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The Imposter Lawyer Who Froze

by Jay Reeves |

Once there was a lawyer who froze.

It happened at a bad moment – a terrible one, professionally speaking. He was standing before a room full of other lawyers giving a CLE presentation on the 10 Building Blocks of a Successful Law Practice. Within minutes of starting, an attendee asked an impossible question, and his brain shut down. 

“Well?” demanded the inquisitor, a burly divorce lawyer from Buncombe County. “What’s your advice?”

The presenter was exhausted, battling a head cold and soaking wet. His immune system was already compromised. The last thing he needed was a long, inappropriate and wildly convoluted question involving interstate visitation and Troxel v. Granville, delivered with anger and flagrant disregard of attorney-client confidentiality.

“Well? What do you advise me to do in my case?”

“Ahh,” the presenter said. “Um.”

He eyed the group of soggy lawyers packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the stuffy room. He sensed some were sympathetic, but most avoided eye contact. He was in this alone. The night before, he had driven from Raleigh in a torrential downpour. He woke to find it raining even harder. Nobody wanted to be there, including himself. But State Bar requirements are unyielding, and he and two dozen attendees had sloshed unhappily from their cars and settled in for a grim 180 minutes of legal education. 

“After all, you’re the expert,” persisted the questioner. “You’re supposed to have the answers.”


Who Made You the Expert?
The presenter had given the 10 Building Blocks seminar once or twice a week for two years. The very same seminar. He could do it – had done it – on autopilot. In the process he had fielded his share of tough questions and dealt with his share of crazy questioners. 

And yet the combination of sleep deprivation, mild illness and a ridiculous question from an antagonistic attendee had left him not just speechless but witless. He felt exposed as a fraud. Most of the attendees had practiced longer than he had. Who made him the expert? At least they knew enough to bring an umbrella in a rainstorm, which he had not done. 

He stood there mute and miserable. Eureka! A response came to mind, in the form of six words that would not solve the problem but would buy more time. 

“Could you please repeat the question?”


The Reality of Imposter Syndrome
Here’s a confession: the first time I heard the term Imposter Syndrome, I chuckled.

What have they come up with now, I thought.

Then I actually took the time to learn a bit about it. And the more I learned, the more I realized I was learning about myself.

One thing I learned was that the experience of Imposter Syndrome has been around longer than the phrase itself.

I know this because the presenter in the above scenario was me, and the scene actually happened (more or less) in a conference room 30 years ago at some long-forgotten hotel in Asheville or Boone or Sylvia. Back then I was Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. A favorite part of the job was galivanting around North Carolina spreading the CLE gospel of the 10 Building Blocks and dispensing advice on law and life like Brother Love’s Salvation Show.

There I was – with my own slim resume of but a few years of law practice in a different state – telling lawyers twice my age how they should be doing what they’d been doing quite nicely for decades without me.

Talk about Imposter’s Syndrome.


The Emperor Has No Clothes

Though I’d never heard the term at the time, I certainly experienced the symptoms of Imposter’s Syndrome: self-doubt, a fear of being revealed as a phony, a nagging sense of not quite measuring up.

Luckily I had a great team (that would be you, Camille) and superb role models (Camille again, also Keith and Joan and Deb and dear David B), not to mention a trusty Kodak carousel slide projector and stunning, full-color visual blow-up of the 10 Blocks themselves. 

Most important: I realized I was not there to provide answers – an impossibility in the case of the Buncombe County questioner – but to help people find their own answers. That’s how meaningful change takes place. In the process, I picked up six new words that have proved valuable ever since.

“How can I help with that?


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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