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  • Danusia Atkinson

"I made it but now what?" Mental health and feeling like an imposter in the legal profession

Working in the legal profession can seem like a dream to many, many people aspire to be a solicitor or a barrister. Students work extremely hard to achieve the ever-increasing academic standard and getting a training contract or a pupillage is about as competitive as it gets so what happens when you get there?

LawCare is a mental health charity that specialises in supporting and promoting well-being in the legal profession. In September 2021, the charity released a report, ‘Life in the Law‘ – a survey of over 1,700 legal professionals that took place between October 2020 and January 2021. The survey concluded that 69% of the lawyers surveyed reported mental ill-health in the last year, with experiences ranging from anxiety, low mood, depression, and physical problems due to stress to thoughts of suicide. Sadly, only 56% of those who were unwell felt able to talk about their illness at work for fear of stigma and the possible negative career implications. Elizabeth Rimmer, CEO of LawCare said: ‘This research, the first of its kind in this country, provides robust evidence that the legal profession is stressed, tired, anxious, at high risk of burnout and that those working practices in the law that undermine mental health need to change”.

So, what is it in particular about the legal world that might cause such a high burnout? Some of the issues highlighted in the survey were the feeling of having to always be available to clients and the intensity of the work. We can imagine that billing targets, and emotionally challenging cases no doubt contribute even before we consider the pressure to make partner and partnership disputes. What environment are we working in? How do we manage this with caring responsibilities or additional stressful experiences- Life in Law notes that women, people with a disability, and those from ethnic minorities report burnout at a higher rate. Hopefully, this research will help promote the change needed within the law.

But what if it’s me? What if I am not good enough?

Whilst we quite rightly need to cast light on the legal system, discrimination or exclusion, and working practices, we are also all individuals who bring our own childhood experiences, family stories, and core beliefs and values to work with us. How one person experiences a situation will not be the same as another as we all approach life from our own internal perspective. This doesn’t mean that one person copes and another doesn’t but that different situations and experiences affect us differently. Frequently I hear clients in high-status employment talk about “imposter syndrome”, the fear that we might be found out as not being good enough. We might doubt ourselves and our abilities, discount any achievements, and may be experiencing depression, and anxiety and contributing to burnout.

Dr Valorie Young (an imposter researcher and expert) suggests that there are five different types of imposters. I like to think of these are thought patterns, we all have moments of imposter syndrome but some of us may get stuck in these patterns of thinking.

1. The Perfectionist; This person struggles with anything less than perfect- it is only perfect or not good enough despite logically knowing that perfect doesn’t exist. The practice of law is inherently creative- how one lawyer presents or argues a case isn’t the same as another lawyer even if the legal principles are the same, perfect doesn’t exist.

2. The Expert; Unless you can write the book, you aren’t good enough- for this person, they have to know absolutely everything in order to feel capable. No lawyer will ever be able to know every single piece of case law, the ability to research is taught in law schools for that reason.

3. The Natural Genius; To be good enough, it should come naturally without any effort. Doing something new or challenging will seem terrifying as there is never the opportunity to start at the bottom or to recognise the value of practice.

4. The Soloist: If you ask for help, you aren’t good enough; you should be able to do this on your own. You might recognise this as the person in your team who never asks for help, or support and seems unable to accept guidance.

5. The Superperson; This person likely compares themselves to everyone; you are either the best, or you aren’t good enough. They may always be last to leave, making clear that they put in longer hours than everyone else.

If you can recognise yourself in any of these examples, it’s worth thinking about the impact that this thinking has on your working life. Law is inherently tempestuous; advice can change suddenly upon uncovering a new piece of evidence, and a new precedent might be set that impacts your client, clients are in the midst of a stressful experience and may be expecting a lawyer who is all-knowing and all-powerful. Any of the above thought patterns can make life as a lawyer even more stressful than it may inherently be, a mistake will feel like a catastrophe and the desire to be a superperson will prevent you from showing any vulnerability to your work colleagues, leaving you feeling even more alone.

How does Counselling help?

First counselling allows you to share your thoughts in a non-judgemental, confidential, and safe environment. Sharing your thoughts out loud to a trusted professional can be incredibly illuminating, you might not realise what you had been thinking unconsciously, what that experience meant to you on a personal level. By sharing these thoughts, you allow yourself and your counsellor to challenge them. This is so helpful, you may have been discounting evidence that these thoughts were incorrect, or you may have dismissed your achievements. A counsellor can help you spot inconsistencies and notice when you are relying upon the unhelpful thinking explored above.

A thought that has been shared, thought about, and challenged can be changed. Hopefully, you can develop the voice inside you that speaks to you as if you would to a friend- can you be curious and compassionate to yourself? With practice, you can develop the ability to recognise an unhelpful thinking pattern in the moment, express compassion to yourself and reframe this thought to prevent the anxious spiraling. Counselling can also help uncover what unconscious beliefs or values may be impacting you. Perhaps stories within your family on the value of hard work, money, or achievement. Experiences at school and experiences of racism or discrimination. How does your culture impact your approach to work? What social pressures might you unconsciously be managing? The more that you know about yourself, your history, and how you approach the world, the more you can choose how to respond to a stressful situation instead of being stuck reacting in a way that causes you more stress.

Prior to my training to become a psychodynamic counsellor, I worked in the legal profession for fourteen years both in private practice and in-house which helps me understand the particular experience of working in the legal profession. You can contact me for counselling, online or in person in Sevenoaks, Kent via the “Contact Me” section of this website. To find out more about the therapy that I offer, please look at the rest of my website.

Other resources

LawCare has numerous resources and a helpline on 0800 2796888 offering support. Have a look for groups that might support you and allow you to connect to others. Some examples may be Women in Law Kent or the LGBTQ+ Solicitors Network. You should be able to follow a link to these organisations by clicking on their names.

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