Imposter Syndrome: It’s Real. Most of Us Feel It Sometimes. Here’s How to Fight Back.

Perhaps the ultimate internal tool for coping with imposter syndrome is this: nurturing the twinned realities that we are not perfect and that everyone makes mistakes.

Jack H. (Nick) McCall

Retired Senior Attorney and Deputy Agency Ethics Official, Tennessee Valley Authority

Years ago, before I began law school, I recall hearing a song with a chorus to the following effect: “I’m afraid/That I’m just a bum.” The song’s premise was that its singer meets various seemingly successful people, and he asks them about the secret to their success. Whether a corporate executive moving up the ladder, or a tanned and toned movie star, each of the persons the singer meets replies essentially: “I feel like a fake, and I’m not any good.”

This feeling is the essence of “imposter syndrome,” a working definition of which might be one’s internal feeling – contrary to reason, experience, potential, and skills – of being no better than a fraud and the related fear of being caught and exposed as incompetent or a “poser..”1

Have I felt this way during some times in my professional life? Short answer: “Been there, done that.”

It happens. It may not happen to all law students and lawyers (or even law professors), but apocryphally, I suspect that this syndrome affects most of use at some point in time in our professional experiences. For lawyers, it can be especially hard for it not to occur, I’d submit.

It certainly occurs often enough during and just after law school. Some of my most painful memories as a young associate are of being put on the spot by a client, in a meeting where the partner or senior associate is absent, and the client wanted answers “right now” on something that seems basic enough to the client but about which, as a young lawyer, I had zero prior experience or training. Even skilled lawyers may find themselves encountering the world’s number-one-subject-matter expert on a unique issue with which we are grappling – and unfortunately, that expert may well be on the other side of the looming case or transaction.

And, as we all know, the law changes, even in topics and areas that we might come to know by heart. What we know to be solid, black-letter law for years can be fundamentally altered or even pitched out by court order, statutory overhaul, or regulatory fiat. (Doubt me? Ask federal tax law practitioners who were in practice before the 1986 congressional changes revised significant portions of the Internal Revenue Code.)

Imposter syndrome is real, and it can (and does) happen to many of us. It can happen to you, and – let’s face it – it can crop up not only for law students and young lawyers; it can also sneak up and hit older lawyers in the solar plexus. So, how do we cope with and manage these feelings, short of being overwhelmed or feeling “psyched out” by that nagging urges and internally fueled perceptions of incompetence?

First, it is important to recognize how much of this worry is self-fueled. As many prior “Leading as Lawyers” posts have noted, perfectionism and the keen desire to succeed and excel are traits endemic to law. These personality traits are often hard-wired into us before law school, and (let’s admit it) law classes and the pace of law practice only exacerbate and amplify those feelings. Those are admirable traits, inasmuch as they fuel our desire to “be all that we can be.” They also track our ethical duties to represent our clients zealously and to the best of our skill and capabilities. But when this drive transmutes itself into feelings of being overwhelmed – or of feeling incompetent when being hit with a panoply of new issues and new things to be learned – things are at risk of going too far. There is a danger that we can spiral downward if we cannot take a breath and say: Okay, how do we eat this really huge apple? The same way as we eat everything else: one bite at a time.

A checklist of those “bites of the apple” and their sequencing can be a very handy tool to help master the immediate feelings of being overwhelmed or of being fake. (The two can go together when imposter syndrome hits.) Setting up adequate time to read up on and familiarize oneself with pressing issues certainly helps. Having trusted colleagues or a mento to talk with – whether on the immediately vexing issues, or even on the feelings of “fakeness” – can be as valuable as “book learning.”

Perhaps the ultimate internal tool for coping with imposter syndrome is this: nurturing the twinned realities that we are not perfect and that everyone makes mistakes. Very few, if any, law students or lawyers (or law professors) are born as a second Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Oliver Wendell Holmes.

If you ever feel a nagging case of imposter syndrome, remember: you are not alone. Psychology Today reports that between 25 and 30 percent of high achievers occasionally have suffered from the syndrome, and up to 70 percent of adults may experience it at least once in their lives.2  Even if those facts do not quell the immediate feelings summoned by imposter syndrome; it can be a useful thing to know that those who come to feel its occasional pangs are not alone.

[1] See, e.g., “Imposter Syndrome,” Psychology Today, available at (accessed March 21, 2023).

[2] Id.

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