Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Overcoming imposter syndrome

When I was coming out of law school 14 1/2 years ago, I was suffering from a mild form of imposter syndrome. Like many aspiring lawyers, I had spent a long time in school and had become very skilled at it. What was I going to do when what I did really mattered? When it potentially affected someone's property, their liberty, or even their life? My mistakes up until then didn't really affect anyone else but myself. The thought that I could mess up professionally and mess up someone's life permanently was very daunting.

What to do? I found a few things initially comforting. First, watching how the law worked in the wild. I talked a little about this in my last post--watching practicing attorneys made me realize that many of them weren't perfect, and that I could at least match them. Second, family support. After my first year, I was home for the summer, working in my hometown. I got some discouraging news about a lost set of opportunities, and felt like my whole professional plan had come apart. I didn't know what to do. My dad saw I was upset and came over to talk to me. He said that even if I had gotten everything I wanted up to that point--the perfect school, the perfect grades, the perfect opportunity--there would still have come a time when I would fail at something. He knew that I admired Abraham Lincoln a great deal, and said that he guessed the reason that I admired him was not that he never failed at anything, but what he did in the face of failures, obstacles, and discouragements. He told me he was proud of me, that I could get past it, and that things would work out. He was right. Third and relatedly,I realized during my third year of law school that fear of mistakes/failure was a miserable and impractical motivation. I had used it for many years, but didn't realize how it affected me. It sapped all the joy out of any accomplishment, rendering it a mere avoidance of catastrophe rather than a triumph. And having the sword of Damocles over one's head may encourage performance, but it does not make performance enjoyable or as good as it could be. I decided let that motivation go and found another--trying to create legal solutions that were not only functional, but had some beauty, elegance, and style.

These insights notwithstanding, I still dreaded making a mistake when I went out into practice. I worked as a criminal appellate law clerk for two years in law school, and when I started my first job as a prosecutor, I knew that my attorney friends in criminal appeals would likely see my cases from time to time. I dreaded looking or sounding like an idiot in a transcript, and tried my best to make everything I said in court meaningful and articulate. That's a fine aspiration, but it's not very practical on weekly calendars with hundreds of cases and dozens of attorneys. After a few months of constantly being in court, I relaxed a bit, realizing that someone else's hindsight view of what I was doing was bound to be different than what was going on in the moment. It was liberating and made the practice much more enjoyable.

I also realized that in the right situations, you are brought along gradually. As a baby prosecutor, they don't hand you murder cases to take care of alone. They stick you in justice/traffic court to do misdemeanor DUIs, thefts, and traffic tickets. There, your mistakes are less likely to impact anyone seriously, but you can learn the ropes while having some leeway. Likewise, in private practice, good mentors will bring you along as you are able, having safety nets of review.

Along with my imposter syndrome, I also wanted to please everyone--especially my bosses and the judges I appeared in front of. Sometimes those things were in tension with each other and in tension with what I believed was the right thing. I remember one sentencing in front of a judge who I admired, but was quite stern. I recommended a sentence for the defendant that was lower than he thought appropriate, and he let me know of his disappointment (even as he followed my recommendation). When I went back to the office, I was unexpectedly (to me) upset. I vented to one of my colleagues--"If he thinks he knows better how to do my job, he can take off that robe and try it--until then, I'm going to do what I see fit!" It was surprisingly liberating. Not that you shouldn't care about your reputation--you should--but that if you hold yourself prisoner to others' expectations all the time, you'll never really develop into your own attorney and it may cost you some bit of your conscience.

When I got into appeals, I again had some residual dread of mistakes. As I was getting ready for my first big case in the Utah Supreme Court, a looming thought during my oral argument prep was that I didn't want to misstate any of the facts (the case had a really big record). At argument after I sat down, defense counsel immediately got up and said that I had said that something was not in the record, but it was. I was horrified, and ran back to the office afterward to see if she was right. When I realized that she was, I quickly composed a letter apologizing for my mistake, saying it wasn't intentional and I was sorry. And you know what? My career went on just fine. I imagine the court appreciated my owning up to a mistake and moving on. Of course, I still never want to make mistakes and work very hard to prevent them. But when they happen, I just do my best to correct them and avoid them in the future. 

So if you're worried about getting out there and not knowing what you're doing, realize that that happens to all of us from time to time. Find somewhere with good mentors who will bring you along, do what you feel is right (within appropriate constraints), take encouragement from family and friends, don't live in fear, own up to your mistakes, and don't base your actions solely on pleasing others. And one day you'll wake up and realize that you can do it. For me, that feeling took about five months. I was sitting in my office looking over files for the week, and I stopped myself--here I am, I thought, a practicing attorney. I'm doing it! Then I went back to the files. So many files.

Appellate Advocacy | Permalink


Post a comment