I made a career switch to study law after having been an investment banker in New York. I studied law at Oxford and was on the Bar Professional Training Course (BPTC) at BPP University when I applied for the judicial assistant (JA) role. About half of the 23 JAs here have completed the BPTC.
Walking into the Royal Courts of Justice on my first day in October 2017 was exciting and slightly terrifying for a young lawyer. The first few weeks were spent developing our relationship with our judges and getting comfortable working at this level of the law.
It is difficult to describe a typical day as a JA because my days here have been incredibly varied. Each judicial assistant is assigned to work with one Lord or Lady Justice. This article is reflective of a day I had recently and I refer to the judge to whom I am assigned as ‘my judge’.
I usually arrive at work around 9:30am. If I have missed my breakfast at home in a bid to beat the rush hour crowds, I will buy myself a sausage bap from the café downstairs and make a cup of tea. We are spread between two rooms: 16 in the larger one and seven in the annex. It is a great space in which to work because there is always somebody available to explain a new area of law to me or to inform me that they have already completed the research that answers the question on which I am working. The environment is supportive and people are always willing to help if somebody is swamped with work.
I am 28 years old. The youngest JA in my room is 23 and the oldest is 30. Most have had a year or so out after being an undergraduate. Prior to applying for the role, I was interested in the civil Bar, which is why it makes sense to have been appointed to the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal. This is the same for all of the JAs, although some of my colleagues do a lot more work in crime.
Once I reach my desk in the morning, I can usually expect a phone call from my judge at around 10am asking me to the office to discuss the bench memorandum I prepared for the appeal being heard that day. JAs prepare these documents for the judges to help them navigate the case files, distill the issues and save on preparation time. During the early meeting with my judge, she will often ask me clarification questions, challenge my legal opinion and give helpful feedback on my work.
On other days I could be working on a draft order for a permission to appeal application, which can take a whole day or even longer. This usually depends on the quality of the papers and the complexity of the case.
When I first arrived at the Court of Appeal, I was somewhat nervous about these one-on-one interactions with a senior justice of appeal. However, my judge, and all of the judges with whom I have worked, have been supportive. These types of interactions are fantastic preparation for pupillage in that they require me to form an opinion on the papers, draft clearly and be able to defend my views orally before a judge.
At 10:15am, the other judges will attend my judge’s office for the pre-court meeting. This is their time to discuss the bench memo, their initial views of the case and raise any pertinent issues. Being in the room for these meetings is one of my favourite parts of the role because it involves witnessing a legal discussion between some of the greatest legal minds in the country. It is also rewarding when a Lord or Lady Justice of appeal agrees with my analysis of the case (this can all change once they hear the oral arguments).
At 10:30am, I go into court to watch the hearing. The judicial assistants sit in the press area and have a clear view of the judges and the advocates. It has been worthwhile to witness different styles of advocacy and learn what works for judges. It makes me even more excited to eventually get on my feet.
The court adjourns at 1pm for an hour for lunch. If I am going to be in a hearing, I bring in my own food from home. What happens during this time regularly changes. Sometimes I find myself with a free hour in the JA’s office. At other times, I assist the judges with discrete research tasks or anything else that might be helpful for the second half of the day.
"We are given a high level of responsibility from early on, get to work on some of the most interesting issues coming through the English courts and gain real insight into what makes a barrister effective"
At 2pm, we go back into court for another two and a half hours. I have really enjoyed the diversity of the cases on which I have worked in areas ranging from property to commercial to public international law. Although my judge’s workload is principally focused on commercial and Chancery cases, I am often required to undertake work in unfamiliar areas of civil law. This keeps the job interesting and tests my legal skills across the board.
Once court is over for the day, I return to the JA’s room where those of us who have been in court will debrief. It is always interesting to hear about what others are working on. I also use this time to pick my colleagues’ brains when I find myself struggling with a niche legal problem in an unfamiliar area of law.
For the rest of the day, I complete any other requests the judges may have following the hearing. This may include legal research for a different case, assisting with an extra-judicial speech or any other general assistance the judge may need.
I usually leave work between 5:30pm and 6:30pm and very rarely, later. There is no expectation of taking work home but as we have a lot of control over managing our workload, the role does require flexibility around adjusting our hours, when needed.
I love being a judicial assistant at the Court of Appeal – we are given a high level of responsibility from early on, get to work on some of the most interesting issues coming through the English courts and gain real insight into what makes a barrister effective. I will be starting pupillage in October 2019 and I have no doubt this year has really prepared me for that. If you are considering applying, I would highly recommend it.
Contributor Joel Semakula is a judicial assistant at the Court of Appeal
The role of a Judicial Assistant
Judicial assistants in the Civil Division of the Court of Appeal are assigned to work with a specific Lord or Lady Justice of Appeal. They join the court at the beginning of October and stay until the end of the following July.
They assist in the preparation of appeals for hearing before a constitution of the full court by analysis of the appeal papers, legal research and the drafting of summaries for the assistance of each member of the constitution of the court. They also prepare summaries and organise the case papers in less well presented cases for applications for permission to appeal which are considered by a single judge on the papers. These two tasks form the core of the work that judicial assistants are required to do. However from time to time they are requested to assist with research into specific subjects of interest in the law or the administration of justice or to work on specific projects which their judges are involved in.
Judicial assistants are encouraged to spend some time in court watching the advocacy but time in court has to be balanced against the time that they need to spend working on the tasks assigned by their judge.
There is no fixed profile for a successful candidate but the post of judicial assistant is intended to provide entrants to the legal profession with a unique opportunity to work at close quarters with judicial members of the court, to view the appeals process and to appreciate appellate advocacy at close quarters.
For more information, see here.