Before law school, I was considered a star pupil by many of my teachers. In high school I regularly made honor roll. In undergrad I graduated about 1.5 percentage points from earning honors … thanks to chemistry (oh, how I hated chemistry). But once I started law school … all of that changed.
Jennifer L. Johnson, Indiana Univ. Robert H. McKinney School of Law 2014, practices with Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc., Milwaukee, representing low-income clients who face legal barriers to employment. She also serves as the diversity, inclusion and retention coordinator to increase diversity within the firm. She is a former board member of the Wisconsin Association of African American Lawyers.
The class that gave me the most trouble was first-year legal writing. The instructor handed back my assignments full of red-inked corrections. With every paper I submitted, my grades declined. I would go to her office to ask for help but she had nothing to offer as far as advice. I would ask, very clearly, what I was doing wrong. She was the most unhelpful instructor I had ever encountered in my secondary education. My grades continued to deteriorate, and my self-esteem, when it came to writing, plummeted. It has yet to fully recover, if I am being completely honest.
I am now in my third year of practicing law, and I still lack complete confidence in my ability to write. The berating from my legal writing instructor eight years ago sticks with me. As a result, I believe I suffer from what has been labeled imposter syndrome. In an article published in gradPSYCH magazine in 2013, Kirsten Weir wrote, “First described by psychologists Suzanne Imes, PhD, and Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, in the 1970s, impostor phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.”
Imposter syndrome can manifest itself in various ways, according to an article by Abigail Adams in the July 10, 2018, issue of TIME. There are the “perfectionists” who set seriously high expectations for themselves but consider themselves failures if they do not meet 100 percent of their goal. The “experts” are incapable of even starting a task until they know everything there is to know about the subject matter. “Natural geniuses” doubt their worthiness if they have to work hard at something they feel should come naturally. If “soloists” have to ask for help on something, they consider themselves a disappointment. Lastly are the “supermen” and “superwomen”; they push themselves to work harder than everyone else to prove they are not failures but end up burning out in the process.
I often find myself riddled with anxiety about my ability to complete writing tasks competently. I identify most with the expert because my fear of messing up often paralyzes me. So, how do I deal? I embrace the discomfort … and I write. I also talk about it with my peers – it turns out there are a lot of us dealing with this. If you find yourself consumed with thoughts of not being good enough, I encourage you to face the fear head on. Do not be afraid to talk to other people about it; you’re likely not alone.
Imposter phenomenon occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success.
Meet Our Contributors
Your practice focuses on removing legal barriers to employment. What drew you to that practice area?
My contribution to Legal Action of Wisconsin (LAW) has expanded in the past six months or so. My area of practice focuses on the removal of legal barriers to employment. For the most part, I work with my clients to secure valid driver’s licenses, satisfy court debts, and clear up criminal history reports to make them more employable.
Added to that responsibility, I am now the diversity, inclusion and retention coordinator. In this role, I work with our newly formed diversity and inclusion team to, among many objectives, promote intentional hiring to increase diversity among our attorney staff and encourage professional development to retain individuals. I’m very excited about this new role and LAW’s commitment to achieve the goal.
Jennifer L. Johnson, Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc., Milwaukee.
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