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A Stanford Duck out of Water

A Stanford Duck Out of Water


The Stanford Duck metaphor in last week’s blog resonated with a lot of our readers. “Stanford Duck” was a term coined to refer to students in elite opportunities, like studying at Stanford University, who appear to be gliding on the surface, but who are paddling incredibly hard to keep up—and I think it applies to our profession where we know Imposter Syndrome is rampant and that many of us tend toward insecure overachievement.

This week, I want to talk about how our Stanford Ducks feel when they are out of water, as in a “feeling like a duck out of water,” a feeling that resonates with many of us as well, particularly when we are new to the legal profession.

Feeling like a duck out of water is similar to being a fish out of water, except that we know that a fish out of water cannot survive. The duck out of water metaphor is less dire, and it may be rooted in the premise underlying Stanford Duck Syndrome, that gliding in the water is easy and natural, but that when the duck is out of the water, it is ungainly and perhaps awkward (unless it is flying!)

Like Stanford University, law is an elite club. Law school is a competitive entry program: to be admitted, you have to beat out other applicants with impressive grade point averages and LSAT scores, so getting in is an accomplishment in and of itself. Then, you have to secure an articling position which can be very challenging, and pass CPLED/PREP, and not have any good character issues arise during your articles. The reality is that of the people who express interest in becoming lawyers, many or most are eliminated along the path.

When I started law school, forty years ago, I felt fairly confident in the academic skills that got me there. But when I looked around the classroom at my new peers, I felt like I didn’t belong. First, most of the students had a debonair, nonchalant look that in 1980s parlance bespoke “cool,” and I was the least cool person on the planet. Secondly was how they were dressed. The male students were dressed casually, but Izod alligators and Polo ponies abounded. Many of the female students were wearing outfits that I thought likely cost more than my recently acquired used car. I felt totally outclassed before class even started. And I was too young—turning 21—making me feel like a kid sister again.

I know now that many students were embodying Stanford Duck strategies—paddling away under the water to appear to effortlessly look cool and comfortable, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was too busy psyching myself out while I paddled as furiously as I could, too.  I worried about how I would cope in this forced socialization experiment that was called law school and I opted to lean into the one area where I felt confident: my ability to study.

I became what was then called a law school keener! Slight digression: when I was in law school, the cool students played a game called Keener Bingo where they drew up bingo cards with squares marked with the names of students who asked a lot of questions. Sadly, I was a featured keener and didn’t know about the game at the time. But I heard that it was pretty funny when a classmate in the other large section had to ask a question using the word “bingo”—how one announced that they had a straight line of keeners.

I read now about law school gunners, and I like to think that I wasn’t a gunner since that seems more negative than being a keener, but we are who are. And, of course I eventually made friends and discovered that most people weren’t as intimidating as I originally thought— many of them had just learned to appear to let stress and awkwardness flow like water off their Stanford Duck backs.

It isn’t all that different when you are an articling student. You show up for your first day, an equal blend of excitement that you are actually working in a law firm and trepidation that you are actually working in a law firm. Most law firms exude an ambience of success—no doubt that this is more to impress clients—but it also reinforces the promise that if you, as an articling student or a junior lawyer, want to continue to enjoy the luxurious comfort, you are going to have to measure up and be accepted.

For many students and juniors, the luxe ambience is new. And it is easy to like. You think to yourself, “I could be comfortable working in an environment like this for the rest of my life,” and if you didn’t already want the prestige that some types of law practice offers, you do now. You want to get to stay, which makes it even harder when you assess how much more at ease the other students, juniors and more senior lawyers all are. They come across as witty, together, brilliant—insert your flattering adjective of choice--and they are pulling it off.

Many of us assess ourselves harshly in this environment, focusing on what we perceive our inadequacies to be, and then we become Stanford Ducks in a new way, desperately trying to paddle to keep up because we feel that we don’t bring as much to the equation as the others do. We paddle like Stanford Ducks because we feel like ducks out of water.

The duck metaphors intensify. How do we refer to someone who sails into a new experience effortlessly? We say that they take to it like a duck to water. But the reality is that it is harder for some of us to portray that smoothness.

One of the law practice realities where I felt most like a duck out of water was the social side of practicing law. Just like law students on the first day of classes, most lawyers convey effortless cool. Most have learned (or intuitively know) the art of conversation and how to present oneself in a positive light. These are important skills for practicing law—you have to put people at ease, and you have to earn their confidence. I perceived that most of the lawyers I worked with were extroverts, effortlessly talking to clients and potential clients. However, research tells us that more of us are introverts than extroverts.

As an introvert, I found attending lawyer events intimidating. I learned a Stanford-Duck-out-of-water strategy that worked for me. When I walked into something like a client reception, I would see lawyers in small groups having fun or meaningful conversations with clients. It was hard to figure out how to insert myself into existing conversational groupings, so, I began to look for people who looked to be on the outside, too, perhaps not completely comfortable either. And gradually I became more comfortable with the social skill side of practicing law.

We all adapt to our environments, an essential Darwinian concept. We make a few adjustments to fit in, like pretending to be interested in professional sports or other common topics of interest. This is fine, as long as they are minor, but if you feel that you are having to pretend to be someone that you aren’t in order to be accepted, please listen to any internal alarm bells that are triggered. Pretending to be what people want you to be is a tough act to sustain—you will be paddling even harder than the other Stanford Ducks, running the risk of burnout, or you will lose yourself in the process, which can have psychological implications down the road. If you feel that you have to compromise who you are for your work situation, please consider meeting with an Assist counsellor.

We all want to be the duck that lands in the perfect pond on their first attempt, who thrives in the environment that looked so appealing from the height of a few hundred feet. But, in reality, not all ducks land in a pond where they will thrive. There is no shame in deciding to spread your wings and check out other ponds. Finding the right law firm is a bit like dating. You may hope that the first person you date will turn out to be your perfect soulmate, but we know that this is rarely the case. Indulge me for a minute and think about the first person you dated (unless your first date was, in fact, your soulmate.) Can you imagine being with that person now? Ah but, you say, I was young and naïve. Sometimes we are young and naïve about where we want to work, too. It is okay to grow in a different direction and need to move on.

So, if you look at how hard you are paddling so you appear to be the duck that the pond wants rather than the duck that you are, please know that there are likely other ponds that may suit you better, and it is not only okay but an essential part of thriving to make a move to somewhere that is a better fit. This is not a unilateral option—the pond is often looking for ducks that fit them better, too!

If you are an articling student and you assess that you are just the wrong duck for the pond, do not panic! A lot of ducks have been there. It is much harder to move during articles, so if you are articling, please focus on what you can learn, both about how to practice law and about yourself. Sometimes ducks choose to stay for a year or two to get more experience before setting out for a new pond, and sometimes ducks leave as soon as possible. Just try to get what you need out of your tenure in that pond.

There are, however, situations that articling students should not remain in, where there is harassment or discrimination or other unacceptable conduct. The Law Society operates an Articling Student Placement Program (which allows it to pluck articling ducks from toxic ponds and move them to safer ponds while they mature into lawyer ducks.) Please call the Equity Ombudsperson if you are in one of these situations!

There is another duck idiom to consider: taking to something new like a duck to water. When you find the right practice situation and the right practice area, you may take to it like a duck to water. I spent seven years trying hard, paddling furiously, to be a corporate finance lawyer, but it just wasn’t me and I didn’t feel authentic. I have used the line that I didn’t have Imposter Syndrome but was actually an imposter—you will know what I mean by that if you have ever been in a role that just isn’t you.

But I found a new pond, overseeing the human resources portfolio of a large multinational company. The work came to me easily and I could communicate freely and easily with my client group. I took to it like a duck to water, and I realized how I had compromised myself trying to be something that I just wasn’t, and that it was okay to be me. You can do this, too.

Some ducks have harder paths to find a pond than others. Internationally trained lawyers as well as Indigenous and racialized lawyers and lawyers from the 2SLGBTQ+ community may experience more issues “fitting in” enough to get hired since many individuals making hiring decisions tend to hire in their own image or the image of their dominant group. It can feel tempting to grab at any pond that will give you landing rights. Please resist the temptation to take the first pond that comes along at face value and do some due diligence to assess whether it is a place where you can thrive. And if you feel that you have to take an opportunity that you know may not fit you to a tee, please remember that you don’t have to swim alone. You can join Assist’s Red Mug Coffee Circles or seek peer support through Assist and, if you are already a lawyer, you can build a network of potential mentors through Mentor Express.

Sometimes, we feel like the Ugly Duckling from Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale. But the Ugly Duckling was actually a swan whose beauty shone through as it matured. You may be a swan pretending to be a duck—but you will thrive somewhere where you can be a swan, and you won’t have to paddle furiously like a Stanford Duck!

You may be surprised by how many lawyers are in Stanford Duck mode in one pond but who take to another pond effortlessly and with grace. Sometimes you have to take a chance and leave a pond you are accustomed to, and sometimes it takes support for you to make this move. But Assist can provide this support, and our professional counsellors can provide career counselling (but not in-depth career assessments—you may have to pay for these expensive tools but isn’t finding out what works for you worth it?)

Paddling furiously like a Stanford Duck is one thing in the context of working hard to keep up, but it is another matter where you are essentially pretending to be something that you aren’t in order to fit in. In the words of Janis Joplin, “Don’t compromise yourself, you’re all you’ve got.” Or as William Shakespeare wrote, “To thine own self be true.” Focus on being you, in all your glory and all your vulnerability, and let Assist swim and fly with you as you navigate your way to your own pond.