They say, to err is human. But to wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat wondering if you are going to get sanctioned, sued, disciplined, or fired for making an error…well folks, that means you’re a lawyer.
I am no stranger to these doomsday thoughts and feelings. I’ve been a lawyer since 2005, and a solo practitioner since 2010. I can’t remember how many times I’ve had “the freakout” over something that turned out to be nothing. Like that one hypothetical time when I forgot to mute myself in a video deposition I was attending, my other computer froze up and I mumbled an expletive, then had to wait for the transcript to reassure me that the court reporter either didn’t hear me or chose not to type it. I think I looked at that hypothetical transcript several times to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
Fear of imperfection is one of the top things lawyers worry about. And even if the only consequence of a mistake is having to hear a slew of harsh words, let’s face it — it’s not pleasant. Whether someone’s life, liberty and freedom are at stake, or it’s “only” money, the consequences of making a mistake can often be much larger than the reward or apparent benefit of a job well done.
That can be hard to swallow for high-achieving women who grew up getting validation for good grades. The real world of law doesn’t often provide such satisfaction, like knowing your class rank at the end of the semester. It’s not like some athletic competition where judges hold up cards. You might know if someone else billed more (better) than you, but that’s only useful for you to measure how far you believe you come up short.
Basically, the law can feel like pass/fail, and to the primitive part of our brain that is trying to keep us safe from danger, it can register as a life-or-death proposition. A wrong move feels like a saber-toothed tiger about to pounce. And anything short of perfect, 100%, feels on some level like we might die.
And this is why so many women lawyers quickly self-identify as perfectionists with impostor syndrome. We’re smart enough to diagnose ourselves, but often stubborn enough to not see the cure, or see the irony about what we think the cure is.
We mistakenly think the cure to our worry about perfectionism and our stifling impostor syndrome is to be…uh, well, better. Gotcha.
In the early days of my career, I imagined that once I was 5 or 10 years in, I would Just Know Stuff and not freak out anymore. Well, the longer I practiced, the more I realized that no matter how much I knew and could do, I would always see a gap between where I thought I was, and where I thought I ought to be.
Most women lawyers think confidence comes from their accomplishments. When asked whether we are confident, most of us will internally scan our memory bank for things that we accomplished in the past that should make us feel confident. You know, things like, “I won that difficult hearing last week.” Or, “I got in shape for my wedding.” Or maybe, “I helped build a Habitat for Humanity house.” All of that is really good stuff.
But what most women lawyers then do — that isn’t so awesome — is play this “what have you done for me lately” game with ourselves. We are so eager to prove something — and for what? — that we often don’t let our past accomplishments give us any real joy.
We “check a box” and then we’re on to the next thing. And over time, checking those boxes — proving ourselves — starts to feel like it is required for survival. This is because wherever we look, there is always someone who has bigger verdicts, is nicer to strangers, or does cooler volunteer work. There’s always someone out there who is more of a gunner than you.
Several years ago, I made a dramatic shift in my life and my sense of self as a lawyer. I had been burned out, tired of being on the emotional rollercoaster of worry. I began to ask myself, “what if what I have achieved to this point is enough?”
I really, really didn’t believe that at first. But as I practiced looking at my current circumstances from the place of sufficiency, I started to relax and enjoy my work like I had never done before. Looking for answers to questions no longer felt scary, like I was a feckless idiot for not knowing how to do something. I started to feel a sense of curiosity and openness, and experience just the simple enjoyment of the craft of practicing law.
It’s the practice of law, not the perfect of law.
I found the cure to perfectionism, constant worry, and impostor syndrome was to accept that part of me that wants to prod myself into “better” and just let it chatter away. “Thanks for the input, now I’m gonna get back to work,” I learned to say to my own mind. That allowed me to become more interested in my work and less distracted by an existential dilemma over my level of good-enoughness to do it on any particular day. And the results from that, naturally, are the kinds of externals that are going to help build one’s self-confidence. But now I don’t need them as much to know where I stand with myself, the one who ultimately matters.
The truth is that self-confidence doesn’t come from the boxes we’ve checked off or the things we have accomplished. These are always moving targets.
Self-confidence and calmer management of this fear of making a mistake comes down to this: we all have the right to think whatever we want about ourselves.
You can be confident without being arrogant, awkward, or delusional. You’re totally allowed to be confident even though you are not perfect. You can even be a recovering perfectionist with impostor syndrome sometimes, and still be allowed to give yourself the label of “confident person.”
And, if you still want to word-search your pleadings to make sure they say “public interest” instead of “pubic interest” three times before filing them, that’s ok. I won’t tell.