Secret E-Diary

Silk interviews are here again

In a happier and more innocent time, Silk applications did not involve an interview. You made your application and waited. It was said that a file was kept on you from a certain point in your career. We were told that judges could contribute to it if you had made an impression upon them. Eventually, some kind of recommendation on you was made and the list moved upwards from the judges to the law officers and finally to the Lord Chancellor, the proper Lord Chancellor. Then, on the Tuesday before Maundy Thursday, you received one of two envelopes, the thick one was ‘yes’; the thin one was ‘no’. You had Easter to celebrate or recover.

My first application was more in hope than expectation but, as the seasons changed and Eastertide approached, I began to feel irrationally optimistic. I also received a rather good case as a Leading Junior in front of an eccentric High Court judge whom I knew from years back and of whom I was very fond. Unlike most people, who are frightened of appearing dull and develop a few eccentricities to spice things up, Mr Justice Gallia was always very eccentric and used to study people to see how he could behave normally.

Silk applications do not bring out the best in people. First, you realise that it makes you very concentrated on yourself and your own ambitions. Second, there is a kind of heightened sensation that being in a state of growing expectation brings: just like exams. You see significance in the most peculiar things. So, during the case, the judge’s cordiality and enthusiasm persuaded me that he must know something favourable about my pending application. On the fourth day of the trial, he called me in, without prosecuting counsel, for a personal conversation.

‘Are you in for Silk?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘You haven’t got it,’ he said. I felt there was some misunderstanding. ‘I haven’t got it? No, sorry, it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t know the result.’ But there was no misunderstanding. ‘No, you haven’t got it,’ he said. ‘I know, you see. Sorry, but I thought you’d better know too.’ Whilst I tried to ascertain whether I was numb with shock or just taken aback at the manner of delivery, he went on: ‘It’s fascinating how they mark it actually. “A” or “A plus” means you have definitely got it. “A minus” means you might have been given it this year, but, if not, certainly next. “B plus” makes it possible in a poor year you might succeed, the other “Bs” mean you have failed and “B minus” downwards means it is unlikely you will ever become Queen’s Counsel.’

I desperately wanted to ask a question. Bill Gallia sensed what I needed to know. ‘You got a “P.”’ ‘“P”?’ I queried, feeling things had taken a very bizarre turn. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘it means “Premature”. You applied too early. In many ways, it’s the worst grade to receive because it means that as well as not getting Silk, you also lack judgment.’

The reports from this year’s interview round, as reported in the robing rooms, make the process I went through sound almost Byzantine. Now, candidates have an opportunity to address referees’ observations and answer important questions such as ‘when is it appropriate to re-examine a witness?’ Unlike my first experience, they will leave feeling that they took part in a fair and transparent process, were judged on their merits and had the opportunity to be heard.

I could not seriously advocate a return to the old days. Smoke and mirrors had nothing on it. Rumours abounded, mostly inaccurate, and people were often left feeling uncomfortable as to how the process had worked. And yet, in a strange way, I wonder… When they come to decide who wears the silk gown next year, will it really be a scientific evaluation and measurement of carefully designed forms, focused references and interviews? Or is it in truth something else? Is it something unquantifiable that both systems somehow manage to glean about the chances of the magical transformation from junior to Silk?

One thing is true however you make the selection. As Gallia J said to me that early Spring day, ‘anyway, when you don’t get it, treat it like the ‘flu. Avoid unnecessary contact and wait ‘til you are better.’ ‘And what do you do when they say “yes”?’ I asked. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you won’t need any help with that.’

9 October 2017:

‘The idea of “interview-less hiring” is new and a trend we will see in the changing global job market.’

– Sebastian Thrun