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Thinking of applying to the bench? A civil litigator's journey

by Keith Etherington
9 March 2016

After over 20 years as a solicitor and civil litigator, Keith Etherington has made the leap to a full-time judicial position. He speaks about his journey to the bench, and offers in-depth practical advice on the process - and the skills and experience the JAC is looking for.

Could you give us a high-level overview of the steps you took to become a district judge?

Because I wanted to be a judge from very early on in my career, I was very conscious that I didn’t have the academic background that would usually lead to a judicial position. I had no A-levels or a law degree, and as such I knew I would have greater hurdles to clear than most other applicants to demonstrate the personal qualities the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) looks for. 

JAC assessment

The JAC will assess applicants against a number of qualities and abilities, who are required to provide evidence demonstrating their relevant knowledge and experience.

My first piece of advice to anyone thinking of beginning a judicial career would be to buy a blank notebook, and on the top of every page write down one of your personal qualities. Leave it at work, and every time you think you meet one of the JAC personal qualities, write it down - when you fill the application form in, you will probably not remember the things you have done that meet the very descript requirements!

Law Society experience

I stood as a Law Society Council member in 2003, to broaden my experience and give me a different skills set. Otherwise, I would have been a newly-qualified solicitor in a high street firm with a very small sphere of experience, and I needed to go beyond that to demonstrate I was capable of achieving the standards the JAC expected. Sitting on the Council brought me into contact with other solicitors who had achieved a judicial appointment, and they gave me hints and tips on the experience and qualities I needed to demonstrate as part of the application process.

My experience at the Law Society allowed me to give many examples in my application and at interview. For example, sitting on specialist committees gave me the ability to look at a piece of proposed legislation, work out how it might work and how it could be improved, which is a judicial exercise in itself! The key is having other kinds of example at your disposal, not just the ‘day job’ examples. It does no harm to set your application apart from others.

Giving examples

The first time I applied to be a deputy district judge, I was rather wet behind the ears, and was unsuccessful. But I was unprepared, and didn’t have enough time to think properly about the examples I gave, especially ones from outside of work. So at my next attempt, I was asked to give an example of a time when I had been told something that later turned out to be untrue, and how I had dealt with that and the conflict between the two positions. I was able to give an example of a trip to Colombia where I had spoken to some judges, and at the end of the week talking to an ambassador who had a very different point of view on the same set of facts, and how I had to balance the two set of facts given to me.

Such experiences allowed me to say in my application, essentially, that I might not have the academic record that you might otherwise look for, but I have all of this instead to offer.

Judicial shadowing

Judicial shadowing is essential - the JAC can set this up for you, although you may be able to organise something with a judge you know well. I also did judicial shadowing in Chicago and New Orleans, in federal and state courts, which I am sure did my application no harm - the exercise of being a judge is something you can buy into wherever you go.

The application process

You can register on the JAC website for the type of position you are interested in - whether that’s a tribunal or court position - and will then receive an e-mail alert when a suitable vacancy arises. You then fill in a form which is submitted electronically. You then wait to hear whether you have been invited to sit the online exam. Finally, you go on to interview.

For the deputy position, there are longer questions asking you about the decision you would make in certain circumstances. The first two or three questions demand quite lengthy answers. For the full-time round, there are 90 multiple choice questions, covering everything within a district judge’s jurisdiction, to answer in 90 minutes - it’s incredibly intense.

No one should underestimate how hard the judicial appointments process is, and shouldn’t attempt an application unless they have seen what one looks like. It really is about knowing what to expect from the process, and having confidence that you have prepared for each of the steps.

Do you think there are perceived barriers to entry to the bench for solicitors?

My own personal experience of the application process was that it was a world apart from my experience as a solicitor. Even though I have appeared in the county court as a litigator all of my professional life - I first appeared in court when I was 17 - and was familiar with judges and court processes, when I started to consider the personal qualities the JAC looks for, I did question whether I could meet them all. That’s why it’s absolutely essential that you look at the personal qualities before you do anything else, and identify any gaps in your experience that need to be filled before you apply.

What do you think the main challenges will be once you begin sitting full-time?

One of the differences between being a deputy judge and a full-timer is that when you are a deputy, there is usually a full-time judge to ask questions of; now I’ll be the one answering the questions for the deputies! Ask me again in six months!

What qualities do you think you’ll be bringing to the bench?

In many ways, there are tensions within the system with regard to staffing, buildings etc and the knock-on acknowledgment that lawyers are under more pressure now than ever before. I think that’s an interesting perspective that I can bring to the judiciary, who have often been criticised for a lack of understanding of how solicitors work and operate.

Certainly, from a socio-economic background, I tick some of the judiciary’s diversity boxes too, having worked in Oldham for 26 years. I understand that people arguing over £25 in court is not necessarily a trivial matter, because for some people that’s the only money they have in the world and it might have taken them a year to save. Down in London, that’s a round of drinks for a lot of people! I will certainly have an appreciation of what certain amounts mean to individuals.

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