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Imposter Syndrome: Feeling Like Your Secret Is About to Be Discovered?

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A 3L shares her insights on the imposter syndrome that’s all too common for first-year law students.
A 3L shares her insights on the imposter syndrome that’s all too common for first-year law students.

I’ll never forget the moment I realized someone had made a terrible mistake in the law school admissions process.

I believe it was the first or second week of my 1L year when it occurred to me that I was definitely not smart enough to be in law school; someone had put my application in the “accept” pile by accident. I just hoped they weren’t going to lose their job once this epic failure was discovered.

I don’t remember why I felt that way. I just know I was certain about it. I thought about dropping out multiple times, even secretly hoping I’d fail out because then I wouldn’t have to make the decision myself.

Well, I’m more more than halfway through my 3L year, and I didn’t fail out or drop out. In fact, I’d say I’m successfully making my way through law school.

So what happened? It turns out I had a nasty case of imposter syndrome. Not familiar with it? A quick internet search will educate you.

Something I’ve realized is that imposter syndrome is all about my own perception of who I am, and that perception is often influenced by how I perceive others, how much time I spend connecting with others, and the classes and activities I participate in.

By managing how I respond to these influences, I’ve made it to my last year of law school feeling confident about my ability to succeed in the legal profession. You can, too, with these tips.

Be careful about comparing yourself to classmates. We all have our own, unique set of strengths, and that’s part of what makes the law school experience so enriching. Some students are masters at answering cold calls, while others stumble repeatedly, even when they know the material well.

Some find the process of legal analysis to be as natural as breathing, while others need to put in a lot of effort to adopt this way of thinking. Some students brief every case in great detail to be prepared, while others seem to be able to memorize cases as they read the texts.

The point is that we all have things we do well, and we all have things we struggle with. I’ve found that comparing my strengths and weaknesses to those of classmates to judge my own worth or abilities can create the false sense that I’m not good enough (or in some cases, that I’m better than I really am).

I can, however, use this tendency to compare myself to other people in a way that’s productive. When I find that a classmate is particularly skilled at something I struggle with, that’s a great opportunity to ask for help.

When I started in constitutional law, I was really nervous about that particular subject. But I had a classmate who was excited about it. She’d done graduate work in religious studies, and she was thrilled about getting to use her skills at interpreting historical texts. I asked her for help, and she was more than happy to spend time sharing her knowledge about something she enjoyed. This also created a chance for us to connect on a deeper level.

Connect with your classmates. I’m an introvert, almost to an extreme. During spring break of my 1L year, we received word that school was going to be moving to online classes for the remainder of the year. For all of my 2L year, many of us, including me, remained 100 percent online.

I was thrilled. Not being around people all day reduced my stress level noticeably. And cold calls aren’t nearly as terrifying over Zoom. I wasn’t looking forward to being back on campus at the beginning of my 3L year.

But something amazing happened when I started having dinner, coffee dates, and hangout sessions with some of my classmates. I found that I wasn’t the only one who:

  • Struggled during my 1L year
  • Hated law school sometimes
  • Had no idea what I was going to do after law school

These are all things that added to the feeling that I didn’t belong in law school. And once I realized that other people had these same thoughts and feelings, it was much easier to come to the realization that I wasn’t an imposter—law school is just challenging.

So take the opportunity to connect with your classmates. It doesn’t have to be every single one of them. You don’t have time for that, anyway. But find your people, and take care of each other.

Take classes that align with your interests. After your first year, you get to start picking a lot of your classes. I’ve found that when I’m excited about what I’m learning or can relate to it in some way, the imposter syndrome tends to fade into the background. The more engaged I am in courses, the more confident I feel about what I’m doing in class.

Litigation not your thing? Look for courses in areas of the law that are more transactional. Tired of trying to stay awake through long lectures? Externships and clinics are a fantastic way to avoid that and to get great hands-on experience.

Do you dread reading another judicial opinion? Not to worry. Look at classes related to other types of conflict resolution, such as negotiation or mediation, or try compliance classes.

Finding classes that fit well with my strengths and interests made law school enjoyable and helped me understand the types of careers paths that might be a good fit for me.

Tailor it to your brain

As I wrote this article, I tried to write about the things I thought would be at least somewhat universal. But imposter syndrome lives in your brain, so part of dealing with it is getting to know what works in your brain.

Mindfulness, self-awareness, or whatever you want to call it is really the key. Taking notice of how I think and feel and how certain things affect those thoughts and feelings is what helped me find the solutions that worked for me.

Learning from and connecting with my classmates, instead of comparing myself with and judging myself against them, didn’t happen overnight. And there was some luck involved in finding classes that were a good fit for me.

But the more you know yourself, the quicker you’ll figure out the solutions that are best for you.

PS: Welcome to law school! You’re amazing, and you do belong here!