‘Imposter syndrome‘: “The persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills.”
For some time, sparked through the conversations I’ve had on the topic with Katherine Mountford, I’ve been interested in the concept, theory, and roll that imposter syndrome plays within the legal profession.
My interest was given a nudge over the past week by a LegalSpeak podcast that included some great thoughts by both Albert Farr and Jay Harrington, who talked about their experiences with imposter syndrome in the early part of their legal profession [noting that Farr is actually just starting out his career in law] (Calming the Imposter Monster: You Don’t Know Everything, And That’s OK.) and a post by Susan Harper on the issue of ‘What is Imposter Syndrome and How May It Be Affecting Your Leadership?‘ which looks at the broader implications of imposter syndrome at a more advanced stage of your legal career.
Read together they give a pretty good balance on some of the major crisis of confidence issues that can plague lawyers.
What am I worth?
While I am in no way qualified – nor do I profess to be – to talk to the diagnosing and/or treating of any medical conditions associated around imposter syndrome, or mental health issues in the legal industry more broadly, with over 20 years’ experience in the industry, I have no doubt whatsoever that most lawyers wake up in the morning and ask themselves (if no one else) ‘What am I worth?‘ – ‘What is an hour of my labour worth?‘.
Adding to these frustrations, and doubts, is the fact that, in private practice, in most cases, a lawyer’s intrinsic value is not determined by them. Nor, importantly, is it determined by their clients in recognition of their craft.
No, more often than not, a lawyer’s worth is determined by the Accounts Department and/or a Senior Management committee who have worked out [this should probably read, “been told”] how much the capital [equity] partners want to be paid this year (including bonus). Having determined this we then work backwards and determine the number of hours that will need to be worked in order to achieve this, taking account of historic realisation rates, and minus any leave, and then looking at the relevant leverage and required multiplier needed to ensure that the required amount is met.
All of this is then wrapped around a completely meaningless ‘industry survey’ that costs a fortune and suggests your law firm’s hourly rates are 10-20% less than your competitors and you really should be doing a better job!
If this sounds convoluted and over complex, or if you have any doubts about my sincerities here, read ‘Associates Want a Break on Billable Hours as Pay Cuts Roil Law Firms‘ by Dylan Jackson.
Little doubt then, in my opinion, as to why lawyers would suffer from imposter syndrome (or mental health issues more broadly).
Taking back control – how to demonstrate value to your customers
Adding insult to injury, having not had much say in the hourly rate they charge, and with little or no training, lawyers are then asked to go to market and justify why they are worth the amount they charge.
So can lawyers take back some control?
The short answer is: ‘yes’; there are several ways that lawyers can take back that control – one predominately relates to internal processes and the other to external communication.
Change the internal process: Establish a Value Council
If you want to adopt greater transparency and conversation around the amount that your lawyers charge – relative to the value they are delivering to your customers – and at the same time get greater collective buy-in from your lawyers, then I would suggest you take the power away from your Accounts Department and establish a Value Council.
The mission statement of your Value Council should be to establish:
‘a collaborative platform to discuss and exchange views and information about value to ensure outcomes that are mutually beneficial to all.’
Progressive law firms will include customers of the firm in their Value Council and consider adopting a Pricing Charter.
To be effective, it is suggested that your Value Council consist of no less than six and no more than 10 participants who, crucially, are willing to invest time in the process.
Change the external communication
For years lawyers have liked to brag about the hourly rate they charge. It’s up there with the mount of billable hours they have worked this year as ‘badges of honour’. The reality that most lawyer’s Average Billing Rate – the amount clients are actually paying for that lawyer’s time – are nowhere in the region of that lawyer’s hourly rate is conveniently forgotten.
But there is an alternative. Rather than going to market bragging about how much you cost, why not change the conversation up and talk about how much value you bring to your customers. How you help your customers? How you change outcomes to their benefit.
Dare I say it, you move the conversation away from you and onto them. In doing so, it is hoped you will take a critical step down the path of the Value Conversation; because, as John Chisholm wrote back in 2018:
“Before we price, we need a scope of work; before we have a scope of work, we need to have a scope of value and you cannot have a scope of value without first having a value conversation.”
That seems like a good place to put a line in the sand to this week’s post. I will add though that if you are one of those lawyers who questions their value, who may question if they deserve to be where they are or who suffers some form of imposter syndrome, keep in mind that around 90% of the profession is right there with you (and listen to Episode #182 of the Soul of Enterprise) .