Judicial recruitment season is in full swing. A quick glance at the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) website indicates that there are currently no fewer than 19 selection exercises ‘in progress’ and 10 ‘forthcoming’ – with the next tranche having launched in October. Vacancy volumes vary enormously. Not surprisingly, the JAC is only seeking to identify one candidate to recommend for the post of ‘President of the Employment Tribunals (England and Wales)’. In other selections, the numbers to be appointed include 25 new High Court Judges; at least 50 District Judges and the exercise for Recorders is likely to result in 100 new post-holders.

Candidates of good character are selected solely on merit. Competition in all exercises is intense – with 10 or more people applying for every vacancy. ‘Competency frameworks’ are used throughout the process to assess applicants’ ability to carry out their chosen role effectively. Competency-based assessment lies at the heart of judicial appointment – from initial written application and self-assessment against the relevant framework, through to panel interview on selection day. The system is designed to offer candidates the best chance to show that they already have the necessary competencies or that they have the ability to acquire them.

Demonstrating competencies

Demonstrating actual or potential skills and abilities necessary for the judicial role does not always come easily to many members of the Bar. Modesty sometimes seems to play a part in the reluctance of many barristers to engage fully with the process. ‘I don’t like blowing my own trumpet’ is a comment often heard. It reveals not only modesty – but a misunderstanding of what competency-based assessment is all about. Those charged with selecting the best candidates are not seeking your opinion of yourself – but rather asking you to demonstrate how you do, what you do. Many strong candidates with lots of experience and potential – both professional and in other areas of life: for example, being on a board of directors; university council, or chairing a charity – are unsuccessful in their quest for appointment – or at least in their initial application. Why? What’s going wrong? What errors are most common? How can barristers enhance their chances of success in seeking to develop a judicial career?

Applicants often have initial difficulty identifying strong examples to include in their self-assessment – sometimes leading to quantity rather than quality. Be selective. Choose only those cases which best showcase your relevant skills in line with one or more competencies in the framework.

Many candidates with good experience believe that their experience speaks for itself. Unfortunately, while res ipsa loquitur may retain an important place in tort law, it does not cut much ice with those in charge of our system of judicial appointment. And in this context, try not to be quietly annoyed with the whole application process – along the lines of: ‘It’s obvious I use skills like this in my daily work – why do I have to jump through these hoops?’ Writing about the hard facts of a case is not enough. Do not underestimate the need to draw out specific detail as evidence of competence developed through experience. What was the challenge? What thought process informed your approach; your inter-personal behaviour and perhaps even gestures? Translating unconscious competence borne of long experience into conscious competence, involves remembering detail and nuance, enabling you to articulate what you did, why and how. Showing competence in trying circumstances rather than in a run of the mill scenario may give you the edge over other candidates.

Demonstrating competence runs right through the whole judicial appointment process, including [depending upon the particular judicial role] situational questioning, role-play and panel interview on selection day. For some candidates the artificiality of role-play can be particularly off-putting and therefore acting and responding as if you were a judge can be challenging. In some cases, this leads to candidates focusing only on legal aspects – thus omitting to notice and respond appropriately to behaviour in the role-play courtroom. Talking of which, try to gain more courtroom experience from the judge’s perspective, either through the official judicial work shadowing scheme, or even by sitting in the public gallery. What do you notice about judges you admire? What aspects of their behaviour make them stand out in the courtroom?

Some competencies – for example, ‘Possessing and Building Knowledge’ – tend to lead candidates to make statements which are too general: ‘I keep up to date on relevant developments in the law…..’

Much better to give a specific example: ‘In that case, I had to develop my knowledge of civil and appellate procedure for a High Court hearing on the subject of ……….’.

Increase your chances of success

Plan well ahead of time. Don’t wait until your chosen selection exercise launches to start thinking about cases and evidence to support your application. If you think you might be interested in a judicial career, take a look at a competency framework and consider how you currently measure up in each key area.

Take a little time out to reflect on each of your cases, as they happen. Think about what you did well and why. Was there anything you would like to have done better? How? Invest a bit of time in making notes about your latest case before you consign it to history, totally forgetting the facts – that happens very quickly after a case has ended. If you can write a few lines about the important points; what you did well and what you learned, then when you come to write up your application examples, it will be much easier and less time consuming. You will make good use of your aide memoire.

Build up a list of really good examples to draw on in future, when you come to apply. Examples from which you will be able to extract concise evidence of competency compliance.

Draft your own self-assessment and get feedback from colleagues.

Write specifics – not generalities. Not ‘what I normally do is…’ – but rather: ‘in X v Y, I persuaded the client to...’

Record and use non-court examples to provide evidence of framework compliance – especially in the more inter-personal skills areas. Make sure they are strong examples – and a bit special.

Try to use examples from within the past 18 months or so. You may have an opportunity to talk about them at interview, while they are still reasonably fresh in your mind. Exceptions to this would be following a career break. Another exception to recency: particular highlights that have stayed with you for a much longer period of time because they were so spectacular!

Before going before a selection day interview panel, review your submitted self-assessment in critical detail. What has happened of significance since you completed your application? Do you have any more recent cases of similar quality? It is always good to have a few further examples up your sleeve.

And finally, if you are unsuccessful at the first time of asking – don’t give up. Candidates with strong applications can still be unsuccessful. It’s an open competition. A variety of feedback reports can be found on the JAC website. These provide candidates with advice and guidance on what characterised stronger applications in comparison to weaker ones in any particular selection exercise. If you get as far as a panel interview – and are not appointed – you should request individual, written feedback. This will help you with a future application. Hard work, sound preparation and a bit of diligent practice will enhance your chances of future success.