Depression in law school: impostures and Socrates

Shawn Healy, The Daily Record Newswire

The stats are alarming: Before entering law school, a student is just as likely to have experienced depression as any other adult in the general population (about 7 percent). After one year of law school, 32 percent of students experience depression. That number rises to 40 percent by the end of the third year.

What is it about law school, the first year in particular, that weighs so heavily on students' psyches? Two particular stressors stick out: the Imposture Syndrome and the Socratic Method.

Very common, though typically not discussed, the Imposture Syndrome is a phenomenon in competitive or prestigious environments in which a person thinks that everyone else in the group knows more than he does. In addition, those affected often feel like they don't measure up and were admitted by mistake.

This thought process produces anxiety, as the subject fears that the "secret" will be discovered. The anxiety usually manifests itself in a significant effort to hide the imposture status, which is usually accomplished by refraining from asking questions (if you ask a question that everyone else knows, they'll realize how little you know), avoiding challenging tasks that might increase the chance of making mistakes, and spending time trying to learn as much as possible in solitude to feel prepared and competent.

The hope is to acquire certainty, which will lead to confidence and eventually legitimacy as a member of the group.

The key to that process is acquiring certainty. If people feel 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, of course; any graduate program, competitive school or prestigious job is a fertile environment for the Imposture Syndrome. Some of those situations have clear paths toward certainty. In medical school, the more you memorize, the more confident you feel to answer questions that have clear answers. Yet some environments, such as law school, inadvertently cultivate the Imposture Syndrome. Why? Enter Socrates.

One of the most common methods of discussion in law classes is through the use of the Socratic Method, a discussion technique that utilizes a series of questions and answers to encourage critical thinking and problem solving.

The method 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 the method doesn't do is arrive at 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 (chocolate peanut butter, obviously); however, one might use it to practice making arguments for and against the merits of various ice cream.

The more confident people are in their ability to make persuasive arguments, the better they will serve their clients, no matter where their clients fall on a particular issue. That 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 method have a higher tolerance for uncertainty. The combination of feeling like an impostor and lingering 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.

There are ways to ebb the tide of despair. Most elementally, students should talk to others in their social circles about feeling like impostors, if only to discover they're not alone. I would advise law students to do the following:

- Face your fears and ask mentors, professors and colleagues questions -especially the questions you think you should already know.

- Focus your attention on where you have control - for example, practicing how to make various arguments.

- Share your experiences and your struggles with others - everyone needs some time to themselves, but extended isolation is a breeding ground for depression.

It's natural to hide insecurities and aim to obtain certainty. But the best approach to a problem can sometimes be one that seems counterintuitive, unnatural or downright scary. Simply admitting that we feel vulnerable will make us feel more connected to others, because we all have those feelings. Some of us just hide them more successfully.


Dr. Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts. He can be contacted at

Published: Thu, Oct 29, 2015