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Case study: Her Honour Judge Frances Kirkham

7 August 2019

Frances Kirkham talks about following a non-traditional route to become a judge, and advises solicitors thinking about joining the judiciary to prepare their application very carefully.

Can you describe your current judicial role and the route you took to get there?

In October 2000 I was appointed a senior circuit judge, to sit as the designated Technology and Construction Court judge in Birmingham. I deal with case management and trials of cases in that court. I also sit in the Administrative court, the Mercantile court and the Chancery Division.

I followed a non-traditional route to appointment as a judge. I read modern languages at university. For about five years after graduating I worked for the Bank of England, then the Bank of London and South America. I then decided to change to the law.

I qualified as a solicitor in 1978 and worked initially in commercial litigation and on professional indemnity disputes. After a while I began to specialise in construction law – both contentious and non-contentious. At that time, the contentious work comprised mainly arbitration, rather than court work.

In June 1994 I was appointed assistant recorder (a role which no longer exists) and, in January 1999, recorder. In these roles I sat in court on a fee-paid basis, for between 20 and 60 days a year, mainly in the county and family courts but also in the Crown Court.

None of this work was similar to the work I was doing in my role as partner in a big firm.

Why did you choose to join the judiciary?

I’d sat as an arbitrator and enjoyed the challenge of deciding disputes. I enjoyed construction law, but was increasingly finding that, for a partner, there was much emphasis on managing a team and practice development so that I had less time to concentrate on the law.

Becoming a judge enabled me to concentrate on what I’d really enjoyed about being in practice as a solicitor.

What skills did you bring to the judiciary as a solicitor?

The skills I was able to bring to the judiciary and develop include:

  • listening patiently (solicitors develop this skill early in their training)
  • communicating
  • reading and mastering quickly a large volume of documents
  • chairing and effectively managing a meeting
  • a complete lack of desire to wade in and take over the advocacy

What skills have you developed or improved as a result of being a judge?

Sitting on a fee-paid basis improved immeasurably my practice as a solicitor and I wish that I’d begun earlier. I learned not only what a court or tribunal needs to make a decision but also, at a more general level, much about cost-effective dispute resolution.

What qualities do you think are important for judges today?

  • Intellectual capacity
  • An ability to understand and deal fairly
  • Authority and communication skills
  • The ability to work efficiently

Personal qualities are also important, such as:

  • integrity and independence of mind
  • sound judgement
  • decisiveness
  • objectivity
  • the ability and willingness to learn and develop professionally

What barriers remain to solicitors considering entering the judiciary and what should be done to tackle them?

Firstly, solicitors need to see themselves as potential judges. Exercise your imagination and do not set your horizons too low.

Solicitors will often not have day-to-day experience of the jurisdiction where they’re applying. At the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) we find that some solicitor applicants have not done enough research into the post they’re applying for and so have a poor understanding of the nature and demands of the role. So take time to do some careful research.

Many firms are not supportive of their partners and staff who want to sit on a fee-paid basis or prepare for a full-time judicial post. This is a real barrier, as many would-be applicants fear career blight if they express an interest in sitting, or even in applying for, a full-time post.

Firms need to understand the great benefits to them of having their people sit as fee-paid judges or tribunal members, and the expertise this experience brings to the firm.

What are your three tips for a solicitor thinking about joining the judiciary?

Preparation, preparation, preparation – to adapt a modern cliché!

Consider the very wide range of jobs in both tribunals and courts. Find out as much as you can about the job which interests you (for example by sitting in to observe the tribunal or court and speaking to a judge who is doing the job).

Prepare your application to the JAC carefully and give it the time and attention it needs:

  • read all the information provided by the JAC
  • have proper regard to the qualities and abilities identified for the job in question
  • identify any skills you consider to be transferable
  • make sure that your self-assessment is more than just an assertion that you possess a quality or ability and is based on evidence of how you have demonstrated the skill required – ask your referees to do the same

Above all, be realistic: do not apply for jobs for which you have no real aptitude or prospect of success. But if you find the right job at the right time, go for it.