Wondering If You “Belong” in Law School? Feeling Like an Imposter? Part 2

Don’t worry. It’s completely normal.

Part 2

Written by: Scot Goins, Director of Academic Achievement and Bar Success

Introduction: Law Students and Impostor Syndrome

In Part 1 of this post, we discussed how students here at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School (AJMLS) or any law school, can fall victim to negative self-talk and doubts. The stress and new challenges associated with a law school education can lead many to suffer the aptly named Imposter Phenomenon (also referred to as Imposter Syndrome). Below we discuss helpful strategies that you can utilize to be more realistic in assessing your own abilities and to increase your confidence.

Recognize That You Are Not Alone In Feeling Like an Imposter

Sometimes, a simple reminder of the fact that a student is not alone in feeling this way is all it takes to shake them out of these impostor feelings. It is easy to self-isolate when feeling discouraged and overwhelmed, and then to develop a sense of being the only one in the proverbial boat. It can be helpful to take time to look around and realize that self-stigmatization is something internal, and then to focus externally and realize that others are very likely feeling the same way. Communicating with other students generally quickly reveals that other people are also experiencing doubts and struggling with similar feelings.

Talk To Your Mentors

Although reading about feeling like an imposter and developing a cognitive understanding that you are not alone in feeling this way is important, there is something to be said for talking and sharing with someone who has ‘been there, done that.’ Sharing your feelings with someone who has likely experienced similar feelings can be cathartic, and can help you realize that although your feelings are normal, they are also irrational. Here at AJMLS, the Peer Mentor Program can be an excellent resource for students to benefit from social and personal support, and the Office of Student Affairs encourages students to reach out.

Practice Recognizing Your Own Expertise

Although looking to others who are more experienced can be helpful, so can working with your peers. You may find yourself surprised to realize how much you actually have learned and retained, or how in-depth your understanding actually is, upon engaging with a study group or in a discussion about your legal learning with others. This can often be an eye-opening experience and help you to realize that you know more than you think, or that others are also struggling with the same things you are. Not only will this assist you in realizing that you aren’t alone in your feelings, it may also help generate new feelings of support and decreased isolation by opening doors to communicate with others who are similarly situated.

Remember What Got You Where You Are Today

Although you may be currently struggling with self-confidence or experiencing self-doubt, your life before this was likely filled with many academic achievements and personal successes. Sometimes, it is helpful to remember this and reinforce your awareness of everything you have done well that has put you in position to embrace your current opportunities. It can be helpful to write down accomplishments you have previously realized, moments where you have been fearful but ultimately succeeded, and even to make a realistic list of things that you feel are your strengths. An additional opportunity is to also make a list of areas that might be a weakness and to write down things you can do to improve those areas, or to seek out guidance for assistance in those areas. Being proactive in your approach can help you regain a sense of control and confidence. The Office of Academic Achievement and Bar Success at AJMLS is composed of caring and dedicated professionals who are passionate about helping you to succeed on your learning journey, and if you want to seek out assistance you can fill out this form and start the process.

Look Around You and Realize that No One is Perfect

I’m not perfect. You aren’t perfect. No one is perfect. If you aren’t certain of this, I highly encourage you to do an internet search for ‘fails’ for a reminder. The truth of the matter is that everyone makes mistakes, and no one person is perfect at everything. Everyone has their areas of strengths and weaknesses, as well as their good days and bad days. Albert Einstein has a famous quote that says, “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” Remember that law school is a new experience, and like any new endeavor, may take some time to adjust to and become proficient at, and each individual will have different experiences for how long this process takes. Be patient with yourself.

Be Aware of Your Internal Monologue

Professional athletes and coaches often laud the virtues of a positive internal monologue, or self-talk, and this makes sense on every level. It is difficult to imagine someone catching a successful touchdown pass, hitting the game winning free throws, or pitching a no-hitter if all of their internal monologue is a constant refrain of, “You aren’t good enough. You can’t do this. Everyone is better than you. You are a failure. You might as well give up.” In contrast, making efforts to become aware of negative self-talk and instead substitute it with positive self-talk is more likely to lead to success. When we consider professional sports, something as simple as, “I can do this!” makes sense, but many law students fail to consider that the same is true for them. Positive self-talk can be extremely beneficial for anyone struggling, and it is helpful to practice engaging in such when you recognize that you are engaging in negative self-talk. It is also helpful to visualize success, as opposed to focusing on potential negative outcomes.

Counseling Services

Sometimes, being a law student can lead you to have a vast array of conflicting thoughts, feelings, self-doubts, both in terms of feeling like an impostor and beyond. Here at AJMLS, you always have professional counseling resources that can assist you in dealing with any feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, or really anything else that you have going on. Being proactive in dealing with your mental and emotional well-being can help you be the best version of you!


Although it seems likely that everyone will experience some combination of fatigue, self-doubt, and concerns about belonging at some point in law school, the good news is that there are a variety of ways to proactively take of yourself and to put yourself in the best position to continue achieving success on your academic journey.


Wondering If You “Belong” in Law School? Feeling Like an Imposter? Part 1

Don’t worry. It’s completely normal.

Part 1

Written by: Scot Goins, Director of Academic Achievement and Bar Success

Introduction: Law Students and Impostor Syndrome

If you are like many law students over the years here at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School (‘AJMLS’), you can probably relate, at least in part, to the following quote:

“I would sit in class, desperately hoping and praying to any deity that would listen that I wouldn’t get called on. Before, during, and after class, my stomach would be in knots and I would be filled with dread and a sense of impending doom at the mere thought of any of my professors directing their attention towards me. When my classmates were called upon, I would marvel at their answers, certain that if I were to be posed the same question that I would miserably and memorably be unable to deliver a comprehensive answer. I was certain that I didn’t belong. I lived in fear of being found out, and that the law school would figure out that they had made a mistake in admitting me. In my heart and mind, I was a law school imposter, and I was just waiting for everyone else to figure it out. I felt like a fraud, and worried constantly about letting down my family and friends. Everyone thought I was on top of it academically and in life, but I knew better. I was an imposter and didn’t belong.” ~Anonymous Law School Graduate

The above quote resonates, especially with first-year law students who are struggling to adapt to the rigors of law school. Whether it is the Socratic method, time requirements, case-briefing, self-imposed pressure, or any of the other numerous law challenges that can present themselves to new law students here at AJMLS (or really any law school), almost everyone faces multiple scenarios that can potentially create self-doubt. Students can find themselves questioning their abilities, their intelligence, and even their decision to attend law school. However, despite this seemingly bleak picture, there is some great news.

It’s perfectly normal to feel this way!

It surprises many students to learn that they aren’t the only ones that feel like imposters. Too often, individuals get lost in their own thoughts and think that they are the only ones that suffer these doubts and feelings of inadequacy, but in fact the reality is that it is fairly common, especially during the first year of law school. There is even a term for it, ‘Imposter Phenomenon’ or as it referred to more commonly in law school circles, ‘Impostor Syndrome.’ (Note: I’ll use these terms interchangeably throughout.) It is indeed entirely normal to have these feelings. Students tend to focus inwardly when struggling, whereas an external focus would reveal that others feel the same.

What is the Imposter Phenomenon?

Although not officially recognized in the DSM-V or the ICD-11, psychologists such as Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes have been researching the Imposter Phenomenon since the 1970’s, and it is generally said to occur among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their own success. Students suffering from this syndrome often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud. Law students fit nicely into this general student definition as a population subset, as these students are those who generally have achieved success on the undergraduate level, but when faced with the pressures, uncertainties, and challenges of obtaining a legal education, experience self-doubt and lose confidence. This can be further compounded by the limited exposure to feedback typical of many law school environments, where students may only receive midterm and final exam grades, leaving them floundering to develop a sense of where they are at any time during their courses. Further, the issue-spotting skills and analytical reasoning required by law school can be a challenge for many law students. Unlike many undergraduate courses which have a clear right or wrong answer, the legal analysis and the “it depends on” scenarios that present themselves in the study of law can lead students to develop a sense that they will never be able to arrive at a correct answer or gain a firm understanding of what law applies in what situation and when. Finally, the pressures of being called upon by professors and participating in the Socratic method in front of peers can lead students to feel that all of their studies are for naught, especially in comparison to what others may respond when volunteering or called upon.

The Imposter Phenomenon Versus Reality

Although students, again, especially first-year law students, often have moments where they feel like so-called impostors or worry about not being up to snuff, the reality is that their intelligence and abilities are up to the challenge. Although law school does present unique hurdles to overcome and requires the development of new ways of thinking and skills, it is important to note that students are evaluated substantively before being admitted to law school to ensure that they are capable of academic success. The law school application process, through a variety of metrics, assesses and ensures that law school students are in fact suited for the study of the law. By reviewing essays, undergraduate transcripts, letters of recommendation, and LSAT scores, law school admissions teams ensure that students who are admitted possess the requisite intellectual skills and abilities to be successful in law school. 

The simple truth and reality is that if you are a student in law school, you have previously worked hard and your labors have borne fruit. You wouldn’t be an enrolled law student unless you were both intelligent and capable of being successful. It may be helpful to realize that about 40% of people who apply to law school don’t get in anywhere (see here for more info). So the truth is if you have been feeling like an imposter, you actually are not.  Instead, you are just a successful, capable individual experiencing the typical doubts that almost every law student faces at some point, again most often in the first year.

That’s great to read, but I still feel like an imposter

Although self-awareness is a great first step in overcoming feeling like an impostor, there are definitely more proactive, positive steps that you can take to help deal with these feelings and to boost your confidence. Check out Part 2 of ‘Doubting Yourself and Your Abilities? Wondering If You “Belong” in Law School? Feeling Like an Imposter? for helpful advice on overcoming this negative mindset.