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Impostor Syndrome: Do You Have It, Too?

Impostor syndrome is the feeling that you are not cut out for your job, combined with a fear of being discovered as a fraud.

That's the syndrome plaguing many lawyers today, writes Neha Samat in an article for the ABA Journal. She says it's a hidden source of their stress.

Samat shared her perspective after reading about a lawyer who committed suicide because he couldn't cope. She cried because she knows too many lawyers who are suffering from the same malady.

A Perfect Storm

Gabe MacConaill, a partner at Sidley Austin, killed himself in the parking garage of the firm's Los Angeles office. In an open letter, his widow said "Big Law Killed My Husband."

"I know 'Big Law' didn't directly kill my husband -- because he had a deep, hereditary mental health disorder and lacked essential coping mechanisms," she wrote. "But these influences, coupled with a high-pressure job and a culture where it's shameful to ask for help, shameful to be vulnerable, and shameful not to be perfect, created a perfect storm."

Trying to understand it all, the young widow suggested her husband was dealing with "maladaptive perfectionism." It combines unrealistic standards of achievement with hypercriticism for failing to meet them.

"He said he felt like a phony who had everyone fooled about his abilities as a lawyer and thought after this case was over, he was going to be fired -- despite having won honors for his work," she said.

Everyone Fooled

Samat, a lawyer and leadership coach, said law firms need to come to terms with the impostor syndrome. Lawyers must recognize it in themselves, and then work with others through workshops, webinars, courses, and coaching.

"Additionally, legal departments and firms should provide attorneys with a more balanced view of their skillset; better value their unique perspectives; and regularly recognize their ability to grow, learn and improve," she said.

Firm leaders should give more positive feedback, "pointing out the unique perspectives an attorney brings and the unique strengths they can leverage and grow," she said.

Attorneys have to work under pressure, but there are better ways to do it. We're not fooling anybody but ourselves.

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