Who do you picture as a typical judge? I expect the majority of readers will picture a High Court judge, an eminent practitioner from the self-employed Bar, probably a KC. Some of you may be picturing a solicitor, but again, probably a partner, probably experienced in litigation.

There are plenty of judges who fit this mould, but equally there are many judges who do not. Some, like me, come from the employed Bar with no meaningful recent litigation experience. Becoming a judge does not depend on having followed a specific career path, but on satisfying the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) that you have the requisite skills to do the job. There are a growing number of judges from the employed Bar, and though I may be biased, I think we bring valuable different skills to the judiciary.

What led me to the Judiciary?

Motivation is definitely a question you will be asked if you reach the interview stage. Perhaps even earlier, because you will need to ask your line manager to fill in a detailed reference form to support your application. Coming from a financial regulatory advisory practice my desire to pursue the Judiciary was a bit of a puzzle for my managers, who had not come across this before. If you are not involved in litigation, it is worth sitting in the back of a court, speaking to any judges you know and looking at the videos available on the judicial careers portal to assess whether it is a role you would like to do.

My own motivation was a combination of seeking a new intellectual challenge and wanting to be involved in meaningful decisions. At the time I was working in the public sector and although I valued the work I was doing, I was still conscious from family and friends that there are many people out there who have legal problems, don’t have a lawyer and need a judge to help resolve it. The Judiciary is an important element of our constitution and I felt I had the skills to contribute and (after spending a lot of time advising non-legal colleagues and waiting for their decisions), a desire to solve problems by making decisions myself. I can also say, having sat as a fee paid tribunal judge for four years, it is a role I love. It is both intellectually and socially rewarding though also at times a logistical challenge.

How to succeed?

The basic process is outlined extensively on the JAC website and is well worth reading through.

Preparation is key at every stage of the process and that means finding the time in your diary to think about each stage. Be prepared for a long process – over a year is normal for ‘entry’ posts such as deputy district judge/fee paid tribunal judge/Recorder. Also, be prepared to fail. Most judges have past unsuccessful applications. Success depends in part on who else has applied and where you rank within them. To illustrate – the 2022/23 Recorder competition had a 12.6% success rate – 1,292 people applied with 164 appointments. However, Road Charging User Adjudicator had a mere 6.7% success rate – 34 appointments out of 504 candidates.

Keep an open mind about roles. Few roles in the lower tiers of the judiciary require specialist knowledge, especially fee paid roles. Consider applying for any role you are eligible for. Relish the challenge of a new area of law. The Judicial College offers excellent training and plenty of support is available from colleagues. My specialism is as a financial services regulatory lawyer, but I sit in social security law despite having no previous background in this area. I am about to start sitting in the Family Court as a Recorder, again with no prior experience of family law. I trust in my analytical skills and the resources available to me to be able to do the job.

Know your skills. Barristers in employed practice have skills that are often incredibly useful in sitting as a judge. The ability to deal with disparate points being made by board members and to coherently explain the law to them, for example, is a skill that comes in useful when faced with litigants in person. Similarly, the proactive identification of what is relevant in all the information you have been given is a skill I often find myself using in the tribunal, alongside the meeting management skills I have picked up in employed practice.

Use the resources available. The process typically involves online tests, an application form and an interview. The JAC website has a practice test. It’s also worth looking at the equal treatment bench book, especially in advance of the situational judgment test.

Apply good exam technique. It may have been a while since you sat an exam, but the principles have not changed. These are tests to a strict time limit and in the case of the scenario test, a word limit as well. Read the questions carefully – nuance is often important. Remember you are there to make fair decisions so be mindful of procedure as well as substance. If possible allow time to check answers before submitting.

Allow enough time for the application form. The application form often follows the tests now, but you will get limited time to submit it, so think about it earlier. Competence-based assessment is the name of the game. Most competitions give a word limit of 250 words per competence, within which you need to provide two to three examples. Start collating and refining examples early, especially if you work in a technical area or employed advisory practice and will find explaining the situation succinctly challenging. The key issue is always what you did in any particular situation. Be precise. Drill down into what your analysis was and why you made the recommendations you did. Where known, say what the outcome was: advice accepted? If possible, get someone to read your form before you submit it – a friendly in-house lawyer or someone who has been through the process successfully would be good options.

Prepare for the interview. Reaching interview stage is a significant achievement in itself. Often more than half of applicants have been rejected by this point. The interview will typically involve a role play where you are the judge and actors play the litigants. There will invariably be a conduct and a procedural issue to deal with. If you can, go and observe a county court or tribunal in advance, to get a sense of how you could carry out the judicial role. Above all, stay calm and remember you are there to make reasoned decisions, so come to a view and explain it.

The second element is competence-based questions, for which you will need additional examples to those in your form. Again, prepare these in advance and try and rehearse with a friend if possible, especially if you work in a technical area with which the panel is unlikely to be familiar. You want to be spending your time on explaining what you did, not the background to an issue.

Individual feedback is generally available if you are unsuccessful at interview stage.

Finally, good luck!