Imposter Syndrome: An Orientation Recap

I can’t quite believe that it’s been almost exactly a month since I started at Harvard. The time has flown, at least in part because I haven’t had a whole lot of time to catch my breath (in a good way, mostly). But I wanted to write a post about the orientation experience to give a window into what starting at HLS is like — I think it did a really good job of setting us up to create a solid environment for ourselves and for each other.

One of the first impressions I got upon coming to campus is that Harvard Law School is HUGE. I knew that conceptually, but the law school population itself is almost as big as my (large) high school — about 1800 students. In order to make it easier to get to know people and avoid getting lost in the shuffle, HLS divides the 1L (first-year) class into seven sections of about 80 people, each of which has a professor as a section leader. It sounds like a lot, but orientation is basically four days of intensive section bonding, so we all got to know each other really fast. At this point, I recognize everybody in my section and probably know about 90% of the names.

The first day I actually got to campus was a Wednesday, and I was just there to pick up my campus ID. As I was walking out of the main law school building, someone on the faculty stopped me and greeted me by name. To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. He introduced himself as my section leader and Torts professor, and then I finally connected him to the headshot I’d seen on the website. I can’t say that this is necessarily the norm for section leaders, but before orientation had even really gotten going, this professor had taken it upon himself to learn all of our names, first and last.

Orientation started in earnest the next day, and we had the typical slew of info sessions, panels, and tours, interspersed with a few section-specific meetings. In addition to our section leader, we had six 2Ls and 3Ls (second- and third-years) who acted as orientation leaders/mentors for our section (and who later TAed our Legal Research and Writing class). We call them our BSAs (because they’re part of the Board of Student Advisors). One of the things the BSAs did on Thursday was run a session to get us ready for cold calls in the classroom (I’ll write a full post on what that’s like later — in the meantime, if you’ve seen The Paper Chase, Legally Blonde, or any of the other law school movies, you’ve got an idea). Our BSAs, because Section 5 is the best section, accomplished this by asking us hard-hitting questions about Harry Potter. I was cold called on whether Ron Weasley deserved to end up with Hermione Granger. As you can imagine, especially if you’ve ever experienced the depth of my love for Harry Potter, this was a good sign that I came to the right place.

Another highlight of orientation was our section leader playing the full video of “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” from Mulan, definitely one of the best Disney pump-up songs ever. But in addition to that, it turns out that the lyricist is an alumnus. Go figure.

But there were two themes that took center stage at orientation (besides all the typical administrative, etc. stuff). One was set particularly by our section leader. He put strong, repeated emphasis on the importance of creating a supportive, loving community for each other, particularly within our section. He told us he expected us to learn all of each other’s names by face and by voice (for conversation in class), and that our experience here and our future after would depend heavily on the extent to which we supported each other now. It could easily have been an empty admonishment, but the fact that he’d taken the time to learn all of our names and things about our backgrounds made us take it a lot more seriously. Everyone in the section has been really nice, helpful, and open in the last four weeks, and I give a bit of credit to our section leader for that.

The second theme came up both in our meetings as a section and in the more general panels and talks for the whole entering class. Time and again, we heard a variation of, “We did not make a mistake. You deserve to be here. You can succeed here. You are not a fraud.”

Law school can be hard and scary. You’re surrounded by startlingly accomplished, intelligent people, both as professors and classmates, and it can be easy to convince yourself that you don’t belong among them. My classmates seemed a little confused by this emphatic and repeated refutation of “imposter syndrome” so early in the process, but as a writer, I recognized the symptoms that they were working to head off.

When you’re doing something hard, something risky, something that doesn’t offer constant feedback or allow you to gauge exactly how you’re doing at any given moment, it’s easy to doubt yourself. Even if, or maybe especially if, you’re used to being really good at things. How can you know if you’re in the right place doing the right things? Maybe, really, you’re just fooling everybody, just pretending. But what if they find out that you’re a fake?

My Property professor wrote our casebook and is working on the next one. My Torts professor argued the Supreme Court case he had us read for our mock class during orientation (and was the Executive Director for investigations into the Gulf oil spill). My Crim Law professor for next semester has argued a bunch of cases for the ICC and worked on the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Doubtless they and all my other professors have done lots of other impressive work I don’t even know about. This is terrifying, to say nothing of the amazing accomplishments of my classmates. It’s easy to go, “I just turned 23 and I’ve never had a full-time job. What am I doing here?”

Imposter Syndrome is a lie. There are lots of reasons for that, but one is that everyone is faking it. No one knows what they’re doing. Not in law school, not in writing, not in life. So decide that you have a right to be where you are, not to the exclusion of everybody else, but alongside everybody else. Take up space. Practice your art. Have opinions and learn why you’re wrong, or right.

If you’re in law school, or thinking about going to law school, know that sometimes, you’ll feel like you’ve pulled one over on everybody else, and maybe on yourself. That’s okay. It’s normal to feel like an imposter when you’re doing something hard, something worthwhile. You don’t have to do it forever, but at least give yourself a chance. Keep speaking up in class, even when you think you’re wrong. Keep participating. No one is 100% sure what they’re doing, either.

If you’re interested in more on this topic, LS Hawker and I talked about self-doubt and Imposter Syndrome on our podcast in May, and you can check that out here.

So orientation was a great time getting to know everybody and reminding ourselves that we all deserve to be here. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post on my first few weeks of class and how law school really works. Have questions you want a law student to answer? Toss ’em in the comments!

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