Making an application for silk is likely to be your most important application since applying for pupillage. It is not an easy process. The form is definitely not a thing of delight! It is long and complicated. You need to be detailed and precise at the same time. You need to sell yourself in writing to a panel of assessors (perhaps one of your most difficult written advocacy assignments yet).

Most importantly, you need to present your 12 most important cases from the last four years. (Note: double check the allowed time period when making your application as it was adjusted from three to four in the recent round as a result of the pandemic.) But how do you get to a position where you can put in your best application?

My overall recommendation is to start your planning early. This could be anything from three to five years before you anticipate making an application. The reason for such early planning is that you are going to need 12 cases of substance which will show your excellence in advocacy. Start by assessing where your practice is at the current time and what you will need to do in order to have a practice which will produce the best application that you can offer.

Your clerk should play a major part in the build-up to a silk application and this article explains how you can work together.

Adjusting your practice

Firstly, make sure that both you and your clerk know what is needed for a silk application. The best way to do this is to read the form and the accompanying notes for applicants.

Next, discuss your current practice with your clerk and assess whether it is a practice that will lead to a silk application or whether you need to make some adjustments. Some aspects that you might wish to consider include the following:

  • How often are you in court?
  • How often are you in the High Court or above?
  • Are you mostly led, or are you the sole advocate?
  • Have you had the opportunity to lead a team?
  • Where/who does your work come from?
  • How many cases in the last two or three years might make the grade for the form?

You need a practice which will see you in court and on your feet. If you are used to sitting comfortably behind a leader, you will need to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Talk to your clerks about how you might achieve this and set targets between you as to how you will do so. You will need to trust and rely on your clerk here as you are looking for them to guide you towards the work that you need to achieve a practice worthy of a silk application. It is very important to examine data about your practice – work done, practice analyses, opportunity reports – so please do go through all this information with your clerk. If you don’t understand what it is telling you, then ask. Create a plan for the next six months, 12 months etc.

Planning ahead

Let your clerk build some flex into your diary to allow you to accept unled cases that may lead to a hearing, for example, responding to a letter before action. Book time in the diary to be available for urgent hearings. Ask them to consider you (applying the Fair Allocation of Work policy) for any unallocated hearings for which a junior silk has been requested. Ask if there are any existing frameworks on which you could be included (or indeed apply for) where the fees may be slightly lower but where there are a reasonable amount of court hearings to be placed.

Communicate with each other. As always, this is critical to success at any stage of your practice. Talk about work that is offered and how it fits into your plan (while observing the cab rank rule), for example, work that may be at a reduced rate, but which will bring a court appearance.

Discuss with your clerk the benefits of doing pro bono work. Not only will you be doing something worthwhile, but you may also have the opportunity to appear in court. Sign up to be one of Advocate’s panel members and receive their list of cases looking for help; become a member of one of the specialist pro bono representation schemes such as ELAAS, ELIPS, FRU, PILARS, CLiPS, Coin – the list is endless and there is almost certain to be one in your specialist area (see:

Keep a record of your hearings as they happen and include any information that will act as an aide memoire when you come to complete the form, for example, if the judge praised your skeleton or your advocacy in the judgment. Talk to your clerk once the hearing is over – let them know how it went and whether it might be considered a case of substance. Your clerk could make a mark in the diary against those that might be considered useful for the form.

Meet with your clerk regularly (perhaps as often as every three months) to discuss how your practice is progressing along the silk road. Analyse your opportunity reports to see where you are securing unallocated work/hearings or where you are missing out and, if the latter, what can be done about it.

If you are missing out on work from specific sources which would have a high chance of leading to advocacy (for example, because the solicitor will always go with counsel that they know or worked with previously) ask your clerk to arrange some sort of introduction to those firms and/or individual solicitors so that they will know you when you are put forward for unallocated work.

Practice area points

Some practice areas do not necessarily lend themselves to lots of advocacy for juniors, such as big arbitrations, commercial hearings or inquiries where you are part of a team. This is more tricky to navigate, so talk to your clerk about how you and they might increase opportunities for advocacy. For example:

  • Discuss new led opportunities and decline them if you need to balance your practice.
  • Speak to leaders on existing cases to ask whether there is a section in which you might undertake the advocacy or cross-examine a witness, for example.
  • Ask your clerk to offer you alongside more junior members of chambers (at a competitive rate) for smaller value trials.
  • Suggest that your clerk speaks to various regular clients explaining that there is a chance of getting more senior counsel at beneficial rates for hearings.

In a criminal practice:

  • Seek to prosecute or defend bigger, more complex cases and those in which, if you are being led, there is the opportunity for advocacy.
  • Ensure that your cases are coming from a number of different solicitors and firms, thus increasing the pool of references.
  • Where possible try and appear before a High Court or Resident Judge.

And finally...

In the preparation years, do a dummy run of the form once a year – not the whole form in detail but to see where your practice has reached in terms of being able to select 12 cases of substance. Share this information with your clerk so that you both know what more needs to be done.

Making an application for silk is a joint effort with your clerk, so be sure to engage their help and tap into their experience. They will more than likely have been through the same process many times before. Remember that your clerk wants you to succeed. For a clerk, there are few things that compare to the joy of seeing one of their members take silk. 

The author would like to thank Mark Rushton of Pump Tax Chambers and Martin Secrett of 9 Bedford Row for their input into this article.