An Impostor at U of T Law

Nick Papageorge (3L)

I vividly remember being accepted to U of T Law. I had, along with my dad, been to a matinee showing of Inherent Vice, and two-plus hours of Joaquin Phoenix peddling beguiling nonsense had left me rather dazed—a fitting mindset, as it turns out. We were at a restaurant afterwards and my dad was checking our home voicemail. One of the messages was from Ben Alarie—a name that carried no connotations then—delivering, in his words, some good news.

We were dumbstruck. I insisted on playing the message again. I was halfway certain that we had heard it incorrectly, that it was all a mistake.

That moment of doubt was, and still is, amusing. But now, as I enter my third and final year here, I also see it as the seminal instance of a self-doubt that has nagged at me throughout my time at U of T Law.

In the months before I started, I often mused to myself and others about why I had gotten in. Maybe the relative ease of my undergrad program had made my academic record seem more impressive than it was (my grades were good, not outstanding, and my LSAT score was below the school average). Maybe I had duped the admissions office with soaring tales of my affability and ability to change the world. Maybe there had been a clerical error.

I was never audacious enough to suggest any kind of worthiness or ability might explain why I ended up here. You might call this nagging diffidence “impostor syndrome”: a chronic, though often suppressed and rarely articulated, feeling of being out of your depth and not belonging here, as though you are some pretender hiding in plain sight amongst brilliance.

First year was unquestionably the most trying. Many of my classmates seemed far more accomplished than me, with a Masters in this or previous work at that, while I had spent a gap year drinking my way through various English pubs. Not getting a coveted spot in PBSC or AIW only exacerbated my feelings of impostor syndrome. I thought, all prior self-deprecation aside, that perhaps I really was unqualified to be here; maybe my persistent lack of extracurricular activities had left my CV irredeemably uncompetitive. Then came a string of Ps (accented by one surprise H) from my first set of exams and a ringing unresponsiveness from the handful of employers to whom I sent summer law-job applications.  

My marks from Winter exams gave me some reason to believe I could at least hold my own within a more erudite group, but my impostor syndrome did not go away as second year—and OCIs—loomed. Confidence in my ability to land a law job was so low that I forswore the OCI process altogether. In other words, I didn’t apply for a law job because I was certain I wouldn’t get one—something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Instead of facing my self-doubt honestly, I told myself I was staying true to my principles by holding out for one of the union-side labour jobs that would be open after OCIs. While there was truth in that explanation, my larger motivation was a desire to dodge what I figured was an inevitable dispiriting rejection. This union-side-or-nothing tack very nearly left me with nothing; it brought the same dispiriting rejection that I had sought to avoid by forgoing OCIs. At this point, I was drafting Plans B and C and D in my mind, tacitly resigning myself to a career in something other than law.

This was, of course, an overreaction, although it was a difficult one not to succumb to. And I did end up in a law job this past summer. It was, however, many miles from what I had hoped to be doing and I had come by it through a malodorous mix of dumb luck and nepotism. This job made me feel more like an imposter than at any point previously: my future as a lawyer seemed entirely dependant on the goodwill of people my parents happened to know.

It was in this mindset—that I truly was an impostor, and a less principled one by the day—that I sent out a surfeit of articling applications. My union-side-or-nothing approach softened considerably. I applied broadly, including to firms in which I adamantly had no interest, in both Vancouver and Toronto. The Vancouver applications brought what was by now a most familiar result: resounding silence. I asked my wife what she would think if I did not become a lawyer and I started scheming up Plans E and F and G.

My litany of despair ends there for now. Things brightened with a handful of emails from Toronto employers, and I’m happy to say that I found an articling position. It would, however, be dishonest to claim that I haven’t tried to explain this away as a result of luck or privilege or any other combination of factors that have nothing to do with my own attributes. Impostor syndrome, after over two years, tends to linger and is difficult to shirk.

Not all of you, of course, will suffer from impostor syndrome; some of you will admirably pass through these halls with all aplomb. But some of you will feel pangs of self-doubt during your time here. I hope my story serves as a reminder that you are neither the first nor the only one.

I also do not mean to dishearten you. Contrary to the tenor of the above, my time at U of T has been enjoyable and rewarding as well. I’ve joined an upstart club (The Labour & Employment Law Society—highly, if biasedly, recommended) that I co-chaired in my second year, written for and worked as an editor on this paper (positions that, curiously, I still have not yet been told to vacate), and helped out with a couple of our school’s excellent journals.

All of that is to say there are plenty of ways to fit in at U of T Law. I hope those of you that do experience the gnawing of impostor syndrome will take heed of my experience here while you begin, or continue to, shape your own.

A bit of self-doubt—as an impetus to work harder and get more involved—can even be useful, but only if you don’t let it define your time here. Join the clubs and groups and clinics that align with your interests rather than the ones everyone else seems to be clambering towards. Remember that your summer jobs now will not define the rest of our career. Keep an open mind to whatever experiences and opportunities present themselves—of these, there will be no shortage.

As I start my final year at U of T Law—on exchange, in Glasgow, this term—I’m only certain of this last single piece of advice: make the most of your time here. Three years go by in a blink.