Reflections on the Silk round

Sir Alex Allan, Chair of the QC Selection Panel, offers advice to prospective applicants and four successful candidates from the previous round discuss their lessons learned with Peter Purvis

The process of deciding on applicants for Silk is necessarily thorough.

But that means the process takes time. The Selection Panel is well aware of the stress that applicants can feel in waiting for the outcome. So we were pleased that it was possible for the announcement of the results of the 2017 competition to be made before Christmas. We hope in due course to be able to establish a fixed date for the announcement each year.

The diversity of appointments continues to improve. Over 60% of the women who applied were successful, and the 32 women appointments was the second highest number ever. The 18 black and ethnic minority (BAME) advocates appointed was the highest number ever, which represents 15% of the total appointments and matches the proportion of BAME advocates of the relevant seniority. Having said that, there are notably few appointments of advocates from African or Caribbean, as opposed to Asian backgrounds.

We are often asked what advice we would give to prospective applicants. My advice would be three-fold:

First, read the Guidance to Applicants and the Competency Framework carefully. Then read them again. The Selection Panel is not trying to catch anyone out – the Competency Framework is intended to make it as clear as possible what constitutes excellence for the purposes of the QC competition, and the Guidance to Applicants aims to explain how the Panel goes about assessing that. You should also become familiar with the Application Form (the previous year’s version is available on the QCA website) and begin thinking as early as possible about your cases and how you would describe the way in which you meet the competencies.
Second, if you have colleagues who have been appointed under this system in the last few years, talk to them. They will know how to approach the listing of cases and the choice of assessors, and in due course what to expect at the interview. Of course, not everyone has advice of that sort available, but I know the Bar Council now operates a mentoring scheme to help prospective applicants. You may also find that the profiles published here (and additional and longer versions on the QCA website) contain useful advice from recently successful applicants.
Third, if your specialist Bar association or interest group organises seminars about the appointment process, try to get along to them. Members of the Selection Panel or the Secretariat are always happy to participate in those meetings, alongside recently appointed Silks from the specialist area concerned.

If you still have questions after reading the guidance, do feel free to email or phone the Secretariat. Our Chief Executive, Russell Wallman, and his team are always happy to advise on issues that may appear difficult or unclear. And because the Secretariat play no part whatsoever in decisions on individual cases, they do not need to feel constrained in providing advice. The QCA Secretariat knows the appointment process inside out, and their advice is free.

There is no doubt that the appointment process is gruelling for applicants – most report spending over 30 hours completing the application form. But the QC scheme is of enormous importance to the operation of our system of justice, and it is incumbent on the Selection Panel to ensure it has all the information it needs to make the best possible decisions. We are continuously trying to improve the system – that is why we carry out surveys of applicants and assessors each year to gather their input – and we would be more than happy to consider suggestions from readers of Counsel.

Contributor Sir Alex Allan is Chair of the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel

Sam Momtaz QC 1, Garden Court Chambers, London

Sam attended ‘an ordinary London comp’ and from 14 worked evenings and weekends in his dad’s print shop. He first became interested in family law in his teens when his parents divorced and at university he found it to be the ‘most human type of law’.

For ten years Sam did the whole range of family law cases, before specialising exclusively in children law. He represents local authorities, parents and children in care proceedings, many of which have an international element. He decided to apply for Silk when he was regularly being led by and/or against QCs and felt ready to take on the most senior role. With hindsight he would have begun preparing a year or more before making his application. Completing the lengthy application form was difficult and extremely time consuming, requiring an in-depth appraisal of your own skills and overcoming any disinclination to talk about yourself.

The diversity competency is as important as any other in the selection process, Sam believes, and requires a deep understanding, thorough commitment and real proactivity. Until recently the Family Law Bar Association’s Equality and Diversity Officer and previously a member of the Bar Council’s Equality Diversity and Social Mobility Committee, Sam is keen to play his part to encourage more suitably qualified women and BAME barristers to apply for Silk.

He found advocacy (Competency B) the hardest competency to enunciate, for the simple reason that it was at the core of his job and something he did every day. He had to stand back, think about what he had done and provide evidence.

In the weeks running up to the interview, Sam re-read his application form and thought about the new cases he had done. He found the interview ‘very pleasant’. Overall, the application process was odd in that there were periods of quite manic activity interspersed with periods when nothing happened (from the applicant’s point of view).

He is a firm believer in a healthy life/work balance, which he maintains as a new Silk. He is an avid fan of Liverpool FC, still enjoys playing football and is a regular cinema goer. Whilst travelling abroad he does not read any work emails. The legal world seems able to carry on without him, he says, and if there was a dire emergency his clerk would find a way of contacting him.

Sarah Clarke QC, Serjeants’ Inn Chambers, London 

Sarah started at the self-employed Bar before transferring in 2005 to work in-house at the Financial Services Authority. She believed that to become an expert in her speciality (insider dealing and investment fraud) she needed ‘coalface’ experience. After six years there she joined Serjeants’ Inn Chambers as ‘a much better litigator’ and with experience of stakeholder management, staff management and leadership. Such moves, she believes, should become far more common at the Bar.

It was the publication of her textbook on insider dealing law that boosted her confidence to apply for QC. The application form was ‘unbelievably difficult’ to get right. In preparing for interview, Sarah became totally familiar with her application, knew her cases and thought carefully about what questions she might be asked. She was conscious that there would probably be at most nine minutes available for each competency. Sarah found the interview ‘very constructive’; the interviewers put her at ease and gave her every opportunity to demonstrate what she could do. She sums up her overall experience of the application process as ‘surprisingly positive’ whilst ‘time-consuming and gruelling… it is not for the feint-hearted or anyone with a victim mentality. You have to be brave and determined’.

As a new QC, Sarah is in the process of assessing her work direction as well as recalibrating work-life balance. In reality, she says, an ideal balance is probably unattainable – you have to ‘embrace the challenge on a daily basis, accept that it can be tough and worry less about it’ – but she feels she is now senior enough to make a difference. One of four female QCs in her chambers, all working mothers, they support one another and also the younger women. ‘Taking Silk is a great privilege,’ she says, ‘but it also carries responsibility, in upholding high standards but also acting as role models for what can be achieved.’

James Morgan QC, St Philips Chambers, Birmingham

James is a commercial and Chancery specialist, with wide experience in insolvency proceedings and litigation. His interest in law was first sparked when his father took a part-time law degree. At university, James’ experience of mooting and mini-pupillages led him to aim for a career at the Bar. James began in a mixed set where he ‘did everything for five years’ but was heavily influenced by his pupil master in choice of specialism. More recently, as he found himself increasingly up against Silks, James began to think about applying for QC himself. He made his first application when he felt he had a sufficient number of substantial cases in front of a wide enough range of judges. However, that application was unsuccessful, following interview.

Preparing to apply for Silk was easier second time around, although still arduous. Familiar with the application form, he kept a note of cases as he went along. He had been a little cynical about the diversity competency, but soon gained a genuine appreciation of the need for senior members of the Bar to lead on this. He had also gained more evidence to offer on working with others (Competency C), about making decisions and carrying people with you and about the difference between leading and consulting people in the team.

James said that he found the application process quite ‘lonely’. In the lead up to and during the competition year it was important to have someone to talk through things. He says that the change in the competition requirement to name eight rather than 12 judges is helpful to the increasing number of practitioners whose cases mainly settle and for those who do not appear before many different judges. It also assists advocates with carer responsibilities and those working part-time ­– women in particular. His experience of his interviews was quite contrasting. He found the second one much more like a debate than the ‘question/answer/repeat’ of the first one.

It was a huge relief knowing he did not have to go through the application process again. As a new Silk, he recognised that he was in a way starting again at the bottom of a new ladder. Overall, though, he was happy to have won the recognition of the profession. There was also now scope for a rebalancing of work and life; his last ten years as a senior junior working towards Silk had been pretty full-on.

Mary Prior QC, No. 36 Bedford Row Chambers, Leicester

Mary practises exclusively in serious and complex criminal offences and is a specialist in historic allegations of institutionalised sexual abuse. She comes from a northern working class background. Her father was a coal miner, as were several generations of her family on her paternal and maternal side going back several centuries.

Mary worked ‘in more bars than I can remember’ to finance herself through university. Then, after a one-year graduate traineeship with Volvo, she worked for five years as Clerk to the Essex Magistrates Committee, which was where her interest in the law was first sparked. After a sponsored pupillage at the Crown Prosecution Service, Mary moved to chambers where she enjoyed working in a mixed practice. However, she discovered that some clients would not brief for family work if you did criminal cases, and she had to make a choice. She opted for criminal as she greatly enjoyed advocacy.

Her experience of the application process was positive. She found the QC application form to be daunting but ‘it made you sit back and have a good think about whether you really met the criteria’. She hoped that more advocates from non-standard backgrounds would think about applying for Silk. It was an objective, evidence-based, competency-based and rigorous process. It assessed how good you were now and not who you knew, what grades you had obtained at school or what university you attended. In the law, your individual characteristics did not matter to the client – all that mattered was your ability to do the job.

But, she says, it remained incredibly difficult for those from poor backgrounds to get into law and advocacy in the first place. It was hard to obtain pupillages as more people competed for fewer places. She says that young people needed to take all opportunities to get involved in advocacy, for example though debating societies, public speaking and by attending court to observe advocacy in action.

QC is ‘a badge that said you’re damn good’ irrespective of your background, and she intends to use her appointment to reach out to other women (and others who had fewer advantages), continuing a proud tradition of mentoring at No. 36 Chambers, ‘where the women look after one another.’ Your motivation should be more than one of personal ambition; to help and inspire more junior colleagues, Mary concludes.

Contributor Peter Purvis is Policy Adviser to the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel in the QCA Secretariat

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Peter Purvis

Peter is policy adviser to the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel in the QCA Secretariat. He is currently working on his seventh Silk competition. He was previously a senior civil servant in DEFRA, freelance consultant on EU issues and a counsellor.

Sir Alex Allan

Chair of the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel