A winding road to the judiciary – Nicola Chandler

Never underestimate what you can learn in a tea break. Nicola Chandler, a dual-qualified solicitor and barrister, tells us about her way to the judge’s bench, and what she learned from Pre-application Judicial Education (PAJE) programme.
Steam rising from white and green ceramic mug on white ceramic plate
Photograph: Donald Tong

A winding road has led me to judicial appointment.

I have always been interested in and encouraged to consider applying for a judicial role, but my career has not followed the path I anticipated.

I was called to the bar in 1991 and thought that would be me in private practice in London – predominately crime. No. Life got in the way.

Since qualifying, I have worked as a chancery associate at the Royal Courts of Justice; been a Crown prosecutor; headed up an advocacy unit as in-house counsel for high-value road traffic claims and coroners’ courts; become one of the first barristers to qualify as a police station representative, then a duty barrister; and ultimately qualified as a solicitor, setting up my own law firm.

Now I am a newly appointed fee-paid judge on the Wales and Western circuit.

One thing I’ve learned is to be flexible and enjoy the journey.

Finding a guide in PAJE

To me, a judicial appointment was a natural progression of my legal career.

Since being a pupil, I have had the opportunity to know many judges who have always been welcoming with their time. None have ever sought to dissuade me from the bench – it’s the reverse.

I had already applied and successfully got through to the final selection day for becoming a judicial recorder, but ultimately was not appointed.

Then the Pre-application Judicial Education (PAJE) programme was set up and I took part in the first course in 2019.

I hadn’t heard much about the programme but hoped it would help me better understand the judicial selection process, introduce me to contacts and ultimately improve my chances of appointment.

I can unswervingly say that I would not have gained my current judicial appointment if I had not attended the PAJE course and listened to what I was advised by the facilitators.

Tea breaks and no wrong turns

The programme was very helpful in demystifying the process of appointment.

It made me smile that a few of us on the course wanted to know the correct answers we should give during selection tests and days – as if there was a model answer to be scored.

We were searching for a perfect 10, thinking if we got that, we would be appointed.

The judges on the course said there were no right nor wrong answers. It’s not about perfect scores but your way of thinking.

Judgecraft is everything. It’s not in the law books. It teaches you how to do the job in a fair and equitable way, with good communication and understanding at its heart.

Fair treatment does not mean treating everyone in the same way: it means treating people equally in comparable situations.

The golden advice I received during one tea break was to apply for all roles I was qualified for, not just the recorder role. Since then, I’ve been appointed a disability qualified tribunal member of the Social Entitlement Chamber.

Never underestimate what you can learn in a tea break.

Diverse walks of life – a solicitor’s expertise

It is important the judiciary is diverse so it reflects the population it serves, understands the lives of the people it hears and upon which it deliberates.

Solicitors bring their skills of working closely with all kinds of people.

Often the closest link to the defendant or client, seeing a case from beginning to end gives solicitors a full perspective at the coalface. They also have detailed time management skills and extensive forensic skills during case preparation.

All this experience will enable you to become a better judge, understanding each stage of the case, not just the advocacy.

Advice for solicitor applicants

There is no magic formula. Don’t think you're going to fail because you are not the “right type”. No one is looking to fail you.

Remember, you are more experienced than you think and have a lot to offer. Practise your situational examples as you go along and keep a list of them.

Set yourself enough time to prepare and practise some qualifying tests so you get the idea of them.

The Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) can guide you to past papers and there are some mentors that will assist as well.

Even if you are not selected the first time, treat it as an experience that will help you with your next application. Don’t give up.

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