May 18, 2022

Imposter Syndrome: What Young Lawyers Can Learn From Depp v. Heard

BY: Caroline Gallagher

I do not know how many of you are watching the defamation trial involving Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, but I would guess that most of us have seen at least a little of it. It is hard to escape the media coverage of the trial, especially when it is occurring in our own backyard. I have been able to watch some larger chunks of the trial over the past few days, and I cannot help but feel like I have come to a slightly better understanding of our practice, and maybe even of myself as an advocate.

I would like to preface this all with the fact that I am a transactional attorney in Southwest Virginia. My practice may not have the breadth of experience that some do, but I have found that some things are universal. Imposter Syndrome has been known to plague us all, to some extent. Surveys have shown that 70% of the population struggle with Imposter Syndrome. I know that I have always privately lived with the feeling that everyone around me is far more intelligent, quick, productive, and generally better at this chosen profession than I am. This comparison rings doubly true with respect to “dazzling” trial attorneys, especially from northern Virginia, especially from prestigious firms, and especially those chosen to represent celebrities.

I would imagine that most of America sees the humanizing of Johnny and Amber during this trial, but for me, I see the practice of trial law being humanized. This is not to say that the attorneys on both sides are not intelligent, quick, and completely competent, because the preparation required for this trial is evident and massive, not to mention the execution. Being “on” for days on end in a trial requiring your second-by-second attention, calculation, and expertise is a level of intimidating that I simply cannot comprehend. Before watching this trial my analysis would have ended there. However, watching the play-by-play of this very public display has demonstrated something that all of us lawyers should remind ourselves when we are in the process of beating ourselves up over perceived inadequacies: no amount of preparation will successfully remove the unpredictable human imperfections from a trial.

During cross examination I can almost see the attorneys’ thought patterns. I can see what they need to tease out, and are trying to get from a witness. Getting a witness to state something specific for the record, exactly the way you need it, is not an easy task. I see the small, sometimes humorous, mistakes that are made. (Will we ever forget objecting to one’s own question?) I can see floundering for the exact objection that needs to be made.

These are things that have kept my Imposter Syndrome alive and well, but now I am watching these very experienced attorneys deal with them in real time. It is humanizing them, and more importantly, I am left feeling as though mastering this practice of law may not be so far out of reach for me. Maybe, just maybe, I can be good at this. At any rate, I am recommitting to not holding myself back simply because I assume that everyone around me is so much better and brighter. Maybe, just maybe, with enough preparation and experience, we younger attorneys are equipped to stand toe to toe with the best. As members of the YLC we may struggle the most with Imposter Syndrome, if I could encourage you in one thing, it would be to stop defining yourself by what you see as inadequacies. Step out of the box and do something difficult. Defend that celebrity. Take that case that requires mountains of prep work. I think you may surprise yourself on what your capabilities really are. And maybe, just maybe, you become one of the best.

About the Author

Caroline Gallagher is a Partner at Magee, Goldstein, Lasky, & Sayers. She was born in New Jersey and raised in North Carolina. Ms. Gallagher worked for almost a decade as general counsel for a financial advising firm and has an extensive background in compliance, finance, corporate formation, and business law. Since joining private practice, Ms. Gallagher has been working with businesses entering the cannabis industry here in Virginia. Cannabis is an emerging area of the law in the Commonwealth and involves numerous complex regulations and strict compliance with Virginia-specific laws. Ms. Gallagher’s background in the regulation and compliance heavy industry of finance has given her an edge in this new space that she leverages to help her clients operate successfully in this industry.