- On April 18, 2021
Clients tell me their chief complaint about lawyers is they are so bad at communicating. Why are they constantly hedging? Can’t they just break things down and explain the likelihood of events? Um, no. We lawyers are taught to examine all risk so we have a hard time prioritizing them and don’t want to be wrong. On top of that, despite seven years of higher education followed by tough training, lawyers are often plagued by self-doubt. Even the best of us wonder whether we deserve our positions. I appreciate this interview with Zynga CLO Phuong Philips, who talks about the impostor syndrome, even though she has been the lead M&A lawyer for Tesla and worked on the Google and Netflix IPOs.
Phuong’s insecurity “stemmed from just being a refugee immigrant to the United States and having English be [her] second language.” She had a fear she was “grammatically incorrect.” As a result, she says, “for many years I never did any public speaking because I was so afraid of looking like an impostor in terms of: ‘This person can’t be an expert, her English isn’t perfect.’”
Her breakthrough moment came a few years ago. She was listening to a well-respected white male panelist talking about his area of law and realized he was not speaking perfectly either! “I sat there and sort of laughed to myself because they were not grammatically correct and they didn’t care. And I thought: if they can do that, I’m pretty sure I could do that, because I’m not that bad with English. It’s just my second language.”
I completely agree with Phuong’s realization that you don’t have to be perfect. The real question I tell candidates debating whether they are strong enough to apply for a job is whether they are at least at the same level with their peers. The answer is almost always yes. I also notice women and minorities often don’t want to say they are the expert at something, but then other people with similar experience have no issues doing that. Because these other people project confidence, they get the job.
My advice for lawyers who want to get ahead but are plagued by self-doubt:
- First, get the experience you need for the job you want. Look at job descriptions and talk to people in the field to see what areas of expertise you need to develop. Then get that experience!
- Apply to jobs that interest you. Figure out the top three things of the giant laundry list of requirements that the employer is truly looking for. Do not fall prey to impostor syndrome and think you are not good enough. As long as you have done the key things required for the job (not the entire list), you are a viable candidate. No one ever has done everything in a job description at the level listed.
- Practice exuding confidence. Look at your track record and ask yourself honestly if someone could have done materially better. If you are a smart hard worker and a trusted advisor to clients, then you can do the job just as well as someone else can, if not better! Now sound the part. If the interviewer asks if you can do X, Y, and Z, and you’ve done X and Y but not Z, do not focus on how you haven’t done Z. Explain the success you have achieved with X and Y and what you have touched on about Z. Do not lead with “I am not an expert in Z.” Do not raise doubts about your skills in an interview. Instead, think about what else you bring to the table that a typical candidate wouldn’t. Represent yourself with pride if you want others to respect you too.