By: David A. Grenardo, Professor of Law and Associate Director of the Holloran Center for Ethical Leadership in the Professions, University of St. Thomas School of Law
Professional identity formation, which involves teaching law students to recognize their responsibility to others, particularly clients, and encouraging students to develop the professional competencies of a practicing lawyer, has gained considerable prominence in the legal academy. The ABA revised its standards to require that all law schools provide substantial opportunities for law students to develop their professional identity.
Professional identity formation relies on students to identify the professional competencies they excel in currently and the competencies in which they need to improve, and they must work to develop those competencies. Part of that process requires an accurate self-understanding of who law students are. The imposter syndrome serves as a sinister force that threatens a law student’s ability to develop her professional identity and to succeed as a lawyer. The pervasiveness and negative effects of the imposter syndrome warrant that as law schools incorporate professional identity formation into their curriculum, they should address imposter syndrome with their students.
The University of Dayton Law Review recently published an article on imposter syndrome. Part I of the article briefly discusses professional identity and how it requires self-reflection and self-awareness. Part II explains imposter syndrome in general, and Part III examines imposter syndrome and its prevalence in the legal profession. Part IV provides practical, tangible ways for law schools, professors, and law students to tackle imposter syndrome. The article concludes that law schools should help law students facing imposter syndrome overcome it.
That fourteen-page article on imposter syndrome became part of the required readings for all 1Ls in a class I teach at the University of St. Thomas School of Law called Moral Reasoning for Lawyers, which introduces students to the concept of professional identity formation. The class is taught the week prior to the beginning of the fall semester for all law students.
Not only can law schools include this article in classes regarding professional identity formation, but they can also incorporate the article into any class. I did an exercise in my Contracts and Business Associations classes last year with the article. I posted the article on Canvas under Discussions with the following prompt:
“Please read the attached short law review article on the issue of imposter syndrome in law school and the legal profession.
Discuss any aspect of the article that stood out to you.
Click the reply button below to begin your post and also reply to at least two other posts.”
When I created the Discussion in Canvas, I checked the following boxes:
Canvas Selection Options for Discussions
One of the ways to help law students surmount imposter syndrome is to share their feelings about it with others, and I was blown away by the honesty, sincerity, and empathy that students demonstrated with the exercise when they shared their experiences and feelings with each other about imposter syndrome.
Since students could not see any posts before they published their first post, students who admitted they suffered from imposter syndrome in their initial post (which constituted an overwhelming majority of the students) often expressed relief, comradery, and bewilderment when they were able to read and post about how many of their classmates similarly revealed their own struggles with imposter syndrome.
The discussion consisted exclusively of understanding and encouraging posts. I recognize that the students knew I would be reading their posts, but the genuinely caring posts to and about each other went beyond my hopeful expectations for the exercise. Perhaps law students are more comfortable with sharing their feelings in e-discussions these days. Whatever the reason for the wonderful and community-building discussion, it served as a powerful exercise for the students.
Whether you decide to integrate imposter syndrome into the curriculum through a class (professional identity formation or otherwise), student and/or professor panels, or some other measure, all law schools should raise this issue to help law students conquer imposter syndrome.
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