Smoothing the way
28 March 2011
The route to becoming a QC is littered with pitfalls. Kate Blackburn provides a map highlighting those areas that can prove an aspiring silk’s undoing
The silk selection process requires candidates to provide hard evidence of excellence in five key areas: the law, advocacy, working with others, diversity and integrity.
The first two are no surprise - that is what barristers are trained and employed for. The other three often are, and many aspiring candidates are at a loss to prove, in black and white, that they have indeed achieved excellence in those areas.
The selection panel requires evidence based on the candidate’s practice over the two years immediately preceding each year’s competition - not just evidence from the individual, but evidence backed up consistently by assessors.
The real me
So candidates need a clear awareness of their strengths and weaknesses as well as knowing what others really think of them. This can be quite a challenge for the self-employed barrister who has limited access to feedback on how they are doing.
When applying for silk, candidates need to draw upon their 12 most important cases, which should be substantive, sensitive, particularly difficult or complex and preferably have taken place in the past two years, although with good reasons this can be extended to three. These 12 key cases should then be used in the self-assessment to demonstrate strengths in each area and can be supplemented by other cases that might help support performance and behaviours.
The application form runs to 63 pages. The required information might not be readily to hand, so it may well take a month to complete. Each candidate is also required to nominate a total of 24 assessors. It takes time to select them, track them down and, in the case of judicial assessors in particular, determine whether they would be prepared to write assessments.
For most candidates this is a long and daunting process involving unfamiliar terminology that puts them well outside their comfort zones and puts many potential applicants off.
To do gist
So what can be done to soften the blow? As a candidate you should think about the competencies in relation to your day-to-day practice and reflect on each case as it finishes so as to capture the details while they are fresh in your mind.
You also need to apply at the right time - make sure that you and your practice are ready for the scrutiny of the ’standard of excellence’ test within the appropriate two-year timeframe and look at the crucial cases you will lose or gain in that window if you delay applying.
Choose your assessors carefully and try to learn what they think about you rather than leaving it to chance - you would not take this type of risk in the due diligence you undertake for a case, so why do it when considering your future? Contact your judicial assessors in particular to discover
if they are prepared to give you an assessment. They will tell you if they do not remember you or the case.
Write differently when you approach the self-assessment. You are not writing a skeleton argument or a submission. Describe what you do and how you do it to paint the picture. The tendency for barristers is to write neutral, factual descriptions of their cases, but this section is about you so do not hesitate to blow your own trumpet, however much it goes against the grain.
Be prepared for a long haul in terms of time and emotional energy, and do not be fazed by diversity and integrity. Consider what you have done to understand, support and promote diversity and when your integrity has been tested.
Additionally, it is useful to take the feedback from an unsuccessful application on board and learn from it.
The competition calendar is tight. Announced in March, applications are due in by 20 April this year. Your assessors may be dealing with requests from several other candidates, while coaches are in short supply and high demand. Obviously, the sooner you start the better.
The award of silk is for excellence in advocacy and that must involve a dispute. Advisory work or time as a judge is not taken into account. It is up to you to provide evidence to support your application, so start the process of information-gathering and identification of assessors early.
Kate Blackburn is a business coach and consultant specialising in silk and judicial preparation at Sherwood PSF Consulting