Resources Articles Ten Steps for Building an Acceptable Level of Confidence

Ten Steps for Building an Acceptable Level of Confidence

(a newsletter published by Oregon Women Lawyers)
Volume 12, Number 2
Spring 2001

Many women lawyers appear to lack confidence because they require too high a level of confidence before holding forth. They are not used to experiencing temporary setbacks (partly because few of them participate in competitive sports, where loss is not seen as catastrophic). Women perceive the consequences of their mistakes to be graver than those men must face. Many women lawyers feel open to harsh criticism, humiliation, even job loss.

Women also feel conspicuous. They are usually in the minority in their firms, and the number of women partners is woefully small. Feeling as if their behavior is under constant scrutiny, women are particularly concerned about being caught off guard. To reduce their anxiety, they try to know everything before speaking up. But this caution exposes them to another risk - being perceived as insufficiently confident to be an effective attorney. In other words, they are just as likely to fail if they don’t take risks.


Following these ten steps can help you build the confidence you need if you are to take those calculated risks so vital to your success:

  1. Recognize that no one knows everything. Regardless of how harshly a partner may criticize your errors, rest assured he’s made plenty himself. You can probably remember a few if you try.
  2. Experiment with presenting ideas about which you are less than 100 percent confident. See what happens when you express something about which you’re only 95 percent confident.
  3. Take realistic, strategic, calculated risks. Study your surroundings for cues about the culture in which you find yourself. Observe how others act and interact. Assess the potential costs of being incorrect in a particular situation. Compare these to the cost of inaction.
  4. Have faith in your ability to perform. The success you’ve achieved thus far is not an accident. You wouldn’t be where you are unless you were competent and knowledgeable.
  5. Be willing to tolerate discomfort. People who take risks are not fearless; they simply have fear under control.
  6. Be willing to learn on the job. Men do this all the time - and so do successful women. Seek input from people unlikely to evaluate you. Remember, we always learn more from failure than from success.
  7. Depersonalize your mistakes and the criticism they receive. Mistakes are a fact of life - just because you failed at one thing doesn’t make you a failure.
  8. Act with confidence even when you’re not completely certain.
  9. Think of risk-taking as a necessary part of your professional training.
  10. Remember what you stand to gain from taking a risk: your work will not just be excellent but may also be recognized; you’ll increase your visibility and therefore your chances of getting good assignments; and you’ll probably feel more confident than you did before.


When you are criticized, take appropriate responsibility for your error without denigrating yourself or absolving others of their own responsibility. Try to keep in mind that your critic’s anger is more likely a reflection of feelings of frustration, pressure, and being overwhelmed than any enduring judgment of your competence.

Try to separate the facts you’re hearing from your own feelings about them. You made a mistake - that’s all. Consider all of the temporary reasons you might have made this error - don’t attribute failures to your basic ability and intelligence.

Don’t apologize or ask for permission to speak. Don’t hesitate, repeat yourself, or embroider your statements. Speak in a convincing, unconditional, authoritative way and make your statements strong and powerful. Claim authorship of your ideas.


Remember what you stand to lose from not taking a risk:

  • You may be right but no one will know it.
  • Your work may go unnoticed or you may not receive credit for it.
  • No one will know you’re there.
  • Perhaps worst of all, you may be accused of not having the “necessary confidence.”

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