When people ask me why I left private practice I usually blame my husband. I explain that when we married he was already a partner at the firm where I was an associate. It made sense that I would be the one to leave. We wanted a family and I wanted a less demanding job. The truth is a bit more complicated. I left because I felt that I was not good enough to stay.
I remember thinking, as I finished up transfer memos in the weeks before I left, that whoever took over my files would wonder how I got hired in the first place. What I did not know then was that this fear that I would be exposed as a fraud would follow me throughout my career, stubbornly holding my ambitions captive.
The term “impostor syndrome” was coined in the 1970s by two psychologists, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. Those who suffer from impostor syndrome have difficulty internalizing accomplishments, rationalizing success as simply a matter of luck. Despite external evidence or positive feedback, they perceive themselves as intellectual phonies.
My own introduction to this feeling began in grade school during a particularly embarrassing math class. I was at the top of my class but always nervous to put up my hand for fear of being wrong. On this day, I decided I would use a homework sheet to reassure myself and kept it in view near the opening of my desk. Whenever the teacher asked a question I would think of the answer, check the sheet and put up my hand only after confirming that my answer was correct. The boy sitting next to me (let’s call him Andy) saw the sheet and what I was doing with it. Andy got up in front of the whole class and (with a little too much pleasure, in my view) told the teacher I was cheating.
I still think back to that day, often imaging a different ending where I challenge the teacher to ask me any question to prove that I knew all the answers. Instead, the day ended with Andy telling me that he knew all along that I wasn’t really that smart. I was just a cheater.
Research suggests that most people will experience impostor syndrome at one point in their lives. It does not discriminate. Importantly however, women and minority groups suffer from it more often and with greater impact because the syndrome amplifies the effects of discrimination and unconscious bias. The feeling that you are not good enough is validated by subtle (or not so subtle) cues that you don’t belong in the first place.
Rebecca Bromwich, manager of diversity and inclusion at Gowling WLG LLP explains that its easy to feel fraudulent in highly competitive environments, like the practice of law. “It is routine for opposing counsel, as well as difficult colleagues, to intentionally or carelessly undermine our self-esteem and mental health,” Bromwich notes.
In my case, if I couldn’t see myself as a successful Bay Street lawyer, the lack of diversity and “old boys’ network” did nothing to better that clouded view. To be fair, I had the opportunity to work with many accomplished women. They were all wonderful mentors, generous with their time and knowledge. Yet, in none of them could I see the “future me”.
That I couldn’t see myself as a future partner or even as a competent lawyer doesn’t surprise Bromwich. “Implicit biases about how a lawyer should look, sound, or act, in order to seem competent and confident, affect all of us” she explains. “It is often difficult for women, or people from historically marginalized groups, to overcome social biases held subconsciously by our clients, colleagues, and even ourselves.”
So, what can law firms do? As a first step, addressing impostor syndrome as part of their diversity and inclusion programs is critical. This includes training on how to recognize the signs of impostor syndrome early and implementing appropriate supports so that those most likely to suffer from it are better able to reframe their negative thinking before they persuade themselves to leave the firm - or the profession entirely.
Bromwich argues that training needs to go even further. She suggests that robust and meaningful unconscious bias training for the entire workforce is a must. Gowlings, for example, has made a commitment to train 100 per cent of their workforce and has already completed training for 75 per cent.
Nearly 25 years after I started my career, impostor syndrome remains a challenge for me. When my fears of phoniness surface, I cope in different ways. I make a mental list of my accomplishments. I prepare (and then prepare some more) before important meetings to quell my insecurities and often write out questions ahead of time, forcing myself to ask at least one. I try hard to simply say “thank you” when someone compliments my work. What’s most helpful is when I confess my feelings to friends and colleagues. Beyond offering support, they remind me that I am not alone in my fears.
And, when all else fails, I simply repeat to myself what I should have said that day so long ago: “Actually Andy, I really am that smart.”
About the author
Yasmin Visram is senior managing counsel at iA Financial Group and a member of the OBA’s Equality Committee. She has been practising in-house for the last 20 years.