I’m a high-school dropout in law school and I feel like an impostor!

Man, this is tough: How will I ever pass the bar?

Topics: Since You Asked,

Dear Cary,

I’m about to graduate from law school and take the bar exam, and I have no self-confidence. I’m not simply in need of a pep talk; I have a profound lack of self-worth in terms of my academic and professional abilities and it’s driving me crazy. To summarize my strange dilemma: I fear both failure and success.

First, some background. I have a high verbal IQ and a low performance (or mathematic) IQ. That means I have a learning disability. I have always loved to read and write and dreamed of being the world’s next great author — a perfect mix of Hemingway and Kerouac. I attended a rigid Catholic high school where I rebeled because I can’t stand artificial authority figures. I hated homework and I flunked classes and went to summer school almost every year. Finally, I flunked a class in the middle of my senior year and had the choice of either spending another summer in school or dropping out and calling it a high school career. I cut my losses, dropped out, and quickly took and passed the GED test. (I did, after all, have 3.5 years of high school under my belt, so that was easy.)

I spent the next several months working and reading philosophical books and pondering where I could go next in life after the deluge of high school. I felt like shit, but I got up the courage to fight my way into college. I had a good SAT score and the admissions director at a large, local state university was impressed by a letter I wrote him arguing for admission. Alas, my high school refused to release my transcripts due to their Catholic grudge against me as their scorned rebel, and the admissions officer couldn’t let me matriculate.

Rules are rules, but he recommended I do a semester at community college to build a transcript and then, if I did well enough, he’d let me into the university. Well, I did awesome. I aced my classes and got into the big university and then proceeded to become an academic star for the first time in my life. I made dean’s list after dean’s list and finally found a place that I loved to go to each morning. I worked very hard and built relationships with my professors that I still cherish; finally, I looked up to my teachers. Things were so great in my life. I got into physical shape and felt confident and partied and aced classes and read about communism and macro-economics and Zen Buddhism and linguistics and history and race and culture and everything that Catholic school never dared to mention. I met a great girl who is now my wife.



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I no longer wanted to be a writer. Emboldened by my first successes in the “real” or at least practical world, I decided to become a lawyer. I could be an advocate and make a ton of money, thus lifting me from my blue-collar, big-city roots and into the comfy suburbs. I was motivated by a chip on my shoulder that the establishment (high school) wanted to keep me down, but here I was proving them wrong and winning the academic Super Bowl.

Something weird happened, though. The chip went away and I started buying into the system in the sense that I believed I was a smart guy and great student and I’d be rewarded. I thought I was on easy street. I got into a private law school with a very tough grading system and I thought I had it made.

Things changed quickly. Law school was next to impossible. It was much more demanding than liberal arts classes in college where I wrote fun papers on what Jesus had in common with Marx. I struggled with the academic rigors and being away from home and not really having the money one should have to attend law school. My family scraped together what they could and supported me, and so did my girlfriend. My grades were up and down the alphabet, though I never failed a course. Suddenly, I was knocked right down to size. In the law school world, everyone is ranked and it’s harsh and big firms reward the elite performers while the rest of us are left behind. I wasn’t on any honor rolls, just average at best but quite often below the curve. I did get a couple of A’s and won an award for writing.

Eventually, I felt so down on myself and had so much anxiety (actual clinical anxiety, by the way), I took a year off in the middle to get my life together and reflect. In that time, I joined the ranks of corporate working stiffs and learned that normal jobs suck and I wanted to be a lawyer. Working for a big company is just like Catholic high school that it’s scary. So I went back to law school at night and have been working very hard with decent success and am about to graduate and take the bar exam to be a real live lawyer.

That’s the problem. Now I have to face the music. Now I have to step up to the plate and finally get rubbed against the litmus paper to see if I’m legit. The statistics show that students with my grades are “at risk” for failing the bar exam. I am registered for all the prep courses and plan to work very hard, and have actually started studying, but I’m not sure if it’s enough.

How can I study when I don’t really know how to study given my subpar grades? Further, I don’t have a legal job lined up, yet need to study full time for the bar (like everyone does), thus I will likely be unemployed this summer just as the recession hits. So I’ll be living off of tiny savings with no guarantee of a lawyer job or even a law license. Then, even if I pass the bar, how can I depend on myself to help people with serious legal issues? I’m a C+ student, for God’s sake! What if I fail and then I have no job, no license, no money, and student loans beginning to roll into the mailbox?

If I succeed, I’ll always carry the burden of knowing I’m some kind of impostor. If I fail, then it confirms my suspicions that I’m not good enough and I would have let my wife and family down and be financially ruined. That’s how I fear both failure and success. So my question is — after the long windup — how do I reconcile this internal struggle and, to borrow a Buddhist phrase, find the “right mind” to pass the bar, become a lawyer, and be a success? How can I evaluate my abilities when I find all the right arguments for why I should and will fail rather than build myself up?

Lowering the Bar

Dear Lowering the Bar,

That was a long letter. So let me say three things upfront. One, you seem to be having some dysfunctional thoughts related to self-esteem, and cognitive therapy can probably help with that. I had a similar problem and it helped me. Two, whether you like it or not, you are in a class struggle. You are a big-city working-class guy, a rebel and a free-thinker, trying to elbow your way into a room full of upper-middle-class private-school people from the suburbs. You don’t feel perfectly at ease in their midst. That is no surprise. Three, you will not get self-esteem by measuring your performance against theirs. You will get it by helping people who need your help, by performing esteemable acts, by using your power as a lawyer to protect people like yourself.

I want to say this, too: You are not an impostor. You are an outsider. There’s a difference. Maybe you feel like an impostor when you pretend to be an insider. But you’re not an impostor. You’re just an outsider.

You’re a guy trying to get through the door. You’d like to be on the other side of the door where they keep the cash and prizes. Wouldn’t we all. But the door is locked. And they’re not just handing out the cash and prizes to anybody. They’re handing it out to their friends. That’s the game.

It’s not you. It’s the way things are. The people on the other side of the door who don’t want you to get in would love for you to conclude that there’s something wrong with you, that you’re simply not good enough. It would play right into their hands. The truth is that you are indeed a man with a difference, a flaw; you are not a perfect specimen of the master race. You are a man with a learning disability. You have a difference. I say: If you’ve got a difference, then make a difference. Wouldn’t that look good on a bumper sticker?

But it’s the truth. We have to stick together. You are attempting to gain some power in the world. Why? So you can shut yourself up in a big house and gloat? Would that make you happy? No. You’d really feel like an impostor then. We gain self-esteem by performing esteemable acts.

OK, so I’ve made my three main points. Now to elaborate.

About the cognitive therapy: It can help you deconstruct your dysfunctional thoughts so that you see they are unanchored verbal constructs that correspond to no reality; these thoughts are like viruses with no productive purpose except their own replication, and no effect except the propagation of depression and feelings of hopelessness. The book I suggest you use for the purpose of deconstructing your dysfunctional and depressive thoughts is “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” by David D. Burns. It contains exercises you can do. It would be good to use the book in conjunction with a helpful human guide such as a psychotherapist trained in cognitive therapy, but you may be able to get a great deal out of it by just reading it and doing the written exercises. If you can, great. If not, get a therapist to help you.

More on cognitive therapy: You say you lack “self-confidence.” I don’t believe in any substance or quantity known as “self-confidence.” There are actions, that’s all. There are mental actions and physical actions. There are beliefs and habits and programs.

This is related to our social and economic class background in the following way: Some people are taught these actions and beliefs and others have to acquire them. Some people are told over and over again from childhood on that they are useful, productive, capable people, and that if they struggle and apply themselves they can achieve admirable results. They may be C students. But they learn orderly habits and systems of self-reward that regulate their behavior. And they achieve moderate success. Sometimes they achieve remarkable success. But people like you and me, the nuts and the rebels, the restless and discontented, the oddly and asymmetrically gifted, we have to acquire those habits, sometimes at great cost. It’s more work for us. Sometimes our asymmetrical talents have helped us bluff our way for a certain distance; but when we reach the genuinely elite competition, we can no longer bluff. Not only are our elite competitors better equipped, but they genuinely do not like us and do not want to see us gain power. They do not want us in the boardrooms or the boarding schools or the private gymnasiums where they apply their aftershave. They do not want us to succeed because we are indecorous, we are a pain in the ass and we are a threat. They think we will take away their privileges. And they are right. We will. We would like to. Yes, indeed. We would like to redistribute wealth. We would like to take care of the poor. Well, at least I would. I would like to raise taxes and redistribute wealth. You betcha. And I’m not even all that political. I’m just a decent person who cares about the poor.

Speaking of the poor, as I sit here today watching John Edwards drop out of the presidential race in New Orleans, as I hear him say, “It’s hard to speak out for change when you feel your voice is not being heard,” I think of my friends Denise and Doug who lost their New Orleans home to the floods after Katrina. I think of the look on Denise’s face when she recently described their experiences. Sitting in a booth in an upscale Florida Panhandle restaurant (where my brother works as a musician but is not offered health insurance), I observed their attempts to make sense of the deep betrayal and trauma of the Katrina disaster. Denise talked about how, you know, as regular Americans, you get a house, you get an education, you get a career (they are both architects educated at Tulane) and you start to feel like things are OK. And yet your situation is fragile.

And because your situation is fragile, we need competent government. We need protection. We need advocates from our own social class who understand the fragility of our lives — we who are not the owners of factories and makers of endowments to universities, we who live by working. We need people who are lawyers and doctors and politicians who understand what life is like for us, who are the vast majority of people in America.

So, my friend, my rebellious, troubled friend, maybe you don’t pass the bar on the first try. Big deal. You can pass it. You can become a lawyer. And you can help people and by doing so gain some self-esteem.

Moreover, in my opinion, you are needed. It is a calling. It is not so you can get a big house and sit in it and gloat. It is so you can help people like yourself, and like me, the imperfect ones, the fragile ones, the ones who believed what they were told, that we’d be OK, until disaster struck and we found that we would not be OK unless there were people with the power to make it so.

That’s reason enough to become a lawyer. And doing it, I dare say, will help keep you sane.

So remember your roots. Realign yourself with your natural allies, your fellow Catholic-school, working-class rebels. Look up your old friends and compare notes. See if you can be of assistance to them in their struggles to achieve some economic security and happiness. What do I mean by being of assistance? First, just show your face. Renew your friendships. Visit them. Meet their babies. Envy them. Punch them. Drink with them.

OK, that’s about it. I’m going to quit now — so nobody can say, Oh, that Cary Tennis, he’s just such an undisciplined person!


If you’re different, make a difference!


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