Imposter syndrome—feeling undeserving, doubting your accomplishments, and thinking you are a fraud—is common in law schools. Everyone wants to present their best selves, but do not tend to share their insecurities or vulnerabilities. Understandably, no one wants to be judged or criticized for their choices or feelings. Especially in law schools where there is a grading curve, students can act competitively, even if unconsciously so, toward one another.
It is easy to look around and observe smart, type-A personalities who are accomplished, driven, and bring a wealth of experience from their upbringing, jobs, internships, and fellowships. And it is also easy to look past the fact that these very students may also feel that they are not smart enough, not good enough, or are failing to keep up.
For female and minorities students, the lack of adequate representation in their student body or the law school faculty can create even more unease and pressure.
I think that fighting the feeling of imposter syndrome comes down to two things.
Stop comparing your insides with other people’s outside. Each of us understand ourselves as complex beings – we are an amalgamation of our successes and failures, confidence and self-doubt, strengths and weaknesses. In constructing our identity, we consider things that are not accessible or visible to an outsider looking in. But when we see other people, we understand them through reading their Linkedin profiles or personal bios, observing them contribute to a class discussion or give their oral argument, or learning about their newly-attained scholarship or job opportunity. These images we take in are often carefully calibrated through preparation and presentation. Recognizing that there is an asymmetry between what we are comparing—our inner selves with others’ outer presentation—makes us understand that we fact do deserve our accomplishments, even as we continue to grow and improve.
Know that you do belong and you can succeed. Law students are admitted for a reason: based on their past performance and experiences, the law school believes that they can benefit from a legal education and succeed as a student and future professional. The people at the law school, from the professors to student affairs to the library staff, all want to support students in their journey. Success is a concept that everyone has to define for themselves, but I would argue that success should be not limited to the “gold stars” or badges of prestige traditionally associated with law school. Of course, receiving high grades, joining law review, getting a summer associate offer, securing a clerkship, and being named a fellow are all huge accomplishments to be proud of us. But I think that we should have a broader conception of success: success does not need to come out of a competitive process, and success can be a mere small step toward personal growth.
In my book, it is a success to recognize how different areas of legal doctrine fit together. It is a success to understand the policy implications of the current legal system and who it benefits and disadvantages. It is a success to make strong points and rebuttals during class or oral arguments. It is a success to improve your legal writing and public speaking skills. It is a success to realize what areas you are passionate about. It is a success to pick yourself back up after a devastating rejection. It is a success to understand why you did poorly on an assignment or exam and fix the problem going forward.
Here are some concrete suggestions to alleviate imposter syndrome:
1. Find spaces in which you can share your feelings
Having a community is really important when you are going through an intense experience like law school. Whether it’s a student organization, an informal book club, a local theater group, any community that you feel comfortable in can serve as an outlet for you to share your triumphs, channel your frustrations, and solicit suggestions. Your community will uplift you and help you realize that you are in the right place and doing great.
2. Lean on your support system
Stepping away from the bubble of law school is a good way to gain perspective. Carving out time to spend with your family, significant other, and friends can allow you to de-stress in a way that you cannot do when surrounded by people from law school.
3. Understand your strengths and seek to learn from others
Every person is strong and capable in different ways. Everyone also has room for improvement. Consider changing your thinking from “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t belong here,” to “I am strong and capable, and I’m eager to learn from my fellow classmates.” Instead of thinking about your weaknesses (when compared to others) in a negative light, you treat them as opportunities for growth. And so when you see someone succeeding, rather than thinking that you cannot measure up, you will instead be curious about how they got there and how you can learn from their attributes or work ethic.
Imposter syndrome in law school is normal and understandable. Law schools have the responsibility to address this issue by providing mental health resources, reducing areas of competition, and encouraging students to follow their true passions rather than the typical path. In the meantime, law students also have the power to push back against this feeling! I hope that this article gave you some ideas about how to do just that.
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.