The impostor syndrome, sometimes called impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome, is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.
Ah, how people love to come up with explanations for why they are better than what they feel they are. This is what comes of having too much time on their hands and indulging their inner Sunshine Superman. As Bennett explained it:
So much of what we criminal-defense lawyers achieve is objectively the result of luck—getting the right case with the right facts at the right time, drawing the right jury panel, finding the right piece of evidence—that much of what is described as “impostor syndrome” is accurate self-assessment. Even beyond that, though, successful men in criminal defense are, I believe, more likely to think of ourselves as lucky undiscovered frauds than as brilliant lawyers receiving our due.
Where he goes a bit meta is in the description as “lucky undiscovered frauds.” We’re only “undiscovered frauds” if we hold ourselves out as “brilliant lawyers,” and that any success we attain is “receiving our due.” He did, of course, get the “lucky” part right.
As a young lawyer, I suffered the same delusions, where I felt compelled to hold myself out as more than I as, and as if whatever successes I achieved were due to my mad lawyer skillz. I also wore white shirts and serious looking gray suits to work, so people wouldn’t think I was just some punk kid who couldn’t be trusted with their lives.
I also worked hard and tried to go over and above what other lawyers, more experienced lawyers, would do to find a way to beat the case. But that bone was still stuck in my head that I would be revealed as a fraud, inadequate to the task because I harbored the mistaken notion that it was all about me.
But now that I’m too old to give a shit, I side with my fellow curmudgeon, Mark Herrmann.
[T]he guy asked me to reveal the secret of my success. I, of course, immediately answered, “Luck.”
“That’s funny,” he said. “‘Luck’ is often the first word that I hear from lawyers, and I rarely hear it from people in other fields.”
Perhaps litigators are unusually sensitive to luck. After all, courts assign judges to cases by random chance. The result of a random draw is almost the definition of luck. When my case is heading to the court of appeals, I can draw judges Attila, Vlad, and Robespierre. I’m in luck! I can’t lose this case!
Or I could draw judges Lenin, Marx, and Engels. I’m toast. I couldn’t hope to win on my best day.
This has nothing to do with me, of course, and little to do with the justice of my client’s cause. It’s just luck, plain and simple.
Any lawyer who thinks that it’s more about her than luck suffers from the Imposter Syndrome. And contrary to the views of the younger lawyers, the curmudgeonly perspective is that this is merely youthful self-indulgence. Eventually, you reach a point where you no longer need to lie to yourself about it. This metacognitive exercise is a total waste of time and energy.
And when you hit that realization, it frees you to appreciate what you can do to improve yourself and what is just a load of nonsense you suffer because you haven’t yet reached the point where you realize both your personal limitations and your insignificant place in the universe.
It’s not that we have something to prove, but that we have something to conceal. And as long as we’re concealing our lack of skill by acting as we would if we were highly skilled, we might as well be highly skilled.
People are notoriously bad at self-assessment, with a strong tendency for young lawyers to over-estimate their abilities. Only after they come to grips with the fact that they aren’t nearly as skilled as they think they are does the Imposter Syndrome creep in. And then, they suffer the anxiety of being “found out” as frauds.
But the next step in the process comes when they move beyond the need to pretend to others and themselves that they’re “highly skilled.” That’s when they embrace the fact that it’s more about luck than anything else.
At the same time, that’s just the beginning of facing the harsh reality of your personal limitations.
I’m not saying that talent doesn’t matter. I’m convinced that truly gifted lawyers are more likely to succeed than inept ones. But that last sentence leaves room for exceptions at both ends; incompetent lawyers occasionally stumble into lucrative practices (and other forms of success), and gifted folks sometimes fail for reasons beyond their control.
Mark characterizes the dichotomy as between truly gifted and incompetent lawyers. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle of these extremes, and the distinction between them is, frankly, nowhere near as significant as we would like to think it is.*
But to the extent there is anything we can do about the fact that luck plays a greater role in success than anything else, our ability to take advantage of lucky opportunity is where we can distinguish ourselves. Rather than an outgrowth of our brilliance, it’s a by-product of hard work.
I know, that sucks because all you want to do is not have to work hard and still enjoy great success, but that rarely happens. Sure, there are some exceptions, but you’re not likely to be one of them. You’re just not that special.
So embrace the lack of brilliance, despite your deep psychological needs. Stop wasting your time worrying that someone will discover you’re just a pretty ordinary person, of ordinary intelligence, with ordinary skillz. Instead, worry about whether you’ve put in the effort to capitalize on the one thing you can count on in law, luck.
It’s okay to admit to the world that you’re not the most gifted lawyer around, no matter what Google says about you. But if you are one of the few who will work, and work more, and work harder, to as effective as possible, then you will find that luck serves you better than others. And when it comes of your effort, you deserve it, even when it doesn’t turn out that luck was on your side this time.
Either way, work hard and you will achieve whatever success the universe deigns to give you. And if hard work isn’t your thing, then it is your fault. Luck favors those capable of taking advantage of it, but even so, luck offers no guarantees. That’s just how it goes.
*That’s not to say that some people are just not intellectually suited to being lawyers. It doesn’t take a genius to be a good lawyer, and it may well be argued that people who are too smart tend to make lousy lawyers.
But assuming you fall within the broad spectrum of people capable of the work, and aren’t unduly hampered by the inability to let logic prevail over emotion, you have sufficient intelligence to success. After that, it’s what you do with it that matters.