On the face of it, applying for ‘silk’ is not difficult. So why do so many members of the profession find the process so daunting? If you are seriously thinking of applying, you are probably also leading a very busy and successful professional practice. Time is always at a premium – and to do yourself justice in your application, you must be prepared to set aside sufficient time to put in the necessary effort. If you are familiar with the King’s Counsel Appointments (KCA) website – and you should be already, if you are applying this year – you will know that comprehensive ‘Guidance for Applicants’ is provided. And apart from the formal stuff, you will have seen that demonstrating the level of excellence required for appointment as a KC is all about ‘cases’, ‘competencies’, and ‘assessors’ (judicial, practitioner and client).

Demonstrating your excellence

‘Excellence’ is the thread which runs right through the whole appointment process. And evidence of that excellence is what you have to demonstrate. An ‘excellent advocate’ is 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;
  • demonstrates that understanding through written and oral advocacy and is able to be persuasive on matters of fact and law;
  • conducts themselves in relation to their clients, their opponents and the court in an exemplary fashion;
  • demonstrates an excellent understanding of diversity and commitment to improving diversity within the legal profession.

In addition to the ‘Guidance’ mentioned above, the KCA also publishes a report after each competition has been completed. Nominally addressed to the Lord Chancellor, the report contains information of interest and use to future candidates, covering topics including the ‘List of cases’ you have to produce; assessors; grading of applications; and sufficiency of evidence to enable the selection panel to decide who should be interviewed; as well as the preparation, form and content of interviews.

Demonstration of the required competencies (‘Understanding and using the law’; ‘Written and oral advocacy’; ‘Working with others’; ‘Diversity’; and ‘Integrity’) necessitates producing a list of your most important, recent cases, normally 12, showing the right degree of substance, complexity, difficulty or sensitivity. As you are likely to be looking back over the past three (possibly four) years, you will either need phenomenal recall – or hopefully you made notes after each case ended, with a view to a possible future silk application. What were the most important points? A novel point of law perhaps? A challenging client? Did you manage and communicate effectively with your team? Did you conduct a particularly strong cross-examination? Thinking about matters you can directly relate to one or other of the competencies in the ‘competency framework’, in the immediate aftermath of a suitable case, will be helpful if you are looking beyond the present competition to a future application.

You need to think strategically. In looking at your ‘long list’ of possible cases to support your application, analyse which of the competencies are demonstrated in each. Think also about your nominated assessors and how they relate to different case examples, so that you have a good range. It is always worth talking to your proposed nominated assessors in person. While you should not lobby assessors – indeed, the Selection Panel regards it as improper for applicants to seek to influence assessors’ views, before submitting an application, you may wish to seek advice on whether you are ready to apply for silk. Those best able to provide you with such advice are likely to be potential assessors – so you will want to feel confident that they are likely to be whole-hearted supporters.

Your clerk in chambers can provide valuable support by pointing you in the direction of cases which may enhance your application before the selection panel. Avoid lesser work which will not contribute to a strong silk application. Try to run cases which will showcase your abilities, in line with the excellence which the panel is seeking. All cases you submit must be at the right level. Do not be tempted to ‘make up the number’ with inferior cases. Seek advice from professional colleagues to help you capitalise on your strengths as an advocate and to eliminate weaknesses.

Do’s and don’ts

In terms of ‘do’s and don’ts’ – what should you be mindful of? What are the traps to avoid? Which competencies do barristers find the most troublesome? Two common mistakes when completing silk applications are:

1. making general comments rather than making use of specific examples; and

2. offering your own opinion about what you do, rather than letting your examples speak for themselves.

Relying on self-opinion and making generalisations do not go down well. Everything has to be backed up with hard evidence so that competency compliance and excellence is clearly demonstrated. The application form has limited space, so make sure that every word counts. Avoid statements like: ‘When I start a cross-examination, I try to…’ and ‘I am good at writing skeleton arguments that…’ or ‘I am well-known as…’

Competency C: Working with others

‘Working with others’ (Competency C) is one which candidates sometimes have difficulty with. It is wide-ranging and alongside Competency ‘B’ – ‘Written and oral advocacy’, has the most (16) indicators – but the same maximum word count for supporting examples of compliance. ‘Working with others’ is further articulated as: ‘Upholds the standards of behaviour expected of advocates and acts so as to secure the confidence of the court and of fellow advocates; establishes productive working relationships with all, including professional and lay clients; the judge and other parties’ representatives and members of own team; is involved in the preparation of the case and leads the team throughout.’ Indicators relating to management and leadership seem to cause particular problems – sometimes in terms of providing adequate and appropriate examples – and differentiating between managing and leading.

Funding in some jurisdictions may be so tight that counsel does not have a team to manage. It may be necessary to take a wider view of ‘team’ to satisfy this aspect of the competency. Depending upon practice area, perhaps guardians, local authorities (eg ‘family’) or police, experts etc (‘crime’) – or even other defendants’ counsel. If you have responsibilities within chambers, they may be a valuable source of evidence of team management and/or leadership. Managing is sometimes about priorities and allocating tasks. ‘Leading’ often concerns motivating, listening to others and taking ultimate responsibility for decisions. And whilst persuading and influencing does not appear as an indicator here, it is implicit in both client and team aspects. Another reason why barristers find the ‘Working with others’ section more difficult to complete, is that it may demand far more self-reflection, analysis of your interpersonal style and how you relate to people in various roles and contexts.

The Selection Panel will reach its decision on the evidence of the degree to which excellence is demonstrated across the board. Don’t expect panel members reviewing your application to read between the lines or to make any assumptions. They go by what is on the page. So helping them to assess the strength of your application will be to your advantage.

For more silk application insight and advice, including what to expect at interview and when is the 'right' time to apply, see Counsel's 2023 Silk Supplement