarly, a male securities lawyer shared with me that he experienced imposter syndrome throughout his successful career in BigLaw.

There’s a better way to practice.

These mental machinations are the imperfect efforts of our ancient brain to keep us safe from psychological threats such as concern about clients, deadlines, partnership, bills, family, etc. Our new brain—our thinking brain–knows better. It’s actually in charge and can override these mental inhibitors, if we allow it to do so. 

  1. The first step is to notice the inner doubt. It can be subtle, sometimes not even represented by a fully articulated thoughts, but rather by a feeling, a barely perceptible sensation of dread or shortness of breath.

  2. Check their veracity. Are there alternative perspectives that you’re rejecting or minimizing?

  3. Notice any resistance to overriding or disputing inner doubt or criticism. Resistance can be subtle, yet it’s a powerful driver of our behavior or inaction. And again, as lawyers driven toward perfection, we’re often afraid to ignore what we interpret as warnings or stop signs.

  4. Acknowledge your accomplishments and own your experience. Even if you’re a new lawyer, admission to the bar is a significant accomplishment. You got there on your persistence and abilities.

  5. Our mistakes and our challenges don’t make us imposters or imperfect. Mistakes and challenges are the experiences that build our knowledge base, credibility, and resilience.

Not convinced? Consider coaching (not a plug). Coaches, therapists and trusted confidantes, help us uncover our strengths, identify our blind spots, help us get out of our own way, and guide us toward the best use of our gifts. I would not be writing this weekly post without the coaching that removed (or more accurately, overrode) my hesitation to share this weekly post. I could easily call up a litany of imaginary judgments (and perhaps some that are not imaginary) that would support the decision not to hit send. Trust me, there’s a twinge of uncertainty every week, especially as I write this.  

Redefine perfect. Strive for excellence, embrace well done.

And dare to thrive in the practice of law.

Judith

Lawyer Life Reimagined begins again on November 15. Speak with me for details about this six-week transformative program.

Still wondering ….

…what I do? 

I work with lawyers to design a high-performing and satisfying life in the high-intensity practice of law. I teach emotional intelligence in law school, and facilitate CLE and other training in law firms.

…what the Center for Thriving in Law has for you?

Free resources, as well as online courses that equip you with the skills vital to success and thriving in law, like emotional intelligence, resilience, stress management, high performance and productivity, mindset and more.

Check out the Free Resources, Courses a la Carte, Lawyer Life Reimagined, or Solo Flyer Coaching. If you’re looking for law firm training, visit the Law Firms page.

Anything else? Yes! We want to create a community of lawyers committed to excellence and a well-lived life, not excellence at the expense of a well-lived life. Community forum coming soon!

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