How very far the employed Bar has come in the 27 years I have been in practice. When I was called to the Bar in 1996, you could not practise as an advocate while employed as a barrister unless you cross-qualified as a solicitor.

In 1999, having not been successful in securing tenancy in chambers, I decided to take this alternative path so that I could continue with the career that I loved. In the early 2000s this changed – barristers could be employed and practise as an advocate. So, I transferred back to the Bar.

Fast forward 20 years or so, and the employed Bar is stronger and more visible than ever. It is a competitive alternative to life in chambers with some of the very best in our profession seeking employment from the start of their careers.

This year, the Bar Council’s Employed Barristers’ Committee celebrates its quarter century and I take on the role of Chair. My aim is to increase that visibility and encourage progression and recognition. I want to see more employed barristers appointed to the ranks of King’s Counsel. There is no reason why, if one has the practice to satisfy the competencies to the very high standard expected, that those from the employed Bar cannot pursue this aim and expand the still very small numbers of us who have succeeded to date.

Resetting perceptions and applying for silk

When starting out in employed practice at the Criminal Bar, taking silk was not something I ever expected to achieve. Speaking frankly, there were some difficult hurdles to overcome. Very few of us conducted trials or appeared regularly in the Crown Courts. There was, it is fair to say, a measure of hostility and suspicion around us. On at least one occasion I was asked to leave a robing room as I was not considered ‘a proper barrister’. Judges often viewed employed practitioners with a degree of scepticism, a challenge to the traditional norms. In my early years, it was quite clear that it was assumed that I would not be able to ‘cut it’ against my self-employed peers. However, this is not a tale of woe but an example of what can be achieved. Early setbacks such as these can make you stronger and more determined to have the career you deserve.

While difficult experiences like these can lead to a degree of imposter syndrome (who of us does not suffer from that on occasion?), this made me more convinced that I would work harder, smarter and be more prepared with the simple aim of resetting those ideas. I was determined to prove that we employed practitioners could do the job just as well and compete with those in chambers.

When my colleagues and I joined a new team at Snaresbrook Crown Court in April 2006 prosecuting cases for the Crown Prosecution Service, many of us from a background of defending, we set about challenging perceived ideas. Very soon, members of the Judiciary recognised the value we added to cases and the standard at which we worked. Very soon, we were seen as the fair, capable, effective advocates we had all set out to be at the start of our careers. We realised that attitudes could be changed with simple hard work and tenacity.

So, how did it come to be that I decided to apply for silk? The short answer is with a lot of cajoling, persuasion and encouragement. Interestingly, that came from the very quarters which were initially sceptical of employed barristers. The loudest voices of encouragement were from those I had appeared against and before. The fact of their support chimed loudly as a mark of how far attitudes had changed. I will always be immensely grateful for their cheerleading and for what it signified in terms of the collegiate nature of the Bar. As a member of the Bar Council and a Bencher at Inner Temple, I have always encouraged a One Bar approach.

Advice for those thinking of applying for silk

The application process is rigorous, as it must be to attract and appoint practitioners who do justice to the accolade of silk.

An obvious tip, perhaps, but first visit the King’s Counsel Appointments (KCA) website. This is vital to understanding the competencies to be satisfied and examples the Selection Panel is looking for. Unless you know the criteria, you will never be in a position to satisfy them.

I would strongly advise anyone who is even thinking of an application to set about their preparation and reading at least two years prior to any application submitted. The KCA asks for examples of 12 complex cases of substance over a period of two to three years with judicial, professional and client assessors in each of those cases.* So, the work needs to start early – particularly for those in employed practice. (Twelve cases in three years is not a strict rule – see ‘Applying for silk in 2024’ by Monisha Shah, Chair of the KC Selection Panel.)

Next, consider how your current practice fits with the criteria. Does it need tweaking? Do you need to think about branching into other areas? Increasing your experience of advocacy? This is the time to speak to employers, managers and mentors about how you can achieve these aims. In my case, I was conducting very lengthy and complex trials of a certain type and needed greater variety and exposure to more assessors. I discussed my aims early on with the CPS and arranged a move to another division to achieve this. Such a move might be discomforting if you have been in your role for some time, but it is short-term pain for long-term gain and will be worth the effort in the end.

Once you’ve understood the competencies, set up a file on your laptop to keep a running record detailing case examples you can use to satisfy the criteria. It is very difficult to recall what you did, what you submitted, that particularly nuanced legal argument you constructed, tricky piece of cross examination or persuasive advocacy you conducted several years down the line. So a document that you can go back to, add to and then refer to when you write your application is vital.

Another piece of advice I would give is to be the very best version of yourself that you can be. That may sound worthy, trite even, but it is important. The application form is a key part of the selection process, but the assessors are the bedrock of your submission, and you need to know that the assessors you choose will speak highly of you, will be prepared to put in the significant amount of time an assessment takes to write, and will remember you for all the right reasons. Ultimately an assessor will need to confirm that you are ‘ready for silk’ and you will need to put in the work before them to show that this is the case.

We are all acutely aware that time pressures mean that 100% in all we do is often difficult to achieve. At least aim for that high bar, so that you know that your assessors have examples of excellence to call upon when they write about you.

Your application is not ‘I would quite like to be a silk’ but ‘I am a silk and this is why...’ This means that your written and oral advocacy must be of the very highest standard and the cases you conduct need to demonstrate that.

Look your assessors in the eye

I received some very sensible advice when I started considering my application – go and speak to your assessors, and look them in the eye when you ask if they are prepared to support you. I did this with all but a very small number of my own assessors.

First, this is a matter of simple courtesy. As someone who has acted as an assessor, I know that it is an onerous and important task. A simple courtesy visit or call beforehand to ask if it would be ‘OK’ means a great deal.

Second, it is very easy to obtain a short positive assurance via email, but you will never know how genuine that is unless you speak direct to your proposed assessor. Yes, it can be excruciating to go and talk to someone you have been against or before and effectively ask for their endorsement. But it really will assist in giving you the confidence you need to complete the application if you know that those you have named are behind you. This is perhaps even more relevant to those in employed practice. Some of us have very few people, if any, in our own organisation who have been through the process and who can offer tangible, constructive support and advice. Knowing that you have this from people who have been there before you, and know what you are capable of, will provide you with the extra encouragement you will need over what can be a very gruelling application period.

Do not be shy. Be proactive – you do not achieve anything without asking. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised by some of the reactions. When I spoke with two of my assessors, I had assumed that they would say ‘no’ (imposter syndrome at work again) but they were reassuringly encouraging and kind. One said he wondered when I was going to ‘get around to it’ as he had hoped I would.

Finding support – coaching or not?

Consider what other support you need in making your application. Some will take up coaching. I did. It helped immensely, particularly in terms of confidence which I lacked, and which could have cost me my application. However, coaching is not necessary for everyone and KCA is quite clear that, while permissible, it is not something that it expects people to need if they follow the guidance available.

There are many other avenues to explore when it comes to advice and support. Practitioners you know who have achieved silk are, almost without exception, enthusiastically willing to help and mentor prospective applicants on an informal basis. If you have no one within your organisation who can fulfil this role, then look further afield. Look to the Bar Council, your Inn, your Circuit and your peers in the profession. The South Eastern Circuit, for example, has established a brilliant KC mentoring offer which will be particularly invaluable to those from underrepresented backgrounds, practice areas and employed practice.

I would encourage everyone, employed or self-employed, to consider where your support can come from and to think outside your immediate working environment. It is more important than ever for employed practitioners to take an active role in their wider professional organisations for this reason alone.

Completing the application

Another very important piece of advice, which may in fact be a little easier for those in employed practice to achieve, is to block out time to complete the application when the time comes. I am acutely aware that there are many stories of those who decided on a whim to apply and completed the form in 24 hours and were successful. But they are rare examples.

This is perhaps the most important piece of written advocacy you will complete, and it is worth spending time on it. Write out your competency examples, re-write them (again and again) and get others to check them or provide feedback. Does the example speak to the competency you are addressing? Does it set out what the issue was, what you did and what the outcome was and not simply recite an anodyne generic ‘I was great’ answer! Check your application several times for spelling errors or mistakes. Treat it like the most important submission you will ever draft. And then press send. This is an extraordinary moment for many of us who never considered silk as part of our careers.

Another very good piece of advice I received was not to look at the application again unless and until invited for interview. Otherwise, it is rather like the post-exam horrors where you eventually convince yourself through application-form dissection that it was all a terrible idea!

The interview

I did not expect to get any further (my old friend, imposter syndrome again!). When I was invited for interview, I was delighted and horrified in equal measure. Now I had to think about what to say. Would I even remember my name? What if I couldn’t answer a question? I heard so many apocryphal stories that if your interview was short, it meant you were in, but if it was long then they were clearly undecided. But what is long? What is short? Was my 35 minutes in either of those camps?

The simple answer is that you shouldn’t read too much into the length of an interview. My own experience was that the two interviewers seemed genuinely to want to hear about my practice and wanted me to do well. It was not a grilling. It certainly wasn’t a cosy fireside chat, and neither should it be, but it was an experience which left me feeling that I had been afforded the opportunity to deliver my very best.

Interview practice is something I would encourage. Maybe ask a friend, a colleague, a mentor you trust to ask you some questions about the competencies to consider how you will answer them. Read your application – now is the time to do that – and familiarise yourself with the cases you have cited and other examples of the competencies that could be valuable at interview.

Despite feeling far from it in my case, be confident. You have been asked to interview because your assessors have, in the main, spoken highly of you. You have achieved more in terms of statistics than 80% of the profession by being asked to interview. As an employed barrister, draw on the fact that most organisations operate competency-based interviewing and use that to your advantage. For 35-40 minutes be a silk. Conduct the very best advocacy of you that you can.

‘That’s amazing but why on earth are you crying?’

And then you wait. Having already waited months to see if you get an interview, you then wait to see if it went well, and whether you have been appointed. Despite an initial ‘that was OK’ feeling after I had left the interview, 30 seconds later, and from that point on, I assumed that it was not to be. Imposter syndrome remained in place until I received the email attachment from the KCA (then QCA).

I read an article by Chris Henley KC (‘On taking silk’, Counsel February 2020) wherein he described how you will always remember where you were when you get the letter saying ‘yes’. I do. I was on the bus travelling home from London Bridge. The notification was earlier than I expected. Yet there it was. Having opened it, read it several times over and still not taken on board the magnitude of what it said, I started to cry and became ‘that person’ on the bus no one readily sits next to. I called my partner to explain what had happened but through the sobs he could not make out the words. When I managed to convey the news, he answered pragmatically and kindly: ‘That’s amazing but why on earth are you crying?’

I suspect that the answer to that is simple and yet woven into a long career of taking the path less travelled. I cried because it was unexpected. I never imagined, when I was not taken on in Chambers and started my sometimes tricky and difficult path at the employed Bar, when I was asked to leave robing rooms, that silk would be open to me. When I suffered setbacks and encountered hurdles to overcome, I did not imagine that I would end up as one of His Majesty’s Counsel.

But for all these reasons the achievement was even sweeter, I had achieved this despite the difficulties faced and despite the small number of employed practitioners who take silk each year. I worked out the statistics of being a woman and employed and I think the percentage of those in that demographic taking silk was in the 0.00 %!

I hope that others will follow and increase those statistics, visibility and recognition, as I take on the role of leading the employed Bar this year. Appointment for me was far bigger than a personal achievement. I wanted to show that if an employed barrister can satisfy the competencies, they can take silk. It is no more complicated than that.

Taking silk is not to be taken lightly

The process requires tenacity, preparation, courage and confidence (faked or genuine will do!). Achieving the marque does not provide one with a cloak of invincibility against setbacks or crises of confidence. However, it gives you the knowledge that you have fought hard to get to where you are, and you have done so with the support of others in the profession who know what they are talking about. It also gives you a voice – a voice I am determined to use to encourage others from the employed Bar to do the same, whether that is apply for silk, judicial appointment or visible positions of governance within our profession. It is only by pursuing these roles that we change the statistics, and we change attitudes.

We also have the opportunity to change the yet unwritten futures of those who come behind us. The KCA is encouraging of a diverse list of appointees and is actively engaged in wanting greater representation of all practitioners regardless of race, gender, disability, employed or self-employed.

With that in mind, alongside the Employed Barristers’ Committee, the KCA is holding an event on Monday 26 February at Sidley Austin to speak specifically to those at the employed Bar who might want to consider the route to silk.

Twenty-seven years ago, when I was called, that may never have been the case. I am delighted that it now is, and I look forward to a future where it becomes the norm. When we celebrate those who have achieved silk for what it is rather than where they reach it from. 

© Getty images/iStockphoto
  • Work needs to start early – particularly for those in employed practice – so set about your preparation at least two years prior to any application submitted.
  • Visit to ascertain the competencies to be satisfied and the sort of examples the panel is looking for. Unless you know the criteria, you will never be in a position to satisfy them.
  • Think about how your current practice fits with the criteria. Do you need to branch into other areas? Increase your advocacy experience? Speak to employers, managers and mentors about how you can achieve these aims.
  • Keep a running record of the cases you deal with, detailing examples as you go.
  • Consider what support you need and do not be afraid to ask. It is more important than ever for employed practitioners to take an active role in their wider professional organisations for this reason alone. Some will also take up coaching. I did.
  • Go and speak to your assessors, and look them in the eye when you ask if they are prepared to support you. Excruciating, but a matter of simple courtesy, and for those in employed practice who may have few people in their organisations who have been through the process, it is important to know they are genuinely behind you.
  • Ultimately an assessor will need to confirm that you are ‘ready for silk’ and you will need to have put in the work before them to show that this is the case.
  • Block out time to complete the application – this may be easier for those in employed practice – and treat it like the most important submission you will ever draft. Re-write your competency examples, again and again, and ask others for feedback. Once sent, do not look at your application again unless and until invited for interview.
  • Do plenty of interview practice. Most organisations operate competency-based interviewing so employed barristers can use that to your advantage. For 35-40 minutes you will need to be a silk. Conduct the very best advocacy of you that you can.