Alberta Lawyers' Assistance Society

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Imposter Syndrome and Envy: Knowing Ourselves and Each Other

As lawyers, our lives are full of contradictions. We are prone to feelings of Imposter Syndrome – yet we must convey a sense of confidence for our clients. Experienced lawyers learn to do the latter even when they feel the former. It’s cognitive dissonance, but it gets easier with time another example in life where you fake it until you make it.

Imposter Syndrome is the feeling that everyone around us is smarter than us and that we must have been admitted to law school or hired into our jobs by mistake, and that when the powers-that-be discover that we are not as smart as everyone else, they will realize their error and kick us out or let us go.  According to one survey, seventy percent of people will experience an episode of Imposter Syndrome at least once in their lifetimes.

Because we tend to be overachievers, lawyers experience a higher rate of Imposter Syndrome. About 74% of lawyers, including 83% of junior lawyers, experience Imposter Syndrome. We are well above the average, especially in our early practice years.

Lawyers are also prone to envy—it is inherent in our belief that we are imposters that the others around us are smarter, more confident, cooler, more capable than us that we wish we had whatever it is that we think they have that we lack. It doesn’t matter how many times we are told not to compare ourselves to others. Law school and law firm culture create conditions where we compete, and we envy whoever is at the top of the pile because being the top of the pile is the brass ring in our world.

Wanting a trait that we think we lack is the hallmark of envy—as opposed to jealousy, which occurs when something that we have or think we have is threatened by someone else. I am going to try to use them correctly in this blog, although we often use them interchangeably in casual conversation. Both envy and jealousy can become unhealthy, so when we experience them, it is best if we can acknowledge what we are feeling, asking ourselves what we can learn about ourselves from it  and move on.

When we look around at our colleagues, believing that they are all better than us in any number of subjective and objective measures, we assess what it is about them that we wish we could be more like. There is the one who is always first to speak—they must be really smart and confident to put themselves out there. We assess the one who speaks next—they are smart and confident enough to make different suggestions, and sometimes they show great diplomacy and tact in presenting their own ideas. And the person who waits until everyone else has spoken to weigh in? What confidence and brain power does it take to assume the anchor position in a decision-making meeting?

The ironic thing is that we are often envying lawyers, or other law students, who are envying us—this is the nature of a profession rife with Imposter Syndrome. But we don’t want to tell our colleagues or opposing counsel what we admire about them because then they would know that we struggle with feeling inadequate, and a vicious circle begins to swirl.

This week, I received a notice about an interesting study being conducted in the UK. A Ph.D. student at Birkbeck University of London is researching lawyers who have felt envied at work and how they responded. The researcher, Carolann Edwards, was previously a Global Director of Learning and Organisational Development at a large and respected law firm, so she likely has an excellent understanding of the nuances of our profession.

I am curious about  whether knowing that someone envies you while you are envying them might help us counter our own feelings of imposter syndrome—but I am not sure that this is the focus of this study.

You can participate in the study if you are a lawyer who has felt envied in the workplace. 

But the catch is that to participate, you have to be aware that someone in a workplace has envied you—and we work in a culture where few compliments are given. Many of us allow our Imposter Syndrome soundtrack to play 24/7, and it can be hard for us to remember these situations.

Here is a light-hearted example to start you out. I clerked at the Court of Appeal in 1986. There were seven students, and while a few of us knew each other, others did not know anyone. One student suggested an icebreaker activity where we would each share a favourite compliment we had received. There would have been an implicit rule that the compliment couldn’t be about law school success--two of the students had been roommates during law school and we inherited their tradition of a light punch-buggy punch in the arm for anyone who raised work or other inappropriate matters during our breaks. Oh, to be young again (although the punch-buggy punch system likely offends current workplace safety norms!)

I only remember what one student said as her favourite compliment: someone had told her that she swore better than anyone that person had even met! Are you the person who swears better than anyone else? If so, you likely have some colleagues who envy this ability.

You may be surprised by some of the things people admire about you if you open your mind to think about it, overcoming our natural tendency to focus on negative feedback. The University of London study does not restrict feelings of envy to lawyerly skills—it is just whether you experienced envy in the workplace. And remember that lawyers often envy people with soft skills as well as legal acumen. It could be your impeccable sense of style or your ability to remain unflappable as crisis descends around you—it could be that you are the most fun person in the office, or the one who gives the best advice to junior colleagues, or who says something kind to people who are having bad day.

While thinking about  what other lawyers may envy about you can help improve your self-esteem and battle Imposter Syndrome, we can also use this as a call out to our profession to open more lines of communication both vertically and horizontally to improve workplace relationships. Saying to someone “one thing I have always admired or envied about you is….” can help build bridges and create new opportunities for shared experiences. When I moved to an in-house role, I learned that corporate department meetings could open with icebreakers—like if you could only grab one thing from your house before a disaster struck, what would it be—because relationships among colleagues are important.

Sharing things that we admire or envy about each other can be a two-way activity. Senior lawyers can envy traits of their younger colleagues (everything from enthusiasm, attitudes, state-of-the-art research skills, current legal knowledge, and comfort with technology).

Unfortunately, law culture also houses some difficult personalities who may use your feelings of admiration or envy against you. I hope that there is at least one person in your workplace worthy of your trust. If there is not, I would be happy to chat with you about exploring career opportunities because your workplace may not be a healthy environment.

When we think about envy in our workplaces, most of us will remember when we were the envious one—maybe we hoped we would get a chance to work on a high-profile or interesting file that had arrived in our office. Let’s face it, all files are not equal even if the legal work is similar. And sometimes we got that opportunity, and sometimes we didn’t. I remember being filled with envy when another associate was assigned work that I wanted. But there must have been times when I got the plum assignment and other associates envied me.

The reality is that most lawyers are too busy to give spontaneous feedback, figuring that they will deliver feedback primarily through structured performance reviews. We learn, by osmosis, that as long as you are being given work, you are doing fine. So, when you experience not getting an assignment that you think should have or could have been yours, it is easy to go down the path of speculating that you didn’t get the assignment because they no longer value your work. While we have all learned to structure well-founded legal arguments that only move from point A to point B once the foundation is laid, we don’t apply this training to our free-flowing anxiety. When we see that someone else has been assigned a file, we go from 0 to “I am going to be fired” in a fraction of a second! Having an open feedback communication model can prevent these freefalls.

Let’s work through a simple example. Imagine that you are a junior lawyer in a law firm. You enjoy working with a particular partner, but that partner has just assigned a high-profile desirable file to another associate. This colleague always seems to know the right thing to say while you feel you struggle at times to present your ideas verbally since they come at you so fast.

You may be envying your colleague’s ability to organize their thoughts and present them with tact and sensitivity. You wish that you had that trait.

You may also be jealous that this colleague is usurping your role as the partner’s favourite junior associate. You fear losing the work relationship that you have enjoyed along with the status that came from being perceived as the favourite.

Both envy and jealousy can be harmful to positive workplace relationships, but the reality is that some employers will use both to create competitions where employees are pitted against each other to “bring out the best” in people in terms of their work products and productivity.

When you envy the colleague who has skills that you wish you had, it can create distance between the two of you. You start to feel inferior, and Imposter Syndrome manifests itself—“of course you didn’t get that file. They have figured out that you are just not as good as the other associates….”. And as you become jealous of that colleague, the distance increases even more. Envy and jealousy do not promote caring and constructive relationships.

When you become aware that you are experiencing envy or jealousy, you can choose to communicate. You can:

  • Consider telling your colleague what you admire about them. It may make their day. And they may tell you something that they admire about you, which can have the effect of resetting your relationship back to a healthy point. Of course, there are some colleagues who show narcissistic tendencies or play hardcore hardball who may see this as an admission of weakness which they will then exploit, and you should not do this in these cases.
  • Consider talking to the partner to communicate your interest if another file like this arises. This is part of taking charge of your career rather than drifting—it is perfectly acceptable to let your employers know what kind of work appeals to you. And you may also learn something helpful about why the file was not assigned to you. It may be that they  know that you could handle this file with your eyes half-closed and they want to ensure that others can develop in this area.
  • Think about what you can learn from your feeling, whether of jealousy or envy, and how you can apply that knowledge. You may discover that you want to pursue training in an area where you want to grow. This is one way of turning a negative emotion into a positive.

And how would you respond if you realize that other lawyers envy you? How would you use someone else’s envy to do something constructive?

You could choose to mentor the person who admires or envies you. You could share the positive feeling that you felt when you learned that someone envies you by sharing something that you admire about them. Or you can use this information to counter-balance feelings of inadequacy that periodically arise for you if you, like most of us, experience Imposter Syndrome. Next time that you are being hard on yourself, remember that someone envies your ability to do something and that while you may experience twinges of Imposter Syndrome, you do have skills and attributes that are valued.

The University of London research will be helpful if it reveals that envy in the workplace can be a manifestation of Imposter Syndrome and that communication of strengths as well as weaknesses can be deployed as a strategy to develop healthy confidence in junior lawyers. I will share the results when they become available.