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Impostor Syndrome

This week I’ve received messages from law students who just started their summer legal internships. What’s keeping them up at night? 

Impostor syndrome. 

So, let’s talk about it. 

Where did this come from?

I am no stranger to impostor syndrome. Having pursued a “J.D. Advantage” career path, I’ve spent a lot of cycles worrying about my peers (who were following traditional legal paths) and wondering if I was doing something wrong. This was the source of a lot of toxic self-comparison.

I encountered impostor syndrome daily during my 1L internship at Twitter. My co-interns are some of the most brilliant colleagues I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside. That left me wondering how the hell I slipped through the cracks.

Today, impostor syndrome lurks in my new full-time role. I recently joined Google’s Government Affairs and Public Policy group; a team made up of best in class subject matter experts in tech policy. Currently, there are no interns or “Nooglers” on that team, making me the newest and least experienced joiner. 

Again, I can’t help but wonder: how did I weasel my way here?

All of this is to say that these feelings of inadequacy are not only valid but they also won’t instantly dissipate the minute you graduate. Like many mental health struggles we face, impostor syndrome is here to stay. With that, I encourage you to use your internship to learn how to spot and manage impostor syndrome so that you can better cope when it inevitably resurfaces throughout your legal careers. 

Identifying impostor syndrome

In my opinion, spotting impostor syndrome is the easy part. 

It’s that little voice in the back of your mind that creeps up every time your colleague asks a really insightful question you wish you thought of first. 

Or when you start credential-comparing: She has a PhD, he’s at Harvard…

Or it’s that guilt you feel when you’re the first to leave the office, even though you put in what anyone else would consider a solid day’s worth of work. 

Or it’s when you’re the only one that hasn’t provided input on the thread. 

Or the only one still on mute.

And then you over-analyze. Slowly, you become consumed with what everyone else is doing compared to you. You arrive at the conclusion that they must have made a mistake. You don’t belong here.

Three insights to remember

Toxic rumination has the power to destroy your experience if you let it. Left unchecked, impostor syndrome can snowball from intrusive thoughts, to anxiety, and eventually to depression. It extinguishes your spark: the very thing that got you here in the first place.

So, you must learn to tame it. Allow me to offer some insights I’ve gleaned from my own past internship experiences and career opportunities.

1. There is no such thing as a hiring mistake. 

Though you may not have noticed it, there were a million hoops you had to go through, both internally and externally, to get to where you are today. Trust me, I’ve now been on both sides of the hiring process, as an intern and as an interviewer — it is virtually impossible for anyone to “slip through the cracks.” 

With how competitive these internship programs are, if they didn’t want you, they simply wouldn’t have hired you. If you didn’t have the talent or skills they were looking for, they could have easily found someone else.

That means you’re here for a reason. Which brings me to my next point: 

2. You have nothing to prove. 

This was the first thing my new manager said to me in our very first 1:1 and it admittedly caught me off guard. We spend so much time in law school trying to prove ourselves among our peers. Beat the curve, stand out, make those connections. We have it drilled in our subconscious minds to be better than everyone else all the time. Eventually we forget how to turn it off and coast.

For better or worse, law school turned us into gunners. 

But today, you’re not in law school. You’re a member of the professional world and the professional world is different. You’re here for a reason. You’re here because you already proved yourself (that’s kind of the whole point of the interview process). Now, it’s time to execute. It’s time to do the thing(s) you came here to do. 

I’ll also remind you that you are your harshest critic. The way you perceive yourself is likely not anywhere close to how others actually perceive you. I’ll share an example. When I started at Google last year, I did so knowing that working full-time and finishing out my 3L year full-time meant that I wasn’t going to perform at the same caliber as my colleagues. When my performance review rolled around at the beginning of this year, I was noticeably shocked. My manager scored me near the top of my bracket. I had personally scored myself at the bottom. He was surprised when I told him how poorly I evaluated myself. He said “I only hope I can accomplish as much as you did in such a short time–while going to law school–in my own role.” 

I thought I was on the verge of being fired. Turns out, I was closer to being promoted.

We are our harshest critics. 

3. Focus on yourself. 

It’s so tempting to get wrapped up in what everyone around you is doing. Like the MBE answer choice that uses “negative implications of the Commerce Clause” instead of DCC, it’s a distraction. At the end of the day, this is about your career, your journey, and your success. Not anyone else’s. 

Just like with law school, you’re going to encounter people who thrive on intimidating their competition. Don’t let them get in your head. Or, as my law school advisor likes to say, “don’t let the turkeys get you down.” You do yourself such a disservice by allowing others to take up precious mental energy that would be better spent on productive and positive self-reflections such as: 

  • Do I like what I’m doing? 
  • Can I see myself working here full time?
  • What else do I want to try while I’m here?
  • Who else should I be meeting with?

If at the end of your internship the only question you can answer is “what did my co-interns get done this summer?” then you’ve squandered a beautiful opportunity to learn more about yourself and to grow from this amazing experience you earned. 

Telling your own tale

You owe it to yourself to be the main character of your own story.

With that, I’ll offer a few other ways to make the most of your summer internship: 

  • Be nice and collaborative with everyone around you, including your co-interns. They’re your colleagues, not your competition, and you might end up working with them again one day.
  • Embrace the suck. Do the scut work that no one else wants to do, even if it’s outside of your interest area. Not only will it help you stand-out a little, but there’s also a lot you can learn from doing work you don’t enjoy. Ironically, I learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer.

  • Seek out other opportunities. Even though I was a legal intern at Twitter, I used some of my free time to explore their Trust & Safety and Public Policy teams. I even volunteered for projects totally outside of the legal department. (check with your manager first before trying this). Most good managers recognize that the number one priority of an internship is for the intern to act like a sponge and absorb. So, venture outside your comfort zone and see what else the company or firm has to offer.

Lastly, have fun. This is a rare, low-pressure opportunity where the expectation to excel is quite low. Right now, it’s completely okay to utterly fail. Your managers and teammates expect it. They built it into the experience. They know it’s the only real way to learn (because they were once interns too). 

Enjoy that freedom to fail now while you can. You won’t have nearly as much room for mistakes when you’re full-time. Make the mistakes, embrace the feedback, learn from it, and move on. 

Just like law school, you belong here. You earned it. Now, don’t let impostor syndrome ruin it.

Jess Miers Jess Miers is a recent “Tech Edge J.D.” graduate from Santa Clara University School of Law where she studied Internet law and tech policy. Her scholarship primarily covers Section 230 and content moderation. Jess is presently employed at Google as a Government Affairs & Public Policy analyst. All opinions shared are her own and do not represent her previous or current employers.