As a lay person – but an experienced interviewer at both the Judicial Appointments Commission and with public appointments at the Cabinet Office – I do find the King’s Counsel process to be a particularly thorough one. Testing for all concerned, but certainly thorough.

I’ve just completed my second year on the KC Appointments (KCA) Panel and this article offers my thoughts as a guide to the interview part of the application process.

By the time someone gets to interview, a huge amount has already happened from the time they decided to take the plunge and apply. First, of course, the applicant has submitted the form in the spring, with their 12 cases, preferably from within the last three years, though sometimes – with good reason – either fewer cases or over a longer time span. And each of the cases, which are supposed to reflect the applicant’s practice, be substantial and have some interesting law, has three potential referees attached: a judge; a practitioner; and a client. From these the KCA team select nine assessors, of whom one in each category can be nominated by the applicant. Of course, the whole process depends on assessors responding, evaluating the candidates and being honest and candid in their assessments.

Inviting assessors, reeling in their thoughts, uploading, getting these graded by two members of the panel and read and moderated by the whole panel, takes us to early September and then the interviews take place over the next month. This year 280 people applied and we interviewed about 140. I’m impressed that the team has managed to hold all the interviews, throughout lockdown, wholly in person, mostly in London but also in Manchester.

Each person is seen by one legal and one lay member and it’s largely chance who sees who – although of course if there are any conflicts, they are managed and usually no-one will be interviewed by the same person, let alone pair, two years running.

Not all interview pairs – and all the lay members will usually sit with each of the lawyers in one season – do exactly the same, but the process is similar. And there is a huge effort to ensure that the grading and interviewing pairs are consistent in their approach.

What applicants can be really sure of, is that the panel has prepared thoroughly for the 35 minutes or more that they spend in the room. If it’s a candidate an interviewer has graded, that was the first opportunity – and most applicants are interviewed by one person who graded them. Then all were seen and discussed at short-listing moderation, some lines of questioning may have arisen at that stage. Then there was more preparation before the interview itself. But we only know what is on the form; not anyone’s age, education, chambers or date of call. We don’t know if they are from chambers with dozens of silks already or from ones with none. Sometimes people tell us any or all of this information, but we don’t ask and it’s not necessary or even influential.

That’s because this is a competency-based process – a framework set by the legal professional bodies themselves. There are four competencies. Applicants can expect that the legal interviewer will lead on (A) Understanding the Law and on both parts of (B) Advocacy; oral and written. The lay panellist leads on (C) Working with Others and (D) Diversity; Action & Understanding. What isn’t fixed is the order: I like to alternate ACBD or ADBC; others prefer to do both legal competencies and then the other two (ABCD). There should always be time at the end for questions or extra comments from the applicant.

What we look for is information to supplement what we have already. We want more than we know from the application: more breadth; more depth. Not the same. And we want everyone to give of their best. If someone has been so brilliant in Working with Others in their self-assessment or from the assessors’ evidence, that we may not need much more, we can spend the time on other competencies.

And we will always ask for examples rather than hypotheticals. Under Working with Others, we might ask for a time when you have dealt with a difficult opponent or where there was a cut-throat defence or a litigant in person. And then we will explore that instance. What happened? What did you do? How did it turn out? What did you learn? What might you do differently next time? It’s standard interview practice, but it is worth working through in the preparation. It takes thought, rather than coaching. But I am always aware that many applicants haven’t had to do this sort of interview since maybe applying for pupillage – which was a while ago.

Not all answers and examples need to come from the courtroom. Everyone has other experience to mine and display, whether it’s conferences or arbitration, work in chambers, inn, professional bar association or as a volunteer outside of work. We are interested in the skills, knowledge and judgment acquired, not only in where they were sourced.

I also find it really useful if applicants remember that two people are listening, questioning and making notes and recommendations. The lay panellists are there in the public interest and including us in, not using too much jargon or making assumptions about specialist knowledge is hugely helpful. Even the legal panellist may not be an expert in any applicant’s particular area of the law. So being clear, not assuming everyone knows as much as you, checking understanding, all might go to advocacy and working with others.

We will ask questions across all the competencies and any applicant needs to demonstrate excellence in all of them. So thinking and preparing needs to be across the board: maybe more in the areas where applicants think they may not shine as brightly. People do sometimes fall at the last hurdle because they cannot demonstrate much engagement or thought about the non-legal competencies: just being brilliant at the law is not enough, though it is a requirement: we are looking for leaders of the profession who have the other attributes too.

We interview four people a day and between them we have time to discuss and record our thoughts and conclusions while they are still fresh, as well as do final preparation for the next interview. Our aim is to give everyone the opportunity to demonstrate why they reach the standard, not to catch them out and prevent them from doing so.

Then it’s on to final moderation. Again, every panel member sees the report on every applicant and each decision is made by the whole panel. These are important decisions, both for the individual applicants and the profession, made with all due care and attention. What we are looking for throughout the process is evidence of real excellence, not competence – however useful that is.

Last spring I went to see the immediate result: the admission ceremony in Westminster Hall. I felt proud of the process and of the conclusions we reached.