“Gritting” Through Your Imposter Syndrome

The lack of women-led or owned law firms both in the U.S. and globally is a well-recognized problem. According to McKinsey & Company’s inaugural Women in Law Firms study, only 19 percent of equity partners are women, and women are 29 percent less likely to reach the first level of partnership than men.

Another survey conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA) and ALM Intelligence shows a more frustrating side to the issue: while women and men have the same overall satisfaction with the actual practice of law, women attorneys report a host of ongoing challenges, including unwanted sexual advances, a lack of business development opportunities, being overlooked or denied advancement or promotional opportunities, denial of salary increases and bonuses, and more.

At the same time, many women attorneys have discussed suffering from imposter syndrome: a troubling trend where professionals experience self-doubt in the face of challenges or setbacks, plagued that they may be “exposed as a fraud,” unworthy of accomplishments and roles. Often these attorneys find themselves unable to engage in “authentic, detached self-assessment.” And while both men and women suffer from imposter syndrome, women and people of color tend to experience it at a much higher rate.

To confront these issues, the ABA has developed a program to help women rely on their own strength to overcome setbacks in their careers called the Grit Project. The goal of the program is to teach women how to adopt a new mindset.  As Maureen Mulligan, Peabody & Arnold partner and co-chair of the ABA’s Grit Project explains, the program upholds the idea that “grit can be learned and is a valuable tool for [women] taking ownership of their own careers.”

Recently, I attended a diversity event in the New York office of Hunton Andrews Kurth (Hunton AK) adapted from the ABA program to teach women in the firm these concepts.

The ABA modelled the program after research from Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, and Dr. Milana Hogan on how a “growth,” rather than “fixed,” mindset correlates to career success. As Hunton AK partner Cassandra Collins explained, with a fixed mindset, the individual believes that they are either born with intelligence and talent or not, and there’s very little one does to change that. However, a growth mindset means that the individual believes they are born to learn, and that the brain is a muscle that gets smarter the more it is used.

“A growth mindset leads to a love of learning and a resilience in difficult situations, where you are willing to dig in and put in the effort to overcome whatever obstacle you see in your path,” said Collins. She also referred to Dr. Hogan’s research of grit among women in law firms. Her conclusion was that when faced with a challenging situation, the most successful women in law firms look at issues with a growth mindset, trying to figure out what they need to learn and change to reach their goals. To that end, studies have shown that the more women learn from, rather than internalize setbacks, the more doing so becomes less effort and more of a regular and easier behavior.

Among the Hunton AK associates at the event, one of the most powerful parts was hearing the partners’ stories about how they approached difficult situations or setbacks in their careers. The stories ranged from being passed over for key assignments and promotions, to realizing the woman didn’t want to become partner in their chosen practice group. Several of the partners noted how helpful it is to have mentors in another practice group or outside of your partner mentor to provide perspective or guidance.

Kim MacLeod, a partner with Hunton AK, noted that women can build a relationship of trust with another partner or senior associate so that when these situations happen, “you have people who can offer perspective and help aim you in the right direction.”

The partners urged everyone in attendance to believe in their own instincts and understand that they each the most information about the opportunities that have been presented.

“You need that type of self-confidence, where you know what your mission is, what your goal is, and stick to it,” Collins said. “Don’t let somebody get you off your game, and stand your ground when the time comes.” She explained that surviving these moments is easier when you don’t have to “figure it all out alone” and urged women to focus on their grit to persevere.

The group also examined how women deal with difficult situations, such as being undermined or harassed by a male partner during a deposition, getting buried in conflicting assignments as an associate, or getting passed over for assignments. During small group discussions about ABA videos depicting each scenario, the women discussed how there’s not one way to handle every situation: some women noted how they immediately confronted opposing counsel who talked down to them, while others noted how they said nothing but logged instances of negative behavior to create a record for subsequent sanctions or to solicit information needed to establish key positions for a client’s case.

As more firms like Hunton AK look to grow and develop talent, it is clear these grit sessions provide a powerful way for women to develop connections and relationships outside of their own offices and practice groups.

This post was written by Sameena Kluck, strategic account executive with Thomson Reuters.

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Alex Cook

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