Overcoming imposter syndrome

You’ve made it to the Bar – spread your wings, trust in your abilities and be your authentic self; candid advice on how to beat imposter syndrome and enrich life and practice


 

Imposter syndrome: the feeling that you are not good enough, do not belong and will be found out as a fraud. It is indiscriminate but can be more acute for those who differ from their professional peers, for example by race, gender, age, disability, class or sexual orientation. Being a young black female from a single parent family who went to a state school and a non-Oxbridge university makes me the perfect candidate. Working on overcoming imposter syndrome is an ongoing process. Hopefully my story, and that of others, will help provide some insight and support.

School and university

Despite being shy, for the majority of my childhood I was focused on becoming a barrister. My journey was full of failures and rejections: failing to get into my chosen university, several rejections for mini-pupillages and pupillage are just a few examples. However, I persevered, took stock of my skills and actively tried to improve. To overcome my shyness, I became Head Girl. I studied hard for my A-levels and got top marks. I obtained advice, guidance and encouragement from academics at the University of Reading. Whenever self-doubt crept in, I carried on, holding on to the fact that many people, from those who looked over my application forms to those who offered the opportunity to shadow them in chambers or at court, believed that I would make it.

Training for the bar

Somewhere between school and training, many of us from non-traditional backgrounds feel that we have to change ourselves in order to be perceived as a barrister. One white, Northern male at the Bar told me: ‘My objective was not only to possess the legal knowledge and professional skills of a barrister but also to look and sound like one. Eventually, I managed to conceal my Northern origins and my just-about-middle-class roots behind a veil of gentility, my newly acquired received pronunciation (teaching languages for a year before converting to law helped) and a collection of slim-fit three-piece suits. I assumed my new character; and hoped that everyone at the Bar would believe (or be misled) into thinking that I would fit right in. But, at the beginning of my career, I was terrified of being found out.’

Having made a concerted effort to ditch my Tottenham accent and acquire nicer suits, I completely understand where he is coming from.

The Inns of Court are a great source of training and support. For someone like me, they can also make you feel like an outsider. A black male BPTC graduate, who is due to start pupillage in autumn 2019, told me: ‘During qualifying sessions I had the tendency to be over polite to Inn members of staff because I didn’t feel like I belonged there. This was probably reinforced by all the paintings and sculptures of old white men on the walls.’ For me, the biggest moment of ‘otherness’ was at an advocacy weekend when a retired judge asked if I was going to ‘go back to my country’ after I completed the BPTC (FYI, I am a born and bred Londoner).

Pupillage

In my first six, I was worried about exposing my personality to members of chambers. In my second six, I worried they thought I was lacking personality. I started counselling prior to pupillage due to depression and low self-esteem but did not tell anyone in chambers out of fear that it would ruin my chances of securing tenancy. Prior to my second six, I ended counselling as I decided that it was incompatible with the unpredictability and last-minute nature of instructions at the Bar.

Pupillage was full of anxiety, loneliness and self-doubt. I was convinced that chambers would realise they had made a mistake and cast me back into ‘my world’. It was one of the toughest periods of my life. I obtained tenancy at the same chambers which felt surreal. Despite my fears, I became a fully practising barrister. However, I later found out that some members had objected to me becoming a tenant which reinforced my feelings of worthlessness.

Into practice

Imposter syndrome does not end when you are in practice. A black female barrister confided in me about an encounter at court with a particularly vicious opponent: ‘She was so vile! Constant eyerolls, trying to make me look and feel stupid. Being dismissive of me… This massively inflamed my inferiority complex.’

Seniority does not make you immune. One senior white female barrister told me: ‘When I see my cases in writing and what I have done, it really doesn’t feel like it was me. I am still consumed by anxiety before many hearings. It is not getting much easier although I have learned to put things in perspective to a certain extent. I can tell myself over and over again that I can do this but there is often an inner doubt.’ Another shared with me that: ‘I would listen to, and obsess over, the slightest criticism to the extent that I would dismiss or ignore anything positive that happened. I realise now that I spent so much time trying to conceal what I thought of as my shortcomings that I failed to appreciate (or enjoy) some really quite significant achievements and failed to take advantage of some excellent opportunities.’

"For me, the biggest moment of ‘otherness’ was at an advocacy weekend when a retired judge asked if I was going to ‘go back to my country’ after I completed the BPTC."

I can relate. Until recently, I would not take ownership of my successes in court but would blame myself for every loss. I would cling to signs that reinforced my sense of inadequacy and ignore my achievements. Like a leech, imposter syndrome sucked the joy out of my work. It grew with every undermining and patronising comment from other barristers. It was fuelled by the rare occasions where judges would say things to humiliate me in front of my client and opponent. It increased when I experienced harassment at the Bar. It was heightened when I saw other barristers being treated unfairly.

Luckily, change is afoot. The Bar Council is tackling judicial bullying and harassment head on. The Wellbeing at the Bar initiative has brought a realisation that stress, anxiety and depression are not weaknesses but are experienced by many at the Bar at some point. The Bar Council is committed to social mobility. We are becoming a profession with a diverse range of people; there is always room for you.

Keeping it at bay

I feel much more confident in my abilities as a barrister and have a developed a sense of belonging and worth. I take credit for my success and enjoy the work that I do. This is due to the efforts I have made to fight the demons of imposter syndrome, so here are some tips to help you keep it at bay:

  • Love yourself: Cheesy, perhaps, but extremely important. In order to increase your self-esteem, you need to learn to love yourself for who you are. Going back to counselling has helped me tremendously. I went from someone who had low self-worth to someone who is falling in love with herself. Working on yourself will have a positive effect on you, your family, friends and clients.
  • Be yourself: Trying to be someone that you are not is exhausting, anxiety-inducing and unnecessary at the Bar. I have decided to live the most authentic ‘me’ as I can.
  • Acknowledge your achievements: If you are feeling low, write out everything you have achieved. Trust me, if you have made it to the Bar, the list will be long. Pat yourself on the back; that list will keep growing.
  • Cut out negative self-talk: I used to call myself stupid all the time. I now catch myself every time I am about to think something negative about myself. Turn that negative into a positive.
  • Be kind to yourself and to others: If you make a mistake, remember that everybody does. Treat yourself with the same compassion that you would give to your child or best friend.
  • Do not take it to heart: When faced with someone who is rude or patronising, remember that their behaviour has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them. If it crosses the line, consider making a complaint.
  • Get a mentor: I have an incredible mentor whose encouragement has increased my confidence significantly. If you do not have access to a mentoring scheme, set one up in your own chambers/institution. In my view, it is especially important to have mentoring schemes for pupils and barristers in their first few years of practice. I would encourage all chambers to create them.
  • Share your stories: When I have been worried about a mistake, my mentor and other senior members at the Bar have shared their past errors. This has provided me with a sense of perspective.
  • Join a committee: Being on the Young Barristers’ Committee has provided me with a connection to the Bar and many opportunities. Being a social mobility advocate for the Bar Council has enriched my life as I have used my journey to inspire others. I also volunteer at my Inn’s events for students to show that there are people from non-traditional backgrounds who thrive at the Bar.
  • Create your own space: Believing that I might not be the only one who feels alone, I decided to create a network for people like me. I found others who shared my view and we created the Black Barristers’ Network. If you wish to get involved, please do not hesitate to contact me at: natashashotunde@5sah.co.uk

Being at the Bar requires a tremendous amount of strength and courage. By being here, you have it in abundance. Our job is incredible and working to overcome imposter syndrome can bring joy to your career. If this article resonates with you, I hope that the knowledge that you are not alone provides you with comfort. I also hope that this article has given you tools to enrich your life and your practice.

Natasha Shotunde is a tenant at 5 St Andrew’s Hill. She is a member of the Young Barristers’ Committee, a Social Mobility Advocate for the Bar Council and has brought barristers together to create the Black Barristers’ Network.


  • ‘I have realised by talking with other women, both at the Bar and outside, that in fact I am much better off being my authentic self; straight-talking, passionate, down to earth and these are all good qualities as an advocate/barrister. I still feel like certain judges and barristers fall into a “club” to which I do not belong, but the Bar and judiciary are changing... slowly.’ Senior female barrister
  • I was instructed in a high revenue civil case with two juniors. I could not believe that I was capable of doing the case. Others had to persuade me that it was the same as other cases I had conducted only higher value. I know I need to believe in myself more and when I look back at what I have achieved it doesn’t seem like it was me.’ Senior female barrister
  • ‘My advice, derived from nearly 30 years of experience at the criminal Bar is twofold: identify your strengths and play to them; allow yourself to accept both praise and support.’ Senior female barrister
  • ‘How I overcame imposter syndrome was by realising that I deserved to be where I was, and also by appreciating the amazing insights and strengths that I have as a result of my background – which was often the source of my imposter syndrome. I learned to see my difference as my strength and developed an underlying belief that I had something unique and beneficial to offer. I also made an effort to see myself as me first and a barrister second. This helped me to stop trying to “act” like a barrister in interviews etc, and encouraged me to just be myself, in the knowledge that by doing so, I was automatically demonstrating my abilities as an able barrister anyway.’ Male pupil (starting autumn 2019)
  • ‘I spent years thinking I was never good enough as I did not sound like a “typical barrister”. I was not smooth or charming or unflappable. I did not possess gravitas. In short, I was not a public-school boy.’ Male junior barrister
  • ‘I was instructed in a lengthy case having not been in the crown court for some years due to diversifying into other areas. All the other counsel were silks with juniors, and I was the only leader who was not a silk. I was really anxious in the lead-up that I was not good enough. For months I worried that I was going to screw it up. The way I coped was by knowing the case inside out, working really hard to prepare it thoroughly. This is always my default mechanism when anxious. I also bought the Headspace app and meditated each day in the lead up and during the hearing. As the case progressed my confidence grew. I was also assisted by a fantastic junior. I was over the moon when my client was acquitted. Other counsel and solicitors told me that my speech was great. I don’t know if it was true but it was nice to hear.’ Senior female barrister

From Essex to Oxford to the Bar with imposter syndrome

Born in East London and raised in Essex, I am of mixed-race heritage; black Caribbean and white English. My paternal grandparents were part of the Windrush generation and worked incredibly hard to build a life in the UK. I attended local state schools and was encouraged by my family to aim high. However, I was discouraged from applying to Oxbridge by teachers who thought that it wasn’t for ‘people like me’. I persevered and was accepted to study Philosophy, Politics and Economics at the University of Oxford.

I loved the intellectual stimulation at Oxford, but found the environment difficult. I struggled with imposter syndrome; the feeling that I didn’t belong. In my year group (of over 100 students) I was the only one of black heritage; and none came from Essex.

Another challenge was funding my legal education. I studied the GDL full-time whilst working three to four days a week. I was the first person awarded the Queen’s Scholarship from Middle Temple, which funded the majority of my BPTC. That scholarship, awarded to a ‘student showing exceptional promise’, instilled confidence that I was ‘good enough’.

Pupillage

I’m currently in pupillage at 5 St Andrew’s Hill in London, a multi-practice set in crime, extradition, family and public law. I’m halfway through and already have learnt so much.

Pupillage isn’t easy; it takes you out of your comfort zone. For me, imposter syndrome returned. You learn so much in Bar school but then begin pupillage and it feels as though you are learning everything again. You feel worried about asking ‘silly’ questions or making mistakes, knowing that chambers make a tenancy decision at the end of the year.

I have been exposed to new areas of law and expectations are understandably high, so of course there are moments when I doubt my own ability. I’ll draft a piece of work and read it over and over again, concerned that I’ve completely misinterpreted the task. A few weeks ago a colleague in chambers reminded me that sometimes you do just have to trust in your ability, hard work and preparation. He explained how common it is to feel this way when you are starting out because pupillage is a steep learning curve.

Looking forward

I’m now ‘on my feet’ and still feel a strong mixture of excitement and nerves for each case. I’ve spoken to QCs and judges who say they still feel nervous, which is definitely reassuring!

Chambers has a WhatsApp group to ease us through our first steps. From day one, the most recent tenants have been just a message away, giving us the opportunity to ask questions without judgment. There’s also a ‘juniors’ group chat, which is a lifeline for early days in the magistrates’ court. The imposter syndrome may have re-emerged during pupillage, but supportive networks are making a big difference.

Alexandra Wilson @EssexBarrister is a pupil at 5 St Andrew’s Hill. Her blog ‘Essex to Oxford’ shares her experiences to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds to apply to Oxbridge and consider a career at the Bar: https://essextooxford.wordpress.com

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Natasha Shotunde

Natasha Shotunde is a tenant at 5 St Andrew’s Hill. She is a member of the Young Barristers’ Committee, a Social Mobility Advocate for the Bar Council and has brought barristers together to create the Black Barristers’ Network.

Alexandra Wilson

Alexandra Wilson @EssexBarrister is a pupil at 5 St Andrew’s Hill. Her blog ‘Essex to Oxford’ shares her experiences to encourage students from non-traditional backgrounds to apply to Oxbridge and consider a career at the Bar: https://essextooxford.wordpress.com