Overcoming the myth of “Law Student Imposter Syndrome”

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Mara Masters, 1L at Emory Law

In the last two weeks I have had probably two dozen conversations with 1Ls at various schools, each of which started with something like this: “I thought I understood (International Shoe, consideration, the noscitur a sociis canon, etc.) but then I got to class and now I am so confused. Maybe I don’t belong in law school.”

I usually respond with a smirk because each person who has said that to me thinks they are the only one who feels that way.

This is the myth of law student imposter syndrome – a pathologized version of what would ordinarily be a healthy humility based on being a novice in the field. I know from experience that law student imposter syndrome can be debilitating, but I also know from experience that it can be overcome.

Here are some tips for how to deal with law student imposter syndrome:

Identify when your law student imposter syndrome is overshadowing or undermining your ability

This could show up in a lot of different ways. At my law school, we just got our diagnostic memo grades back. This is always a tough moment because, for many law students, this is the first time they’ve had reason to doubt their abilities.

Imposter syndrome sits on your shoulder like evil Kronk and tells you that you should have known how to write a memo and your inability to do so perfectly is a sign that you don’t belong here. You will never figure out how to do it well. It is not a skill you can learn, and even if other people can learn it, you cannot. Sorry, sucker. May as well drop out of law school.

These are lies told to you by your imposter syndrome. You are obviously a bright human. You learned a new language when you studied for the LSAT, so you are clearly capable of learning a new language. Now you are just learning the language of Torts, Civ Pro, Leg Reg, Contracts, and Legal Writing all at once. It’s overwhelming, but you can do it!

Rediscover your confidence

Find your groove—I have heard this said as “stay in your lane,” but I think “find your groove” is more fun. It’s a dance metaphor. Dancing is fun, right? We’ll have some posts later in the semester about how to find your groove, but the foundation of it is this:

Figuring out what works for you is a process. That’s ok. I know it feels like there is a lot of pressure to figure everything out right now at this very second. But you will be so much better off if you take the time to figure out what your groove is. How do you study best? What kind of notes work for you? Which classes are most important in terms of what career you think you would like to pursue?

Be an excellent student—You are here to learn, right? You don’t come into law school knowing everything (or in my case, anything) about the law. Embrace the opportunity to learn by being the best student you can. Go to office hours. Join a study group, find a tutor, try to teach the concept to yourself, your dog, your mom, a willing study partner. Find your groove – whatever works for you – and dive in!

Practice every day. First semester of 1L has three classes that use multiple rules. The UCC, USC, the FRCP, the Restatements, oh my. How do you learn all of these rules? Practice them. Flashcards, practice quizzes, supplements, etc. Practice makes permanent.

Engage in things outside of school that you are already good at—painting, running, networking, writing, baking – whatever it is. Law school is not everything. Not only will these things bring you some life because they are not law school, but they will also help restore some of your confidence.

Get some sleep—I have two schticks that I know annoy everyone in my proximity. First, you need to drink enough water. America is chronically dehydrated and that’s real bad folks. Second, you need to just let yourself sleep. There is ample research that demonstrates that lack of sleep can lead to increased anxiety and depression. That’s the last thing you need as you’re trucking through torts.

Last, remember why you wanted to go to Law School in the first place. You may not know your end goal and that’s ok. Reminding yourself that you are here for a reason will help to make the day-to-day struggle more bearable.

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