You call it a “syndrome” as though it’s a bad thing.

At Keith Lee’s Associate’s Mind he writes about impostor syndrome, which is

“a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be.”

I have done enough psychodrama training, and talked to enough lawyers in truth-telling mode that I believe that, at least among successful male criminal-defense lawyers, “impostor syndrome” is the rule rather than the exception. (I don’t have an opinion on the impostor syndrome on the distaff side, nor in more boring fields of law.)

So much of what we criminal-defense lawyers achieve is objectively the result of luck—getting the right case with the right facts at the right time, drawing the right jury panel, finding the right piece of evidence—that much of what is described as “impostor syndrome” is accurate self-assessment. Even beyond that, though, successful men in criminal defense are, I believe, more likely to think of ourselves as lucky undiscovered frauds than as brilliant lawyers receiving our due.

This should be no great surprise; Dunning and Kruger would predict this result. And there are certainly exceptions, but the exceptions are those that Dunning and Kruger might predict: unskilled people who overestimate their own level of skill, rather than the more skilled who underestimate their own.

I see the tendency of skilled criminal-defense lawyers to privately consider themselves frauds a feature, rather than a bug. Because someone who secretly thinks he’s a fraud doesn’t want to be discovered, ((Oops.)) the lawyer who thinks he’s an undiscovered fraud doesn’t rest on his laurels, works hard, and actively hunts down and eliminates possible ways to fail—all behaviors that you want from your lawyer.

It’s not that we have something to prove, but that we have something to conceal. And as long as we’re concealing our lack of skill by acting as we would if we were highly skilled, we might as well be highly skilled.

21 responses to “You call it a “syndrome” as though it’s a bad thing.”

  1. I think the trick is not to disparage your own gifts for making an effective defense happen. “Aw shucks, I got lucky!” only works when playing horseshoes. 🙂 Ric

    • That would be a trick, in the Rakofskian trick the witness sense.

      I am lucky, and I wouldn’t want a criminal-defense lawyer who disclaimed luck. On the small scale, I luckily stumble into defenses.

      On a much larger scale, I am fortunate to have been born where and when I was with the genes that I have, none of which I can claim responsibility for. Everything I am, I owe to luck. So even if my “luck” were actually the product of intelligence and hard work, it’d still be luck.

  2. Mark- I agree with you. I have worked my ass off for months even years and won cases and still felt like I got lucky.

    I think to varying degrees all defense lawyers are insecure. Controlled fear is a pretty good motivator.

    Clients only come to us when they are in trouble. Often they bring us potentially life-shattering problems. We cannot say “Well your screwed”. We analyze it, and even if the problem is huge, we do our best to provide some level of comfort. We don’t lie. We promise we will do our best. However, When we make that promise we are mostly in the dark. There is little security in promising to do your best in a fight where you have little information about the strength of your adversary.

    The nature of our work requires that we take on cases and THEN learn what we are up against. So we are signing up for fights without knowing what what we are fighting. Every case starts that way. So it makes sense that if we eventually win, we think there was a lot of luck involved. We sign up for fights in the dark.

    This notion that luck rather than skill determines outcomes is not wholly without merit. No matter how hard you try to predict the battle, every trial has surprises. If we work hard and the state’s star witness does poorly under our cross, most of us will privately label that luck rather than skill.

    The unpredictables in a criminal case exist and at times they dictate outcome. They are good and bad and not within our control. Aristophanes said,
    ” Whirl is King”. I tend to agree.

    It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight hard. We should and we do. If anything, Knowing that the unpredictables exist, I think we work harder. But knowing that ” Whirl is king” also tends to make one realize that much is beyond their control. So if we win and secretly thank our lucky stars, perhaps it makes sense; maybe our stars were lucky.


  3. Clausewitz characterized war as a combination of strong emotions, unpredictable events, and careful preparation. Because so much is unpredictable, the winners tend to be those who can control the damage from bad luck and exploit the opportunities presented by good luck. It seems to me there are probably a few parallels to criminal defense here.

      • There are times I think ‘What if I hadn’t x, then none of this would have happened ‘ and the x is the stroke of genius, but really just dumb luck. I am waiting to be found out or for the luck to just run out. Like I am running away and hoping it doesn’t catch me.

  4. I’d agree that fear of incompetence helps motivate performance. As a new lawyer, I know that I likely spend twice as much time researching a topic that a seasoned lawyer would. I’m paranoid that I might get something wrong so I make sure I try to understand the situation from every angle. Of course, I can’t bill the client for my own shortcomings or gaps in knowledge, so I end up working at half-rate, unbeknownst to the client. But that’s what I feel I have to do to provide quality work.

    • As a new lawyer, I know that I likely spend twice as much time researching a topic that a seasoned lawyer would.

      This may be true of already-decided issues of little import, but on bet-your-freedom (or bet-the-firm) questions, I doubt it.

  5. Most of us carry a tattered copy of ” The Art of War” in our head. You are right. Lots of parallels.
    Terrain = the Court, Troop Strength= witness strength, Leadership = you. Art of War says you can predict outcome before battle by analysis of the key factors. You can make an educated prediction. But ” whirl” can quickly turn those predictions on their head.

    Mark, this was a good issue to raise. We cant show our insecurities. It doesn’t inspire any confidence in the troops to know the general is
    Throwing up in woods. Ha ha.

    Hemingway said that the only three sports were
    Racing cars, bullfighting and mountaineering.

    There are parallels between mountaineering & criminal defense. In both you are boldly entering
    Dangerous ground. Each time you survive a climb or trial your confidence goes up. Each time you also know that the odds just increased that next time you won’t be so lucky. My last climb was
    My 12th climb. Streaks don’t last forever.

    Robb Fickman

  6. I was in the Valley with Kent Schaffer years back.
    We were late for Court. We were going to pick a jury in fed case. Even though we were late Kent stopped. He ran in store and bought a package of
    Lifesavers for each of the clients.

    We all are superstitious. I once have a lucky Liberty of London tie. Every time I wore that Tie to final argument I won, until Met Carlos Camacho. The superstitions reflect our belief in luck. Maybe they are silly but we all have em.
    … And the Lifesavers worked!!!

    Robb Fickman

  7. Why male? Do we women think we are actually just that much better? I meant to comment on this then. But maybe I was so busy faking it until I was making it that I didn’t get a chance to.

    • It may be that as a male I have more insight into the male psyche than into the female.

      Greenfield may be partially right, in his comment to your post, that what I see as “imposter syndrome” in others may be nothing more than interpreting their issues through my lens, though he is not not right that I “refuse to consider” that I have a body of anecdotal knowledge that supports my hypothesis, and the anecdotal knowledge comes mostly from successful professional men—mostly lawyers—who in unguarded moments in mixed groups share their feelings of being impostors. (Publicly they would probably all deny it.) Women in the same groups rarely share the same feelings.

      So it may also be that men, culturally or biologically, place more weight on professional achievement than women.

      • I don’t think it is true that we actually place less value on it, we are told it isn’t as important as the other things we do and the balancing of it is almost impossible. I know this is a change of tune from 2010 when I wasn’t nearly as busy and we had a nanny and my kids weren’t in school, but man, I just don’t know what thing to do first and if I try to do all of them none will be that good. Jack of all trades, master of none. And, when you have desired nothing but to be THE BEST at everything and you realize that is an effort you may not be up to taking on, well, then what happens then?

      • I should have said “fails” instead of “refuses,” certeris parabus. You would still disagree but at least it would more closely reflect what I meant to say.

        As for your body of knowledge, I wasn’t there at the sweat lodge, but I’ve got some anecdotal knowledge of my own.

      • I don’t know that it’s particularly controversial. I agree with you for the most part. We’re quibbling over the edges here. I don’t think it’s nearly as pervasive as you do, but then, psychodrama attracts a particular sort of person. That could explain the differences in our perspective.

  8. […] Mark Bennett wrote a post in November that has stayed in my mind ever since. You should go and read it even if you aren’t a lawyer because I think it captures the essence of the human condition – that of insecurity in those things which others around us think we do so well. Basically, Mark (who is taking from a post written by Keith Lee) says that having this lack of assurance in ourselves is a good thing, that because we don’t want to be discovered as frauds, we work harder to cover it up. Voila! It’s brilliant. […]

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