Jun 20

The stats are alarming which indicate that before entering law school a student is just as likely to have experienced depression as any other adult in the general population (which is about 7%). After one year of law school, 32% of law students experience depression. It keeps rising to 40% by the end of the third year. So what is it about law school, and in particular the first year of law school that is so stressful to law students? While there are many sources of stress in the first year of law school, two particular stressors stick out as significant for many students: the Imposter Syndrome and the Socratic Method.

The Imposter Syndrome is a very common, and typically not discussed, phenomenon in competitive or prestigious environments where a person thinks that everyone else in the group knows more than they do. In addition to this, the person often feels like they do not measure up and they were admitted by mistake. This thought produces anxiety as the person fears that their secret will be discovered and they will be found out to be the imposter they fear that they are. The anxiety usually makes the person spend significant effort trying to hide their imposter status. This is usually accomplished by refraining from asking many questions (because they might ask a question that everyone else knows, and everyone will realize how little they know), avoiding challenging tasks which might increase the chance of making mistakes, and spending time trying to learn as much as they can on their own so they eventually feel prepared and competent. The hope is to acquire certainty, which will lead to confidence, which will eventually make them feel less alone and more like a legitimate member of the group.

Lacking confidence, we look to acquire certainty. If a person feels certain in their knowledge of a subject, they feel confident in their ability to address questions and confrontations. Without certainty, insecurity can linger or, in many cases, increase. This phenomenon is not unique to law school. Any graduate program, competitive school, or prestigious job is a fertile environment for the Imposter Syndrome. Some of those situations have clear paths toward certainty. If you are in medical school, the more you memorize the more confident you feel to answer questions that have clear answers. Yet some environments inadvertently cultivate the Imposter Syndrome, such as law school. So why is law school so different? Enter Socrates.

One of the most common methods of discussion in law classes is through the use of the Socratic Method. The Socratic Method is a discussion technique that utilizes a series of questions and answers to encourage critical thinking and problem solving. This method of discussion is great for learning how to think on your feet, think through the various elements of difficult issues, and apply various principles to the same topic. What this method does not do is come to a clear answer to the questions being asked. One would not use the Socratic Method to ascertain the best ice cream flavor on the planet (that is obviously chocolate peanut butter). However, one might use the Socratic Method to practice making arguments for and against the merits of various flavors of ice cream. The more confident one is in their ability to make persuasive arguments, the better they will be serving their clients (no matter where their clients fall on a particular issue). This ability allows two lawyers with the same training and experience to work on opposite sides of a legal matter.

The most obvious element that the Socratic Method lacks is final certainty. Those who are comfortable when using the Socratic Method are those who are have a higher tolerance for uncertainty. The combination of feeling like an imposter along with the constant experience on uncertainty is a good recipe for stress. The tension that a law student feels in this situation often leads to increased anxiety, further isolation, and depression. Yet, there are ways of preventing depression and despair. Law students can find more resources to help handle the unique challenges of the legal profession on our website here.

Tips for law students (and everyone else who feels like an imposter):

  1. Talk to others in your group about feeling like an imposter (most of the people in the group have felt that way too). The more you talk about it, the more you realize you are not alone, and the more connected you feel to others.
  2. Face your fears and ask questions to mentors, professors, and colleagues (especially the questions you think you should already know)
  3. Focus your attention on where you have control (for example, in law school you have control over practicing how to make various arguments).
  4. Share your experiences, your story, and your struggles with others in your life that support you. Combating isolation is one of the best ways to defend against depression and discouragement.

It’s natural to hide insecurities and strive toward obtaining certainty. It makes us feel a little safer in a threatening environment. Although, the best approach to a problem can sometimes be the approach that seems unnatural. It can be counterintuitive and downright scary. For example, admitting that you feel vulnerable can make you feel more connected to others (and thereby feel more secure), because we all feel vulnerable. Just some of us try to hide it more than others.

Shawn Healy, PhD

This post was updated June 20, 2018, and was originally printed in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly October 8, 2015.

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