During my second semester of law school, I attended the New York City Bar Association portrait unveiling of Sonia Sotomayor, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. As I rode the PATH train into the city, I thought about the slim chance of meeting one of my personal heroes. I thought about what I would ask her, if given the opportunity.
I am a first-generation law student. I am the proud son of Cuban immigrants. I am openly gay. When we look to the legal profession, it is a fact that there are not many people like me. Throughout law school, I was privileged to have the opportunity to engage with a number of prominent members of the legal community, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, the Attorney General of New Jersey, and a number of other judges that sit on the Second and Third Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. When I found myself in those spaces, surrounded by my more affluent and privileged peers, a voice in my head would tell me, "You do not belong here. Go home." Now, I know I worked hard to get to this point in my life. I deserve to be in those spaces and have my voice heard. Yet, these feelings still come to the surface.
If you are not familiar with this phenomenon, it is called impostor syndrome and is defined “as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” Impostor syndrome can impact anyone. Michelle Obama, Tom Hanks, and Sonia Sotomayor have all talked about how they have dealt with impostor syndrome.
With this in mind, that night back in March of my 1L year, I stood up and had my opportunity to ask Justice Sotomayor my question. I asked her for advice on how to overcome these feelings of worthlessness and not feeling seen or heard by others. Justice Sotomayor’s answer to my question left me with great pieces of wisdom, which I’ll share below.
1. Four words. Don't ever give up.
“Whenever you’re thinking of it. Remember me here, standing here, and saying don’t you ever. Como tu mama.” - sonia sotomayor
Friends, law school will be the hardest thing you will ever do in your life. I cannot express how hard it was for me. Strained relationships. Challenges with mental health and starting recovery. There were many days where I wanted to pack up my things and go home. But like Justice Sotomayor said, don’t ever give up.
2. There's a reason you're here.
"You often think, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I here? Can I do anything good with this (degree)?’ Well, the answer is there's a reason you're there and the reason is your family because they look to you to take them a step further in this world."
Remember why you came to law school. I came to law school, not only embark on a career that will provide for my family, but to give myself the tools to advocate for people like me who too often are left unheard. When I think about the privilege of being an attorney, and how I can use that privilege to serve others, it gets me through whatever life will throw at me next. When those impostor feelings settle in, remember why you are here. You deserve to be here. You belong.
3. Talk to someone.
"Every little step you take, you're walking with a lot of other people. You're walking with me. You're walking with your friend who dragged you here today. You’re walking with all of the people here who have done the same thing as you are doing today. And the most important thing is don’t keep it inside you.” -Sonia sotomayor
Impostor syndrome can impact anyone and continues to impact folks who are clearly the leaders in their respective fields. As one of my mentors told me, “I am the queen of impostor syndrome. We shall negotiate this together.” Rely on your mentors and friends. When those feelings surface, talk through them and listen. It is easy to get lost in these feelings. Which is why it is important to build a supportive network, not only in law school, but throughout your life.
4. Own your failures.
“When you can't do something, and you fall down; and you get up and you fall down again, and you get up again and you try again and you're not getting it. That's when you get up, yet again, yet again, and you try again. Because that's the measure of who you are inside of yourself. The measure of a person is not how many times they’re knocked down, but how many times they get up.”
You must own your failures and learn from them. In my own experience, every failure I had in law school set me up for even greater opportunities. At the beginning of my second year of law school, I acquired an internship with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, I wasn’t able to intern. I felt defeated and lost. Yet, I took the opportunity to independently write a law review article. I didn’t write on to law review or journal and decided this would be my best chance of getting published. After months of extensive work, my independent research was selected for publication. Sure, one door closed. But I got up, brushed myself off, and kept moving forward. You will have a lot of setbacks in law school. But that’s what they are – setbacks. Keep moving forward.
Impostor syndrome is real. Those feelings are real and must be validated. Yet, know that you are here for a reason. You are about to embark on the journey of a lifetime. You will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. I am excited to see what this journey has in store for you.