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Don’t let imposter syndrome defeat you

Finding the proper balance in job functions is the mark of a great counsel and business advisor

Fernando Garcia

A good friend and esteemed colleague of mine recently made an observation on LinkedIn regarding impostor syndrome and asked two important questions: “does this feeling ever go away?” and “how do you deal with imposter syndrome?” Imposter syndrome is defined as “the psychological experience of believing that one's accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky … or having manipulated other people's impressions.” In other words, dealing with questions such as: “do I know what I am doing? Am I bringing real value to the table?” Frankly, in many ways, this feeling never goes away, but that is a good thing. You don’t ever want it to go away.

Speaking on behalf of in-house counsel in dynamic organizations, especially those who are part of a small- or medium-sized legal department, it is safe to say that you will always be flying by the seat of your pants and stretching into areas outside of your comfort zone. A typical day will see you researching and providing advice on a potpourri of matters ranging from real estate, contracts, privacy, governance, compliance, employment law, securities and more. Each day is different! Time management is also a concern, as in today’s fast-paced working environment, where emails come in constantly and instantly, senders eagerly await a response immediately after pressing “send.”

While many of us pride ourselves on our ability to find the answer to any problem, it is nearly impossible to have enough of a fundamental knowledge in all areas that cross your desk to be able to provide a well-reasoned, well-backed and informed opinion, especially without the time and resources to really dig into the practice area and the plethora of resources available to lawyers today. Almost immediately your blood pressure rises and you start worrying about how you will get all this done. This is when the impostor syndrome kicks in.

Without unending resources, both of time and budgetary, finding the proper balance between how much to research, how detailed of a response is needed, what to send out to external counsel versus what to keep, and when to conduct a detailed risk analysis on a matter that comes across your desk is the mark of a great in-house counsel and a true strategic business advisor. Your main role is to red-flag issues and marshal the necessary resources to support your client. Even if the decision is to send out the matter to external counsel, you are now in a position to ask lots of question (no such thing as a dumb one), to learn and to eventually gain confidence so that the next time you can do some or all of the work yourself. Every challenge is an opportunity to keep you on your toes, add value, learn, and develop and build your skill sets.

They say variety is the spice of life! Overcoming these feelings of being an imposter is what keeps a lawyer both sharp and eager to come into work every day. It might just be me, but I would not enjoy a role in which I am the lawyer responsible for a particular form or type of contract and my entire day, every day, consisted of dealing with the same issue. Find comfort in your discomfort!

So what are my key takeaways in becoming comfortable with and benefitting from the feelings of imposter syndrome?

  • When you are feeling overwhelmed, be grateful about having to deal with a new issue or area of the law and appreciate the opportunity of gaining a new skill set or knowledge as a result of it.
  • Don’t be shy to tell a colleague who is requesting legal advice  that this is a new area for you and so it may take a little longer to give an answer, but that you will answer. Clarify when a response is needed rather than simply wanted.
  • When external counsel are engaged, ask lots of questions. Ask for templates, draft the changes to the documents, and have the expert review and provide advice on your changes and work. This is an investment in you and means that the next time you may do more or all of this work on your own.
  • When self-doubt kicks in, remember your role. Like a general practitioner in the medical field, s/he cannot know everything about every affliction. Rather, the GP takes her or his fundamental training and tries to identify the symptoms, narrow down the possibilities, provide solutions based on the knowledge available and, if the matter is serious, make a referral to a specialist. This does not make the doctor any less capable or knowledgeable, or an imposter; rather it is the ability to narrow down the issue and refer the necessary parts to specialists that makes one’s role valuable.

So when you feel like an imposter, remember how much you have achieved already, how far you have come and, most importantly, how important these feelings are for keeping your job exciting. Also remember how boring it would be to have an immediate answer to every question. When we challenge ourselves we grow, and what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger!

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