Better To Be Lucky Than An Imposter

Mark Bennett wrote about it. Keith Lee did too. Even Mirriam Seddiq had her say. The Imposter Syndrome.

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.”

Yeah, luck.

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.

30 thoughts on “Better To Be Lucky Than An Imposter

  1. Robert Newton

    Thank you for that. The main reason I follow your website on a daily basis is your bull dogged determination to cut through bullshit and reach the unvarnished no-nonsense truth of various issues. I have nothing to add to what you say above. It’s just that I have been a regular reader of your website for a long time, but have never made a comment on your site. It is about time I took the time to state how valuable your site is, imo. Keep up the good work.

    1. SHG Post author

      Because you’ve been so kind to me in your comment, I won’t tell you to get off my lawn. But no more nice comments like this. Save it for when I’m an asshole and you need to straighten my sorry butt out.

  2. Marc R

    Everything uncertain is luck. Playing perfect blackjack (inc splitting pairs and doubling down) still gives the house a 1% advantage. The winners are temporarily lucky and bring in the “gamblers” who 51% or more of the time lose. Contrast with poker where 90% of the time the better player wins (because of folding and bluffing) and further contrast with chess that has a 99.9% win rate of those ranked 200 points or more above their opponents.

    Law is also zero sum. And it’s a hybrid of poker and chess. Arguing an appeal or a dispositive motion where the case law is clear is more akin to chess. A jury trial is more like poker where you can go all-in and just be better than your opponent (objectively good or bad don’t matter in a 1-on1 zero sum) and get the victory, or offer a draw (plea deal) or if the government is really weak then a JOA is more like a fool’s mate or some memorized opening that you can catch a bad or particularly unlucky opponent with.

    So your client having a solid alibi, or charged with a law that’s deemed illegal prior to his calendar call, or a key witness absconds…that’s luck. Drawing the best prosecutor on his best day is luck. Preparing is the only way to curry the odds in your favor but it’s all luck. It’s a great nihilist Slackoise argument, but I overprepare and if I lose then I didn’t prepare enough. But if I win it’s luck the other side didn’t adequately prepare for my contentions.

    Luck favors the prepared.

    1. SHG Post author

      If you lose, you need to be capable of appreciating whether it’s because of your lack of effort or luck. The point is that sometimes, no matter what you do or how right you are or how hard you work, you will still lose. It may be your fault. It may not be your fault. It is always best to assume it’s you, and use it to push you to do better and work harder, as there is no benefit to be gained by chalking it up to bad luck or making excuses, but reality is that sometimes, it’s just not your lucky day.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        As a sort of corollary, I’m equally annoyed by envious people who think everything has to do with luck, and successful people who think everything has to do with hard work.

        Because we all know people who have worked really hard and gotten nowhere, and people who don’t work all that hard and have gotten everywhere.

        1. SHG Post author

          Such are the vicissitudes of luck. All you can do is hedge your bets.

          That said, the phenomenon of the successful person mistaking his success for brilliant and extrapolating from that misplaced self-assessment that the brilliance translates to all manner of endeavors fascinate and disgusts me. I’ve met many very successful people who are morons and wonder where I went wrong.

    2. paul

      If you count cards…which there is an easy, provably mathematically sound method to do, your odds vastly improve. Likewise comparing poker, a game of imperfect knowledge, to chess, where players have perfect knowledge, is flawed.

      You adage luck favors the prepared is apt. I’ve also heard it stated as luck is the intersection of skill, hard work, and timing.

      1. Patrick Maupin

        That’s a reasonably good definition — as long as the listener understands that “timing” means “I got lucky” rather than “I brilliantly calculated exactly the right time.”

  3. Max Kennerly

    My mother, a lawyer, always said, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Plaintiffs’ lawyers often say variations of “I’d rather have good facts than be a good lawyer” or “a good case is better than a good lawyer.”

    One giant of the trial lawyers bar with dozens of huge verdicts used to say that “the other side lost more cases than I won.”

    I’ve been at this long enough that sometimes new lawyers are foolish enough to ask me for advice. I tell them, “when you start out, don’t waste your time trying to be great, just focus on not screwing up.” They inevitably ask, “when does that change?” I tell them, “I’ll let you know.”

    1. SHG Post author

      One giant of the trial lawyers bar with dozens of huge verdicts used to say that “the other side lost more cases than I won.”

      Reminds me of Gerry Spence after the Imelda Marcos verdict. When a juror was asked if they voted not guilty because of Spence, he responded, “we voted no guilty despite Spence.” And it still goes into the “W” column.

  4. Vin


    Imposter syndrome is just the opposite of what you state. In fact, it is an affliction of those who downplay their own competence. It’s humility in the face of overwhelming evidence to suggest they have no reason to be humble.

    Illusory superiority is more likely the cognitive bias that has a lawyer with inferior skils thinking they are, well, SHG.

    1. SHG Post author

      So you missed the definition of Imposter Syndrome in there, did ya. Have you considered your contribution to bolstering other people’s unwarranted self-esteem simply by commenting?

      1. Vin

        You said, “any lawyer who thinks it’s more about her than luck suffers from the Imposter Syndrome”.

        Did you not?

        That you defined Imposter Syndrome initially changes that sentence how?

        1. SHG Post author

          A lawyer who realizes that it’s more about luck than her does not suffer from the imposter syndrome. A lawyer who thinks it’s more about her than luck suffers from the imposter syndrome.

            1. Patrick Maupin

              No, an “imposter” would really be a fraud. One of the things SHG is saying is that when you no longer suffer from the part of Dunning-Kruger that affects the qualified people — when you can accurately assess your strengths and weaknesses vs. those around you — you may still find that, compared to some people who are as good or better than you, you are doing exceptionally well. Chalking that up to luck rather than gazing at your navel wondering when you are going to be found out is the only sane response.

      2. angrychiatty

        Well if Vin is wrong, I’m wrong too. I read this syndrome to mean someone who actually IS somewhat good, but has a low internal opinion (one that is not justified, hence why its labeled a “syndrome”) of their abilities. These people aren’t actively seeking to deceive people into believing they are better than they are; rather, when people complement them on their abilities they internally chalk it up to reasons having nothing to do with their actual abilities.

          1. Vin

            Yes, please, call me so we can discuss the misappropriation of cognitive psychological phenomenon for the benefit of making a separate argument about incompetent lawyers, who don’t know they are incompetent.

            As a side, ironically, “imposter syndrome” was initially discovered as being more prevelant in woman who, as a result of being female, never imagined that their own performance was on purpose.

            1. SHG Post author

              In case you were concerned, I want you to know that I don’t find your repetitiousness at all tedious. In fact, it’s your most endearing quality.

            2. Vin

              What’s the syndrome where you no matter how open the wound, you go back for the salt?

              I think I have that one.

  5. John Barleycorn

    No wonder every decent CDL I have ever had the pleasure of doing business with gets a little uncomfortable when you try to box them in about the probability of this or that and never, never, every will never place a straight bet on a judicial outcome not even a motion hearing.

    I should take my book to courthouse and sit in on more hearing’s and trials I bet I could fleece a few grand out of the bailiffs every week once I was able to handicap the prosecutors and the CDL’s until the judges figured out what the guy with the rusty smile face coffee thermos was up too.

    It wouldn’t take too long after that before the judges partnered up with the bailiffs just for the “spot” of scamming the bookie.

    Oh shit! Is that what is going on right now?

      1. John Barleycorn

        Well, well no wonder all the kids ask me where I bought my thermos.

        Steampunk. Duh! What was I thinking?

        No wonder they look at me like I am from mars when I tell them I will tell them but first they have to tell me what their theory is on which comes first, the rust or the dents?

  6. Peter Orlowicz

    So, if we work hard and diligently, can we still wear white shirts and serious looking gray suits to the office?

Comments are closed.