Confidence is not a fixed state. It’s not somewhere you arrive at and then remain, or a commodity you own and never lose. It’s more like an investment which rises and falls. Some days you’ll be the best barrister in the world and some days you’ll stink. Most of us live somewhere in the middle, most of the time.

In the early days you’re striving just to reach a point of basic competence, which is a struggle because your job as a barrister is to exercise judgement. That’s difficult when you’re still learning, and it’s easy for that negative voice in your head to creep in.

As you gain more experience, however, your judgement gets better, and you build up a body of success that begins to undermine that negative voice. This becomes your confidence bank – something you can draw from when you feel wobbly, and a reminder that you can achieve the task ahead.

The only way of growing that confidence bank is by challenging yourself and surviving the setbacks. That’s why resilience and confidence are so closely linked. The knowledge that you survived ‘X’ and can therefore survive ‘Y’ is how you move through an escalating set of trials to arrive at a point where less phases you.

For those starting out at the Bar here are six tips to surviving the first couple of years:

1) Work towards confidence

‘Be so good they can’t ignore you’, was excellent advice from Steve Martin on becoming a comedian, but also applies to the Bar.

It’s easier to feel confident when you’ve done the work. If you walk into court feeling you know the brief and the law better than your opponent, your advocacy skills are better and you are delivering submissions to this particular judge in a way that persuades them, you will get better results and feel more confident.

Facilitate your success by signing up to legal updates, asking questions, watching other people’s advocacy, and learning how others prepare their work and administer their practices. If you are the one who takes the time to know your clerks and clients, who prepares cases with care and attention and consistently delivers in a way others don’t, you will develop a reputation as a ‘go-to’ brief.

This will require a lot of work in the early days and a constant effort to maintain your personal development, but it will pay dividends.

2) Let go of perfection and work efficiently

There will be many times when you won’t have been able to prepare to the standard you want to, but that’s not a disaster. You will learn to rely on your skills to still perform well in imperfect situations. Part of this is trusting yourself and part of this is having done the work previously.

Your preparation will naturally get faster and more streamlined. Nonetheless, finding ways to work efficiently is key to your survival at the Bar.

Develop a case management system that avoids duplication of work, save your skeleton arguments, ask colleagues for help, work out which tasks/reading/events to prioritise when it’s impossible to do everything.

3) You will fail but don’t dwell on it

Bar school will only prepare you for a tenth of what you actually need to know and the first six months of your pupillage will only provide you with another tenth. That means you’re going to have to learn the rest on the job.

When you’re going through this process, remind yourself the Bar is a steep learning curve and every day you’re improving. This will not be a linear process.

Every successful barrister has been where you are now, and this is a profession where you constantly grow. Start to see your failures as a learning opportunity and try not to repeat mistakes. Things can and will go awry, but dust yourself off and work out how to do it better next time.

In the meantime, save nice emails and write down your compliments to remind yourself you’re fantastic in those hard moments.

4) Find your allies

The Bar is an extremely collegiate profession, and a pleasant side-effect of talking for a living is that most experienced barristers are willing to dispense advice. Take the time to build professional relationships with people who can help you develop and support you through these difficult first years. These may be people in your chambers or in organisations you’re interested in.

It’s also helpful to make friends with people in your pupil cohort. You’re all in the trenches together and no one will understand your struggles in quite the same way. Exchanging hacks and insights will also be a benefit and it never hurts to have contacts in other chambers.

5) Play your own game

You will enjoy your pupillage and your career more if you simply focus on being the best barrister you can be and avoid comparing yourself to anyone else. This may be easier said than done but remember sometimes you will be on top and sometimes someone else will. Equally there will be skills you naturally possess or pick up quicker than others and vice versa.

What you lack you can learn, just hold your nerve, and don’t let yourself be put off by others who appear more confident or successful. They probably feel the same way about you.

6) Look after yourself

You will be exposed to situations that are novel and taxing, and during pupillage your position in chambers will be uncertain.

It’s important to protect your physical and mental health. If you find yourself struggling (as everyone does at some point) try to speak to someone in chambers and schedule some time out to recharge. I appreciate this may be difficult in some places.

Still, all chambers should provide some holiday allowance – take it. No one will consider you a hero if you don’t, but it may affect your performance and tenancy prospects if you are too burnt out to do a good job.

You will spend the rest of your career trying to establish a balance between agreeing to enough work to make a living and earn the clerks’ appreciation; and refusing enough cases to complete work to a reasonable standard, sleep and clean your bathroom.

Although wellbeing is frequently neglected at the Bar, it’s important to the longevity of your career that you find a way to manage your workload and self-care.

In summary

If you do all this and your courage still fails you, go above your courage. I spent most of my pupillage pretending to be more confident than I felt. After a while I didn’t have to pretend and started to have faith in myself and my abilities. There are still days I want to weep in the loos. I just know everyone feels that way now.

The most important thing to remember is to be kind to yourself. Obtaining pupillage is a huge feat and you did it. Have patience and faith in yourself for what is to come. You are equal to these new challenges.

Best of luck!