I don’t feel like I belong. I don’t think I can succeed in law school. Every summer, we hear the concerns of our students in a pre-law program for students of color who have been admitted to highly competitive law schools. This feeling of being an unequipped outsider—known as the imposter syndrome—is too often silently endured by law students and young attorneys.
I. Why Law Students Feel Like Imposters
From our perspective as law professors, we often assume that our students—who have excelled in college and been admitted to competitive graduate programs—are well-equipped to meet the challenges of law school. But some of our students feel alien from and intellectually inferior to their classmates, feelings that are exacerbated by insecurities fostered by social media, racism, and sexism. The current generation of law students are members of the most diverse American generations. Yet when they enter law school, they become immersed in a community disproportionately white and male.
The imposter syndrome describes the phenomenon in which a person feels he or she does not belong and is not as intelligent as others at school or work. Those suffering from the syndrome believe that a fluke in the system got them to where they are, and it is only a matter of time before others will discover them to be a fraud. “Characterized by chronic feelings of self-doubt and the fear of being discovered as an intellectual fraud,” the syndrome is debilitating and distracting.
Students in the minority of a student population demographic tend to experience the imposter syndrome at a greater rate than students who are in the demographic majority. Women suffer from it more commonly than do men, first-generation college students experience it more often than do multigeneration college students, and students of color are particularly susceptible to feeling like imposters.
Students of color are far more likely than white students to attend public secondary schools where large numbers of students qualify as low-income. These resource-starved public schools “typically reinforce notions that teachers are distant authority figures, adopt test-oriented curricula, deal with problems that interrupt learning, and lack formal structures that promote contact with teachers.” Graduates from these schools often feel like imposters in law school because their educational experiences are insufficient to convince them they are prepared for and worthy of law school. Additionally, students of color who do not have family or community members with experience in graduate school may have “low stocks of dominant cultural capital to draw on when acclimating to” law school, which exacerbate feelings of not belonging.
The imposter syndrome is a good predictor of mental distress and is significantly associated with multiple burnout components, such as physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and depersonalization. Law students who suffer from the imposter syndrome are likely to have increased psychological distress and worry that they will not be ready to practice after graduation.
The imposter syndrome disadvantages law students in the classroom and in practice. Students who experience it are less likely to speak in class or volunteer answers compared with their unaffected classmates. The syndrome diminishes self-esteem—the confidence in one’s worth and abilities; yet self-esteem and academic success are positively correlated. Students with higher self-esteem are confident to face challenges, excel in the classroom, and have successful learning outcomes.
But because students who suffer from the imposter syndrome lack self-esteem, they are more likely to struggle in law school, fail the bar exam, and sabotage their careers. When students stop questioning whether they belong, they have more time and energy to focus on their studies.
II. How Professors Can Address the Imposter Syndrome
Professors need to address the imposter syndrome to prevent student burnout and promote success in law school and the profession. Because legal writing professors have relatively small classes, which enables them to learn their students’ backgrounds, they are well equipped to help students suffering from the imposter syndrome. First, though, they must acknowledge that the syndrome can affect how their students learn, and they should recognize that the student who does not volunteer in class or come to office hours might not be indifferent or lazy, but rather, feels like an imposter. Professors can address the imposter syndrome by helping students recognize and tackle it.
By identifying and acknowledging the imposter syndrome, professors validate and normalize students’ feelings, making it a common experience rather than a pathological one. As a result, professors can help students understand the syndrome and dismantle its impact. One way we have done so is by sharing with students several TED Talks that discuss the imposter syndrome. In a light-hearted manner, these talks describe the syndrome and illustrate how it affects learning.
Professors can also use individual conferences as opportunities to assure students that they are not alone in feeling like imposters. Because the absence of role models feeds the imposter syndrome, professors should attempt to build relationships that create safe spaces—ones where students do not feel judged, isolated, or insecure. Such a relationship increases the likelihood that professors will understand their students’ needs, and students will be comfortable with their professors to address learning barriers.
Additionally, professors should strive to help students build self-esteem because strong self-esteem can offset imposter feelings. The small size and interactive nature of the legal writing classroom make an ideal environment for professors to help students feel more confident in their legal skills and potential. Students suffering from the imposter syndrome are often reluctant to speak in class, but the legal writing professor could encourage class participation by meeting with students individually or in small groups outside of the classroom. Ahead of class time, the professor could also provide the students questions or issues that they will be asked in class, giving the student time to think and prepare. The students could meet with the professor to discuss how to best answer the question. This individualized instruction may buoy students’ confidence, as well as help them overcome the fear of speaking in front of peers at school and work.
To further build self-esteem, professors should create assignments that reflect issues that impact diverse communities and avoid scenarios that presume wealth and privilege. Assignments should not refer to people of color as minorities, nor should they include vocabulary that presumes affluence. Further, professors could aspire to create assignments that are based on their students’ experiences and backgrounds. When students feel connected to their assignments, they will feel more relevant, engaged, and confident.
The imposter syndrome is a symptom of the disease of cultural inequity. The legal writing classroom provides fertile ground for professors and students to confront and overcome this syndrome. If left unchecked, this syndrome can hinder the student’s academic achievements, potential to pass the bar exam, and ultimate success as a practicing attorney. Our job as legal educators in not just to teach legal analysis and writing, but to encourage our students to embrace who they are so that they can focus less on fighting the imposter syndrome and more on learning the skills they need to succeed in law school and the profession.
Van Ann Bui & Grace Pajonk, How SEO Law Provides a Path for Underrepresented Students into Corporate Law, A.B.A.J. (Aug. 22, 2017), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation/committees/diversity-inclusion/articles/2017/summer2017-how-seo-law-provides-a-path-for-underrepresented-students-into-corporate-law [https://perma.cc/NB4F-56MU].
Indeed, “you don’t look like a lawyer” is a refrain heard by many attorneys of color, especially young Black women. Tsedale M. Melaku, Why Women and People of Color in Law Still Hear “You Don’t Look Like a Lawyer,” Harvard Business Review (August 7, 2019), https://hbr.org/2019/08/why-women-and-people-of-color-in-law-still-hear-you-dont-look-like-a-lawyer [https://perma.cc/D36H-UYGT].
Tiffany D. Atkins, #Fortheculture: Generation Z and the Future of Legal Education, 26 Mich. J. of Race & Law 115, 144 (2021); Margaret Crable, The Impostor Inside, USC Trojan Family Magazine (Spring 2021) at 12.
Melaku, supra note 2.
William H. Frey, Now, More Than Half of Americans are Millennials or Younger, Brookings, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2020/07/30/now-more-than-half-of-americans-are-millennials-or-younger [https://perma.cc/F7AH-C3VT], (last visited November 27, 2021). Of students born between 1997 and 2012 (Generation Z), 48.6% identify as non-white. Of students born between 1981 and 1996 (Millennials), 45% identify as non-white. Id.
“[W]hile Gen Zers may be more diverse, they are not post-racial. Many of the ‘white kids’ are still sitting together in the cafeteria, and students of color are still experiencing racialized incidents on and off campus.” Atkins, supra note 3, at 120, 131.
George P. Chrousos & Alexios-Fotios A. Mentis, Imposter Syndrome Threatens Diversity, 367 Science 749 (2020).
Jennifer A. Villwock, Lindsay B. Sobin, Lindsey A. Koester & Tucker M. Harris., Imposter Syndrome and Burnout Among American Medical Students: A Pilot Study, 7 Int’l J. Med. Educ. 364 (2016). Even Albert Einstein expressed symptoms of the imposter syndrome, confiding to Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth in 1955, “the exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.” Jim Holt, When Einstein Walked with Godel 13 (2018).
See Amy H. Soled & Barbara Hoffman, Building Bridges: How Law Schools Can Better Prepare Students from Historically-Underserved Communities Excel in Law School, 69 J. Legal Educ. 268, 286-87 (2020). A study of medical students found that 30% who were members of the majority demographic (Asian and white students) experienced the imposter syndrome; in contrast, 72.7% of students who were members of the minority demographic experienced the imposter syndrome. Id.
See id. Research has documented that the imposter syndrome hits minority groups harder because of their lack of representation, making members of the minority feel like outsiders. Kristin Wong, Dealing with Imposter Syndrome When You’re Treated as an Imposter, N.Y. Times (June 12, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/12/smarter-living/dealing-with-impostor-syndrome-when-youre-treated-as-an-impostor.html [https://perma.cc/G3QA-3AW9].
Bridgette J. Peteet, LaTrice Montgomery & Jerren C. Weekes, Predictors of Imposter Phenomenon among Talented Ethnic Minority Undergraduate Students, 84 J. Negro Educ. 175, 176 (2015).
Janie Boschma & Ronald Brownstein, The Concentration of Poverty in American Schools, The Atlantic (Feb. 29, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/02/concentration-poverty-american-schools/471414 [https://perma.cc/WDS5-4JCL].
Anthony Abraham Jack, (No) Harm in Asking: Class, Acquired Cultural Capital, and Academic Engagement at an Elite University, 89 Soc. Educ. 1, 3 (2015).
Id. at 2.
Chrousos & Mentis, supra note 7.
Villwock et al., supra note 10, at 367.
Id. at 365. The reluctance to participate in class discussion can affect a law student’s grade in classes that award credit for participation.
Self-esteem, Merriam-Webster Dictionary https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/self-esteem?utm_campaign=sd&utm_medium=serp&utm_source=jsonld [https://perma.cc/LM6A-7VQP] (last visited November 27, 2021).
William Watson Purkey, Self-Concept and School Achievement 14 (1970).
María Cardelle-Elawar, A Self-Regulating Teaching Approach to Improve Minority Students’ Self-Esteem in a Multicultural Classroom Environment, 21 Bilingual Rev. 18–23 (1996).
Some young adults fail to seize opportunities presented to them for fear that they will be discovered as a fraud.
See Soled & Hoffman, supra note 11.
The syndrome could lead to setbacks in careers because people suffering from it are too afraid to ask for promotions or speak at meetings.
Chrousos & Mentis, supra note 7, at 749.
One characteristic of the imposter syndrome is that those who have it are often unaware of it. The Clance Imposter Syndrome Self-Assessment Tool can help students identify whether they experience the imposter syndrome. Pauline Rose Clance, Imposter Phenomenon (IP), https://www.paulineroseclance.com/impostor_phenomenon.html [https://perma.cc/EM3P-4BXS] (last visited January 10, 2020).
Elizabeth Cox, What is Impostor Syndrome and How Can you Combat It? (TED-Ed video August 2018) https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_cox_what_is_imposter_syndrome_and_how_can_you_combat_it?language=en [https://perma.cc/FS48-5JW7].
See Scott G. Paris & Peter Winograd, The Role of Self-Regulated Learning in Contextual Teaching: Principals and Practices for Teacher Preparation, Institute of Education Sciences, Project of Preparing Teachers to Use Contextual Teaching and Learning Strategies to Improve Student Success in and Beyond School at 6, https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED479905 [https://perma.cc/SM8X-EDX2].
See Soled & Hoffman, supra note 11.
Samyukta Mullangi & Reshma Jagsi, Imposter Syndrome: Treat the Cause, Not the Symptom, 322 JAMA 402, 403 (2019).