An Attorney's Battle with Imposter Syndrome and How to Deal With It
This is a guest post from Brian S. Quinn as part of Lawline's Well-Being in Law Week. Browse 200+ diverse attorney well-being courses today. Not a Lawline member yet? Start a Free Trial during Well-Being in Law Week (May 1-5) to be automatically entered to win a free year of CLE.
“What am I doing here? I don’t belong.”
“I’m a total fraud and, sooner or later, everyone’s going to find out.”
Sound familiar? If you have ever found yourself saying (quietly) those words, then you may be among the many people who are dealing with Imposter Syndrome.
What is Imposter Syndrome?
Imposter syndrome, also called perceived fraudulence, involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments. While early studies focused on highly successful women, it is now clear that it can affect anyone in the legal profession – from law students to Big Law executives.
Living in constant fear of discovery, you strive for perfection in everything you do. You might feel guilty or worthless when you can’t achieve it, not to mention burned out and overwhelmed by your continued efforts. The results can be devastating.
True imposter feelings involve self-doubt and uncertainty about your talents and abilities. But what if you find yourself in an environment where your peers fail to make room for you or imply you don’t deserve your success?
Along with the more traditional factors, gender bias and institutionalized racism can also play a significant part in imposter feelings. Even if only perceived, they can surely reinforce the feeling you don’t belong.
The History of Imposter Syndrome
First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in 1978, who referred to it as impostor “phenomenon”, as something which occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.
Despite what may be overwhelming evidence of their deserved accomplishments, people who suffer with imposter syndrome remain convinced that they were “lucky” and that their luck will eventually run out and leave them humiliated among their “real-deal” colleagues.
The Pervasiveness of Imposter Syndrome
So what do Michele Obama, Lady Gaga, Tom Hanks, Justice Sonya Sotomayor, Serena Williams and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz have in common? As you may have guessed based upon today’s topic, they are among the many well-known and highly successful people who have suffered from imposter syndrome.
Hard to believe, you say? Well according to a 2011 article in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, an estimated 70 percent of the population will experience at least one episode of impostor syndrome in their lifetimes. I like to point that out to lawyers and law firms, where there still seems to be a pervasive disconnect. Many law firms as organizations deny that their lawyers struggle with this issue, definitively stating, “Look, we don’t have that problem!”
My experience says otherwise. I believe there are certain aspects of lawyering and legal training that exacerbate the problem among lawyers. The profession is synonymous with exceptional expectations, intolerance of mistakes and risk avoidance. Impostor syndrome is common in overachievers and perfectionists, so it’s no wonder many lawyers suffer from chronic self-doubt and feel like intellectual frauds.
Speaking of Perfectionism in the Legal Profession…
Some believe it is a disease of the legal profession. Lawyers tend to be perfectionists, setting impossible to meet standards for themselves and the sense that nothing is ever good enough. Lawyers are also trained to be on the constant lookout for problems and to be responsible for taking care of clients. This inherent pessimism over what might go wrong creates a sense that problems are everywhere, the true urgency of which becomes exaggerated. Lawyers also often fail to seek out help when needed, not wanting to appear weak. They also face constant deadlines set by the courts, other parties, clients, and their senior colleagues over which they have very little control.
Lawyers are served well—at least professionally—by their perfectionism. But this same perfectionism can make them feel like their work is never good enough.
Do you feel like your work must be 100% perfect, 100% of the time? Truth is, there will never be the “perfect time” and your work will never be 100% flawless. The sooner you’re able to accept that, the better off you’ll be. Not all perfectionism is inherently bad. Experts refer to it as adaptive perfectionism.
Adaptive perfectionism is healthy and normal and relates to an intense effort that is put forth to achieve a certain goal. Adaptively perfectionistic individuals set high, but realistic standards, and don't resort to harsh self-criticism when these standards are not reached.
The goal is not to slip into that “other” form of perfectionism that is maladaptive and can stand in the way of leading a happy and successful life. Whether they realize it or not, this group can also be control freaks, feeling like if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves. These so-called impostors think every task they tackle has to be done perfectly, and they rarely ask for help. That perfectionism can lead to two typical responses: They may procrastinate, putting off an assignment out of fear that he or she won't be able to complete it to the necessary high standards. Or, he or she may overprepare, spending much more time on a task than is necessary.
I don’t want to leave you with the idea that imposter syndrome is only about perfectionism. Far from it. Perhaps the next time I share on this blog, I will look at the problem from the social context and how a law firm environment can actually increase the likelihood of developing imposter feelings among its professionals.
We will look closely at that environment and consider the quality of treatment people receive from others—particularly the types of treatment that communicates a sense of value, worth, and fitness. Individuals may very well feel like impostors when they are treated in ways to suggest they are. Similarly, such impostor feelings can also be mitigated, when these individuals are treated by others as a person of value and worth.
Unfortunately, there is another form of imposterism that isn’t discussed as frequently- it’s called trauma centered imposter syndrome, that impacts all areas of your life.
I understand that form of imposterism- because it happened to me.
All I ever wanted to become was a lawyer in the relatively small, middle- class area of suburban Philadelphia where I was raised. I guess it started when I was a pre-teen but grew as I realized that maybe some day that dream would come true. I focused on it through high school and was able to gain admission to both Villanova University and it’s law school.
I had been a law clerk for three years in the office of a prominent member of the Pennsylvania Bar and a former state legislator. When I learned that I had passed the bar exam, my mentor and I celebrated with drinks and he insisted that I come with him to court the following day to meet fellow lawyers who, in those days, almost ceremoniously gathered before the entire Bench for Friday Motion Court. It was September 28, 1973.
My mentor was presenting a case that day and allowed me to sit with his client at counsel table during the proceeding. Five minutes into his presentation, my mentor collapsed and died on the floor of the courtroom, having suffered a massive heart attack. He was 43. I watched in disbelief as the medics placed his body into a rubber body bag and removed it from the courtroom.
My life would never be the same. My dream of learning my craft under the guidance of an experienced mentor and sole practitioner was over. It was replaced by being thrust into his shoes when I was asked by his family to assume his practice – before I had even been sworn into the bar.
There was no time for me to wait for the traditional ceremony that usually accompanied admission to the bar. On the day following my mentor’s funeral, I was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar and returned to what had been my mentor’s office, walked behind his desk and sat in his chair. I was terrified as I awaited what would be the first of my predecessor’s clients to come in to see me. I felt like running away or, at the very least, warning those first clients that they were sitting across from a fraud – an imposter – a person “wearing” a dead man’s suit and seated in a dead man’s chair. That, indeed, I was there, but that “I don’t belong.”
I put on a “mask” every day. Smiling and confidant appearing to the outside world, but fearful and insecure on the inside. Although I had absolutely no experience whatsoever, I quickly became very successful. I was immediately active in the local Bar Association, the community and local politics. Things appeared to be good. Little did anyone know what I was feeling inside, because to do so would have revealed the very source of my pain and aloneness. Pain that was only reduced by self-medication.
I began to use that apparent success to develop a guise that socializing and drinking were important to my work. As for drugs – they were a regular, but still what I considered more of a recreational or weekend activity. However, it wasn’t just marijuana any longer. That was replaced by a myriad of drugs, both prescription and illegal – especially cocaine.
As the stress and anxiety of trying to keep pace with a legal career that I secretly believed was built little on skill and a lot on luck was increasing, so was my use of alcohol and cocaine – it became an everyday part of my life (addiction is a chronic and progressive disease). Despite my increased alcohol and drug use, it still seemed to the outside world that all was good. I had two nice cars, a nice home, my kids were in private schools and we enjoyed exotic family vacations. The late notices and threatened foreclosures were kept hidden as drug, gambling and alcohol debts increased.
Soon I had crossed over into using alcohol and drugs in quantities that, by any standard, were addictive in nature. But as long as there were no visible, negative consequences, I had no reason to stop. Sure, there were occasional hangovers, an increased number of fabricated “late-night appointments, meetings and obligations” that were all part of “business,” but nothing I couldn't handle.
Until I couldn't handle it. Until I couldn't handle the amount of money I was spending on alcohol and cocaine. Still, I did everything I wanted to do. I bought expensive clothes and sports tickets, took trips with friends that started as a couple of nights, but always ended up being extended by a day, then a couple of days, then a week. Missed appointments and mysterious illnesses that required last minute court continuances became more frequent.
I would go away to bench bar conferences or political events and after everyone would call it a night, I would get into my car and drive to the nearest town and look for a bar – where no one knew me. Then I started to do the same thing when at home – stretching the radius of where I drank and where I went for drugs - wider and wider and wider.
I began to live two lives.
I felt like I was forever walking a tight rope, trying to balance myself, lest those different lives I led tumbled into one another. I became a chameleon. I could change myself to fit any environment. I felt just as comfortable when I would visit the West Wing of the White House with a friend of mine who was a member of the President’s cabinet as I felt when I was in a seedy bar or the house of a cocaine dealer.
But, I was high functioning and nobody could tell me what to do. Lies and deception became more commonplace than truth and honesty. I certainly couldn’t let anyone know what was really going on. After all, what would they think? I was a lawyer. I couldn’t admit that I had a problem – least of all with alcohol and cocaine.
By 2000, I was divorced, remarried and had my first DUI arrest in New Jersey. I had rescued my home and my office building from foreclosure on at least four occasions. By 2005, I was divorced a second time and was arrested for a second DUI, this time in Florida.
I never reported either arrest to the Pennsylvania Disciplinary Board and, of course, told no one else that either incident had occurred as well. I failed to comply to court ordered sanctions in both cases, because it would have meant revealing my arrests in my home jurisdiction. As a result, I had bench warrants issued against me in both states.
My solution? Stay out of New Jersey and Florida.
Denial is one of the most potent barriers that keeps lawyers and judges from seeking or accepting help. It is a psychological defense mechanism whereby the distressed individual does not see a problem, rationalizes or justifies his or her behavior, or minimizes the severity of the problem, especially when it involves alcohol or drugs, both prescription and illicit.1
Now, I was totally alone – no kids, no wife – nobody. I had spent all of my money on alcohol and drugs. I then began to convert client funds to make one last- ditch effort to save my home. Despite those desperate attempts, my office building and my home of twenty five years were lost to foreclosure. I refused to move out, even following the Sheriff sale, until I was forcibly evicted years later as the result of a second action for possession. My life was quickly spiraling out of control.
Less than two years after my Florida arrest I was cited for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct, but merely had to pay a fine and perform community service. The progression of my addiction continued and only ten months later, in April of 2008, I was arrested in my hometown for my third DUI in less than eight years as well as for possession of drug paraphernalia. Having practiced criminal law for many years, I knew what the likely result would be, but refused to acknowledge my need for help.
In fact, on the morning after my arrest, I was scheduled to appear in the local District Court to represent a client in a criminal matter. I asked the arresting officer from my holding cell if he would be so kind as to advise the Court that I would need a continuance, which was granted shortly before I was led, handcuffed, into the very same courtroom for my arraignment. Upon my release later that morning, I returned to the bar that I had left the night before and began to drink.
A myriad of excuses that I invented, allowed my preliminary hearing to be continued several months into the Fall of 2008. Desperate and broke, I went to the office of a long time family friend and fellow lawyer and told him about what was now a third DUI. He asked me, “Do you think you have a problem with alcohol and drugs?” I had been asked that question on innumerable occasions by family, friends and even a few clients. My answer had always been the same – No!
Perhaps the arrogance that can come with success in our profession makes us believe we don’t need help – that we can quit anytime we want – and, once we realize we can’t, we are too scared to face the perceived consequences of revealing our addiction – usually to the detriment of ourselves and most certainly that of our clients.
But on that occasion, almost thirty- five years to the day of that horribly traumatic experience only a short distance away in a county courtroom, I replied with an answer that changed my life - I said, “Yes.”
What my friend did next set into motion the events which saved my life. He called someone that he knew was involved with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers. His name was John Rogers Carroll.2I had never heard of Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers (LCL) or John Carroll and I certainly knew he had never heard of me. He asked me if I was willing to go to a rehabilitation facility for alcohol and drug addiction treatment. I was broke and had no health insurance – how could I possibly go anywhere for treatment? And beside that monumental obstacle, what about my practice – or what was left of it? What would my clients and fellow lawyers think if that became known? Both lawyers had the same responses – First, “what makes you think those same people don’t already know you are an alcoholic and a drug addict”? Second, “that wasn’t the question – are you willing to go to a treatment facility and get help or not”?
Thus began a relationship between LCL and myself which continues to this day.
I wasn't sure what had happened – only that with the help of LCL, a rehabilitation facility was located in Harrisburg that accepted patients with limited or no funds. They had a bed and I was admitted on September 17, 2008. It was only later in my recovery that I learned that my treatment was paid in part by the M. Patricia Carroll Fund. 3
I had never heard of LCL and I couldn't imagine what they had done or why they had done it for me, a total stranger. But I went into treatment and did what I was told, though kicking and screaming along the way.
A few days after I arrived I was told I had a visitor, which puzzled me since I had told no one that I was there outside of my family. I went to the cafeteria and saw a man whom I didn't know. He told me his name was John D. and that he was a volunteer with LCL. He told me what had happened to him and that he knew how I felt. After our visit he left and all I could think was – “Who are these people”?
A week or so later I was told someone was coming to pick me up to take me to a meeting outside of the facility. Another LCL volunteer was called on his way home from work and asked if he would return to Harrisburg to pick me up and take me to the LCL offices in Camp Hill, where a recovery meeting was being held. As we drove in his car, all I could think was – “Who are these people”?
Following my discharge I was immediately contacted by an LCL peer volunteer who was also an attorney whom I had known for many years. He told me that a weekly lawyers recovery meeting was held in his office each Wednesday night as it had been for the past 25 years. I went.
In the meantime, an LCL staff member began to call me daily to offer me support and continued to do so for many, many months. All I could think of was – “Who are these people”?
The calls continued at least twice or three times per week into the following year and beyond. That's when I needed them most. I was sentenced to one to two years in prison in early 2010, lost my driver’s license for three years and agreed to surrender my law license. At that point, I wasn't certain if I would be suspended or disbarred.
I was sentenced by a Judge whom I had known for 30 years. He said it was the most difficult sentencing he had ever had, but he was familiar with all the work that I was doing and the support that I had been given by LCL- at least five members of my local lawyers recovery group, most of whom also serve as volunteers, sat in the courtroom gallery that day, simply so that I could see they were there.
Because I had attended close to 1,000 Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous recovery meetings in the sixteen months prior to my sentencing, all without a driver’s license, the judge ordered that I'd be allowed to leave the prison after three months to complete the balance of my sentence on work release, with the additional condition that I be permitted to attend recovery meetings. I can't tell you how many times an LCL volunteer drove me to a meeting or returned me to the prison in the evening.
Two years later the Disciplinary Board recommended that I not be disbarred, largely because of my recovery work, which included serving as an LCL volunteer. I was suspended for five years by the Supreme Court and had the complete support of my fellow volunteers during the reinstatement process, many of whom testified or wrote letters for me in their capacities as recovering alcoholics and addicts only – breaking their anonymity for me. I no longer had to ask myself the question – “Who are these people”? I knew exactly who they were.
I was reinstated to the practice of law by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in August, 2015, after a suspension of nearly five and one-half years.5
It has been suggested by some researchers that happiness may not exist in a successful lawyer’s life.6 Is it the stress that starts in law school, only to be heightened upon graduation by our realization that the qualities we possess that made us good students are not necessarily those that will make us good lawyers? More importantly, “the qualities that make for a good lawyer may not make for a happy human being.”7
Others suggest that those lawyers who are involved in litigation are especially at risk because of the adversarial, win-lose nature of the process itself. One lawyer’s win equals another lawyer’s loss, thus the drive to win can become paramount in the quest for the competent, zealous representation of our clients that we are ethically bound to exercise.8
When lawyers are faced with emotional distress, however, they tend to judge themselves harshly simply for feeling that way. And when we fail to address stress, anxiety, depression and other personal issues, it usually gets worse and can lead to addiction or a breakdown and, thus, the impaired lawyer.
Patrick Krill, an attorney as well as a certified drug and alcohol counselor, was the lead researcher for the 2016 report from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation and the American Bar Association, which analyzed the responses of 12,825 licensed, practicing attorneys across 19 states, including Pennsylvania. The results that were uncovered were, in Krill’s words, “incompatible with a sustainable professional culture.”9
The findings revealed that 21% of all licensed attorneys report problematic drinking (defined as hazardous drinking and possible dependence), with that percentage increasing to 32% among those 30 years of age and younger. In addition, 43.7 % reported problematic use within their first 15 years of practice. That compares with only 6.4% of the entire adult U.S. population.
Only 3,419 lawyers answered questions about drug use. Of the lawyers that did answer those questions, 5.6 % reported using cocaine, crack and stimulants; 5.6 % reported using opioids; 10.2 % reported using marijuana and hash; and nearly 16 % reported using sedatives. Only 3% of the lawyers surveyed expressed “severe” concern over their drug use.
Krill’s feelings about those findings were clear and concise. “One possibility is that a significantly smaller percentage of attorneys in the study are using drugs as compared to alcohol. We don’t think that’s true. Alcohol is legal,” Mr. Krill said, not to mention socially acceptable. “So admitting you drink too much is not directly at odds with your role as a licensed attorney. Not so with the use of illicit drugs. I think the incidence of drug use and abuse is significantly underreported “, he said.10
With regard to mental health concerns, the study revealed that 28% of all attorneys reported problems with depression, as compared with 6.6% of all adult Americans.
Since 1988, Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania has provided free, safe, confidential and supportive services to Pennsylvania lawyers and judges, members of their families, and law students in the form of a 24-hour, confidential Helpline11 and peer assistance program. Most importantly, LCL offers encouragement and support in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
Not surprisingly, post–pandemic statistics show the changes in presenting issues among PA lawyers and judges, with 73% of Helpline calls related to mental health problems. In 2017, it was only 40%. Imposter syndrome is not a medical diagnosis, but neither is burnout, yet we all seem to be aware of that term in the current, “new normal” world in which we practice. The traditional, alcohol related calls are still being received, but lawyers are now more willing to tell us why they are drinking.
The reasons, we believe, are the same. Alcohol has been widely accepted in our society and our profession. However, the stigma attached to addiction and mental illness in our society is still disproportionately magnified in the legal profession. Instead of admitting that we have a problem and asking for help, we are often overcome with the shame and embarrassment of being labeled an alcoholic, drug addict, depressed, bi-polar, etc., which is then reinforced by the fear of how public disclosure may harm our reputations and careers or embarrass our colleagues in the bar and on the bench.
Complicating this problem further is the tendency of the attorney’s or judge’s peers to indulge in a conspiracy of silence (enabling) and lighten the normal stresses of our profession. When, for motives good, bad or mixed, colleagues protect the impaired individual from the consequences of his or her illness-based misconduct, the result is a progression of that illness to the greater detriment of career, family and well-being.
Many of Lawline’s educational programs are designed to target these obstacles by teaching members of the bench and bar:
- we are dealing with illnesses that have scientifically based causes;
- these illnesses are progressive in nature;
- these illnesses, when left untreated, will contribute to premature death;
- how to recognize the early warning signs of substance use and mental health disorders;
- with early detection and proper treatment, there is a good prognosis for recovery; and
- Lawyers Assistance Programs are here to assist them to approach the lawyer, judge or law student (or family member) who is in distress.
I have used my personal story to describe for you what impairment looks like. I have also used my personal story to describe for you what denial looks like, what hopelessness looks like. But most importantly, I have used my personal story to show you what recovery looks like.
Lawyers have a great impact on all aspects of society. Therefore, the impaired lawyer has a great impact on society as well. It is up to us to ask the question that can change a life – and to make the call that may save one.
How to Deal With Imposter Syndrome
Let me leave you with a handful of tips for dealing with imposter feelings.
1. Break the silence.
Shame keeps a lot of people from “fessing up” about their fraudulent feelings. Knowing there’s a name for these feelings and that you are not alone can be tremendously freeing.
2. Share your feelings.
Talk to other people about how you are feeling. Irrational beliefs tend to fester when they are hidden and not talked about.
3. Separate feelings from fact.
There are times you’ll feel stupid. It happens to everyone from time to time. You’re a Lawyer, right? Look at the evidence. Think of the clients you’ve delighted. The case you won or the deal you closed.
4. Accentuate the positive.
The good news is being a perfectionist means you care deeply about the quality of your work. The key is to continue to strive for excellence when it matters most, but don’t persevere over routine tasks and forgive yourself when the inevitable mistake happens.
5. Use social media moderately.
We know that the overuse of social media may be related to feelings of inferiority. If you try to portray an image on social media that doesn't match who you really are or that is impossible to achieve, it will only make your feelings of being a fraud worse.
6. Develop a healthy response to failure and mistakes.
Instead of beating yourself up for a shortcoming, say “Wait ‘til next time!”
7. Fake it until you make it.
Now and then we all have to fly by the seat of our pants. Tell yourself you are confident and you are smart. By telling yourself you have these qualities and acting as if you are, soon you won’t be telling yourself or acting anymore.
8. Avoid comparing yourself to others.
Everyone has unique abilities. You are where you are because someone recognized your talents and your potential. You may not excel in every task you attempt, but you don’t have to, either. Almost no one can “do it all.” Even when it seems like someone has everything under control, you may not know the full story.
Trust me, no one would ever guess what I experienced and where it all took me. Why? Because I finally admitted that I needed help, and it changed my life forever. I am living proof of the incredible work of lawyers’ assistance programs that exist throughout this country and that showed me that I was not alone.
Remember: real imposters don’t suffer from imposter syndrome!
1 See Terence Gorski, Denial Checklist http://www.tgorski.com/clin_mod/dmc/denial_checklist.htm
2 John Rogers Carroll, Esq., now deceased, is generally recognized as the force behind all Pennsylvania lawyer’s recovery programs, including Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of PA.
3 The M. Patricia Carroll Fund was founded in 2002 and is named for the late wife of founding Board member, John Rogers Carroll, Esq. (www.mpcfund.org)
5 Full Circle: Lawyer Reinstated After Addiction Recovery | PBI.org
6 See Martin E. P. Seligman, Paul R. Verkuil & Terry H. Kang, Why Lawyers Are Unhappy, Vol.10, Deakin Law Review, 49 (2005), note 11, citing Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, Letter to Elvira Solis, Feb 15, 1933.
7 Seligman, et. al., supra, at p.56.
8 The Code of Professional Responsibility has nine operative canons, the most central of which require a lawyer to preserve a client’s secrets. See MODEL CODE OF PROFESSIONAL RESPONSIBILITY CANON 4 (1980) require exercise of independent professional judgment on behalf of a client, id. at Canon 5, and represent a client “competently”, id. at Canon 6, and “zealously”, id. at Canon 7.These canons are at the core of representing clients in criminal cases.
9 Krill, Patrick R. JD, LLM; Johnson, Ryan MA; Albert, Linda MSSW, The Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, Journal of Addiction Medicine: February 2016 - Volume 10 - Issue 1 - p 46–52
10 Zimmerman, Eileen, The Lawyer – The Addict, New York Times, July15, 2017.
11 Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers confidential 24 hour Helpline – 1-888-999-1941
Brian S. Quinn, Esquire is a licensed attorney in Pennsylvania who currently serves as the Education and Outreach Coordinator for Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Pennsylvania, Inc., a Lawyers Assistance program established in 1988 for the purpose of helping lawyers, judges and law students recover from alcoholism, drug addiction and mental health disorders.
Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers confidential 24 hour Helpline can be reached at 1-888-999-1941
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