The ‘Queen’s Counsel Competition for England and Wales’ – more frequently referred to as ‘applying for silk’ – is once again on the horizon. This year’s competition is expected to open for applications on or about 17 February and the application window is likely to close at the end of March. If you are eligible and interested in applying, keep an eye on the Queen’s Counsel Appointments (QCA) website for details of the 2022 competition.

All applicants – barristers and solicitors – must hold rights of audience in the higher courts of England and Wales or in equivalent forums. Applying for silk can be an arduous process, demanding a significant investment in terms of your time and money.

Applicants are judged against a ‘Competency Framework’ comprising five competencies:

  • A: Understanding and using the law;
  • B: Written and oral advocacy;
  • C: Working with others;
  • D: Diversity; and
  • E: Integrity.

Recommendations for the award of ‘silk’ are made by the Queen’s Counsel Selection Panel. The Competency Framework lies at the core of the whole process. Each competency is helpfully introduced by the QCA with a very short indication of that competency’s meaning – followed by examples of what is expected from an applicant in order to demonstrate competency compliance.

To obtain a recommendation for appointment, all competencies have to be demonstrated to a standard of excellence. ‘Excellence’ is a word which appears repeatedly in the guidance.

Those on the Selection Panel are looking for demonstration of the competencies ‘in cases of substance, complexity, or particular difficulty or sensitivity’ – another phrase which occurs frequently in all the relevant documentation relating to ‘Silk’ appointment. (Note: The section of the form relating to ‘E: Integrity’ is satisfied unless an applicant has faced an issue which calls integrity into question.)

In Part One of the QCA’s ‘Guidance for Applicants’, an excellent advocate is described as a lawyer who, in particularly difficult, complex or sensitive cases in the field in which they practise:

  • is up to date with the law and able rapidly to apply the law to the facts of the case concerned;
  • demonstrates that understanding through their written oral advocacy and is able to be persuasive on matters of both fact and law;
  • conducts themselves in relation to their clients, their opponents and the court in an exemplary fashion; and
  • demonstrates an excellent understanding of diversity and a commitment to improving diversity within the legal profession.

Learning from previous competitions

Given the challenges which the selection process entails, how best to go about it – and when? First, set aside time to read as much as you can on the QCA website – not only about the current competition – when that information becomes available – but also about previous competitions. After each selection exercise, the QCA produces a report for the Lord Chancellor, publicly available, on the process for the selection and appointment of QCs in the competition just passed. The report covers such topics as the ‘List of Cases’ which applicants are asked to produce; judicial, practitioner and client ‘Assessors’; grading of applications; sufficiency of evidence from applicants to enable the panel to decide whether an applicant should be interviewed; preparation, form and content of applicant interviews; issues of character; and recommendations for appointment. Of even greater interest to applicants is the ‘guidance’ document – 40 pages of detail, including an overview of how the annual competition will be conducted and what is required for the applicant to be recommended for appointment; guidance on completion of the application form; the Competency Framework; and guidance on handling issues of character and conduct.

When to start preparing your application?

Ideally, yesterday! Busy barristers (and solicitors) will always find it difficult to devote a substantial chunk of time to completing a long and detailed application form, alongside their day-to-day professional practice. Demonstration of the required competencies involves producing a list of the applicant’s most important, recent cases, preferably 12, that demonstrate substance, complexity, or particular difficulty or sensitivity.

It is in the nature of barristers to eliminate information quickly from their minds as soon as a case has ended so that they can absorb the detail of the next case. Before doing so, take a bit of time to write a few notes for yourself as a reminder for when you come to complete your application – perhaps a year or two later. What were the most important points? Was there a novel point of law? Or perhaps a challenging client? How did you manage your team? Did you present an especially strong opening; or closing submission; cross-examination – perhaps well regarded by the judge in the case or a senior opponent?

Thinking about such matters well ahead of application is invaluable. Try to start two or three years in advance. Make sure your clerks are aware so that they can do their best to support your application by directing cases to you of the type which are likely to enhance your application in the eyes of the selection panel. Of course, as a self-employed individual you may be reluctant to turn down an offer of work – but try not to get ‘sucked in’ to lesser work which may not contribute so much to a strong silk application.

Take advice from friendly judges, senior members of your chambers and opponents who might support you. What is their perception of your strengths and weaknesses as an advocate? How can you capitalise on your strengths and what do you need to do to reduce or eliminate the weaknesses? The process is designed to encourage applicants to do a bit of self-analysis. When you are being led, let your Leader know that you have a silk application in mind. Try to do discrete pieces of work which can be readily assessed later: a skeleton argument or cross-examination, for example.

Evidence, evidence and evidence

If I had to choose three words as a sine qua non for a successful silk application, they would be ‘evidence, evidence and evidence’! In our work with the profession over 15+ years in relation to silk (and judicial appointment), it has been surprising how often successful barristers do not appreciate the concept of ‘evidence’ in relation to their own silk applications, while at the same time recognising its essential nature and importance in every case with which they deal. Too often applicants rely on self-opinion or generalisations without realising that everything has to be backed-up by hard evidence so that competency compliance and excellence can be clearly demonstrated.

Every word counts

In the very limited space allowed on the application form, every word counts. None should be wasted on general statements of achievement or intention. Provide the strongest examples of your work to show why you would merit ‘silk’. Every example should focus on the particular competency you are trying to demonstrate. Omit anything else which does not have that focus. The panel reaches its conclusions on the evidence of the degree to which excellence in all five competencies is demonstrated.

Another point to watch out for: don’t expect those who are screening your application to read between the lines and make assumptions. They won’t! Selection panel members review your application, including your important cases, narrative description of your practice and self-assessment and the assessments from judicial, practitioner and client assessors, to establish a preliminary view on the evidence.

Screeners make their judgements from what is on the page. Something which you think obvious, may not be obvious to the panel. Explain what you did and why you did it. Saying that a particular case had a number of important points, without explaining what they were, will not cut it. Help panel members to get hold of something concrete.

In considering your list of cases, try to develop a matrix of possible cases to use, not only to show a good variety, but also to ensure that between them, they will demonstrate evidence of compliance with all aspects of the Competency Framework – and who the assessors may be. Keep in mind that it is better to offer fewer than 12 cases in your list than to use a case which will not be judged to be of QC standard. Bulking up your list with cases of inadequate standard is a good way of ensuring that you will not be invited for interview.

Being authentic

And when it comes to interview, take heed of advice in the QCA’s guidance. The panel are not looking for a word-perfect performance but rather an ‘honest and succinct account of skills deployed in professional life’. Let who you are, as the person behind the barrister, come through in interview. A number of the competencies call for this: how you work with others; your beliefs about diversity, leading to your behaviours and specific actions.

In advance of your interview, re-familiarise yourself with the content and detail of your application form. And think about any cases of QC standard which you have started since your application form was submitted. 

Competency based application and interview is not a process which many lawyers, especially barristers, are familiar with, let alone practised in. Try to gain some practice in an interview setting, to listen well; to recall pertinent case details; to articulate clear answers; to remain calm and to be yourself. It’s about being authentic, on top of your subject and demonstrating that you will not only be a competent QC, but also be an excellent role model to future generations.