To take silk you obviously need to be sharp, but the appointment process also has some edges and these can cut. Every year the competition generates the full range of emotions – from elation, delight and pride through to incredulity, anger and frustration. Most candidates experience some of these feelings too!

The old silk appointment system was more straightforward, but it had flaws, particularly its over-reliance on the influence of Circuit leaders. The subsequent scramble to form Queen’s Counsel Appointments (QCA) with its competing stakeholders has created a challenging application process; rightly so for a kite mark of such distinction. (Although some have questioned whether financial imperatives, in that the QCA is funded by applicants, has led to a dilution in the ranks in recent years.)

The silk road

However, all we can do is play the ball from where it lies. So let’s look at how you can give it your best shot. I should commend the QCA for its transparency about the application process. Its guidance and competition reports are essential reading and will give you invaluable insights into what is actually required. (I hope the Judicial Appointments Commission catches up with this soon.) As is often the case, a little context, some translation, and guidance may assist you in finding your way to enlightenment.

The process is very straightforward:

  1. You draft and submit an application form and pay a fee;
  2. QCA contacts some of your assessors (referees);
  3. QCA creates a shortlist;
  4. Successful candidates attend an interview;
  5. Candidates informed; some pay a success fee;
  6. Celebrate appointment/go back to 1/take your bat and ball home.

But, and as you know there is always a but – it isn’t that straightforward!

The application form is a b*stard, an utter, utter one at that, but can be successfully tackled. This will eat your time and require some sharp thinking and effort, but it is very possible.

The dirty dozen

Candidates are shortlisted by the QCA Panel considering evidence from your form, and assessors drawn from 12 cases you nominate:

‘The Panel will have regard to the case, and your role in it, and the degree of challenge and how you dealt with it…those cases which present unusual, novel or unforeseen complexities or have consequences beyond the case.’

These 12 cases are the core of your application and the choices you make are pivotal. A couple of years ago the QCA extended the time frame for these cases from two to three years. I suggest you draw up a grid of your top 15 or so cases, score each case for complexity, novelty and weight, and how you think your assessors may rate you. That should then allow you objectively to rank and select your 12 cases.

Those pesky, punishing forms

It is always wise to get some advice, and a great place to start is by talking with colleagues and friends who have taken silk. If possible, ask someone for a copy of their application, so you can see how they’ve approached it. Filling in the form is a time-consuming process and I think, on average, it takes candidates about 30 hours to complete. So give yourself plenty of time and ideally work on it in bite-sized chunks.

Start out with your practice summary which must introduce your 12 cases and should highlight that your work is at the top end. Then, using the competency framework as your plumbline, cherry pick and describe your best examples from the 12 cases. The character count is very tight, and you will need to write in the style of a tabloid rather than broadsheet journalist. Get family, friends and colleagues to review your drafts, to make sure your form makes sense and addresses the competencies. Make sure you give specific evidence instead of unsubstantiated assertions. The ‘S.O.A.R’ or ‘S.T.A.R’ models are helpful frameworks for developing an example, but what you really want is a story which powerfully demonstrates what you did and how brilliant you are – a ‘sticky story’. There is no room for modesty in a silk application but, while you are trying to present yourself in the most favourable light, always make sure you are honest.

Over the years, many candidates have come to me just for selection day coaching, and I’ve been surprised at how poor some of their application forms have been. Having also read feedback from unsuccessful candidates, it is apparent how influential and important the assessors are. It is not much use having assessors describing you as ‘good’; they must view you as excellent and be willing to write a glowing reference for you.

Assessing your assessors

I encourage candidates to try and meet their potential assessors face to face to discuss their application, but don’t just ask if they will act as your assessor. Generally, British people aren’t very good at saying no. Instead, explain that you are thinking of applying for silk and ask if they have any advice. Watch their body language to see how they react, and you’ll know if they are a fan. Also, bear in mind that many assessors are often asked to provide evidence for several candidates. It is only natural that they will rank those candidates, and write a range of references, highlighting specific evidence for their preferred candidates. I’m sure many of you will have heard assessors boast that their efforts got X appointed in silk because of their stunning assessment.

Additionally, some professional assessors may see you as competition or a commercial threat and not be as supportive as you would imagine. Do assist your assessors and refresh their memories about the case(s) they’ve seen you in, with a focused summary highlighting appropriate competencies.

Your assessors will prove critical – choose them wisely.

In conversation

Silk interviews tend to be more conversational than judicial ones. They fall into two broad camps. The first is for those where the QCA is confident it will appoint from the evidence assessed, and it is an opportunity solely to confirm its thinking. The second is where there may be concerns from an assessor(s) or about excellency in some of the competencies. The Panel can then probe candidates for evidence or clarification. They will also ask you about equality and diversity issues in both cases.

As in all interviews, positive body language, eye contact, and tone of voice are critical. Successful candidates deliver confident, succinct, and engaging answers. It is straightforward to prepare – know your form inside out, anticipate potential questions, and have mock interviews and/or record your potential answers.

I always advise my candidates to listen to their favourite songs before an interview. Music stimulates all your brain and can take the edge off your nerves. Someone recently appointed told guests at their celebratory dinner that it was almost like a silent disco outside the Judicial Appointments Commission on a selection day! When clients are unsuccessful, I send them a song that ends with a full room singing ‘hold your chin up high’.

As with everything in this process, it is not just about what you’re saying, but how you deliver it.

I’ve been very lucky to work with some fabulous silk candidates for over 20 years. Many were successful; others were not. The one thing they all had in common, was that they got by with a little help from their friends.