The long and winding road to taking silk

Barristers hoping to take silk felt the pressure over the Christmas period by the need to prepare for the current selection wave. Launched on 12 December 2006, the process was originally meant to give them around a month to prepare, but that deadline has since been extended by two weeks. Even so, preparations have been tight. Candidates need to tee-up a host of referees, complete a 62-page application form, including a delicate self-assessment section, and begin rehearsing (increasingly with professional help) for the interview stage.

The 2005-06 process introduced new standards of transparency and consistency within a competency-based system. The competition took a year from launch to the announcement of results and produced 175 silks from a total of 443 applicants.

In its report accompanying the results last July, the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel recognised that there had been concern about the length and complexity of the written reference forms and about the structured interview, so it is no surprise that the new process reflects a somewhat simplified approach.

In the new competition there will be no initial sifting process and references will be taken for all applicants. References and applications, including the self-assessment, will then be reviewed and a decision taken about whom to call for interview. Also, the number of references (reduced from 11 to nine) will comprise four from judges, three from practitioners and two from clients. References will take the form of confidential written reports and there will be no interviewing of referees.

A competency model is still at the core of the process. There are five competencies in which applicants are asked to demonstrate performance at a level of excellence: understanding and using the law; advocacy; working with others; diversity; and integrity.

The challenges facing applicants include coming to terms with the length of the application form and the amount of detailed information required, as well as setting aside sufficient time to complete it to a high standard. The guidance notes recommend that all applicants keep detailed contemporaneous notes of the matters they handle and the competencies involved so that they are readily accessible at the appropriate time.

Another issue is the need to provide effective evidence to support the individual competencies. Typically applicants have been more comfortable in the technical/analytical area, but less at ease in the ‘softer’ competencies, such as self-awareness, motivation, skilful handling of relationships and empathy. The guidance notes are clear in requiring hard evidence of performance rather than statements of intent.

The form asks applicants to list 12 judges, six practitioners and six clients who may be consulted. There is an opportunity for the applicant to nominate two referees in each category and prioritise them, one of which will be consulted. The other choices are at the discretion of the selection panel. Getting the appropriate panel of referees calls for a balancing of issues of status/seniority, depth of exposure, complexity of case and nature of outcome, as well as whether the potential referee will have the time to do justice to the reference request itself. Relatively few barristers applying for silk have had a single interview since pupillage. The interviews for the 2007 round will focus on all competencies, rather than the smaller group of competencies (diversity, clients and teamwork) that were tested in the 2005-06 round. Competency-based interviews force applicants to come up with concrete examples of how they have demonstrated the specific behaviours required to a level of excellence. It can be a great opportunity for the well-prepared candidate to shine, but the approach can seem intimidating for those who have not previously been exposed to this type of interview.

Just to add insult to injury, interviews for the 2007 silk round are planned for the summer. So, having lost out on a break over Christmas and New Year, candidates are now likely to be disrupting their summer breaks too.