Solicitor judges

Seven questions for a district judge – interview with Chloë Phillips

Before her salaried appointment as a district judge, Chloë Phillips ​was a deputy district judge and a practising solicitor. Ahead of a new competition for district judges opening on 7 October 2021, our Solicitor Judges Division asks about her pathway to the judiciary, her practical experience as a solicitor and what motivated her to apply.

1. Describe your current judicial role and your legal career before you were appointed to the bench

District Judge Chloë Philips

I was appointed as a salaried district judge in April 2020 and sit at Birmingham Civil and Family Justice Centre, dealing primarily with civil work. Previously, I worked briefly as a university tutor, then qualified as a solicitor with Richards Butler (now Reed Smith).

I was in private practice for 24 years and specialised in professional indemnity insurance litigation, dealing with a variety of professions, all kinds of insurance coverage issues and recovery claims. I honed my skills with Ince & Co, Pinsents, RPC, BLM and then enjoyed a change of role, joining Harrison Clark Rickerbys as their risk management partner.

2. How did your personal background impact your desire to become a judge? What was your route to becoming a salaried district judge?

I became interested in becoming a lawyer as a teenager. Coming from a state school background, with parents who had left school before the age of 18, I felt truly privileged to join the solicitors profession.

One of the reasons I chose to become a solicitor was the attraction of a funded training contract and a regular income, rather than the financial uncertainty of the self-employed Bar. I never imagined that I could end up in a judicial role, and my perception was that this option was only open to barristers.

I first became aware of the possibility of obtaining a part-time judicial position from colleagues at Pinsents in the 2000s and was very attracted to the idea, so I applied for a position as a deputy district judge (DDJ).

I was appointed in 2007 to the South East circuit, allocated to the London region (and later transferred to the Midland circuit after a family move to that region).

I enjoyed the additional perspective from the range of judicial work, as well as my private practice work. As a DDJ, I experienced the responsibility of making decisions that fundamentally affect people’s lives – dealing with possession claims, finances on divorce, personal injury and consumer disputes.

How you deal with the parties – particularly litigants in person – impacts their experience of the justice system, and it is your responsibility to ensure that parties have a fair hearing. It is satisfying to be able to review an entire case and make your own decision on the applicable legal principles as to what is a fair outcome.

I decided that I wanted the future direction of my career to be in public service as a district judge.

I was keen to have a settled base (rather than location-hopping as a deputy), to deal with more specialist and complex cases, and to get involved with other aspects of the judicial role. After dealing with a wide variety of matters at courts across the London and Midland circuits, I felt I had a good idea of what a full-time district judge role would be like.

3. Are there barriers facing solicitors considering entering the judiciary?

I didn’t feel there were any particular barriers arising from the fact that I was a solicitor rather than a barrister, as there are now a number of solicitor judges. It may have helped that my professional background is in litigation rather than another area of practice.

In practical terms, for fee-paid judicial positions, solicitors will need to arrange with their firm how to fit sitting days around day-to-day work – whereas self-employed barristers are likely to have more flexibility and control. When it comes to salaried positions, though, this requirement will no longer be an issue.

4. What skills acquired in your solicitor practice did you bring to the bench? What do you think solicitors contribute to the judiciary?

Solicitors have an array of transferable skills which are essential as a district judge.

Whilst the breadth of work district judges deal with may appear daunting, I have found that the skillset from my litigation background enables me to meet such challenges. For example:

  • client care skills can translate into good courtroom control
  • learning new areas of law and taking on fresh responsibilities when changing roles in private practice means that I am used to getting up to speed quickly with new cases or unfamiliar law and procedure
  • running a busy caseload and managing junior lawyers have given me good time-management skills and an ability to stay calm under pressure – which is useful for juggling busy lists, case-related paperwork (box work) and reserved judgments

As a solicitor with a litigation background, I have a good understanding of the practical work that goes on behind the scenes to prepare a case for trial. I can also cast a realistic eye over costs budgets, proposed directions and statements of costs, for example.

5. What differences have you found between the work of a district judge and a deputy?

There are certainly more opportunities. Since becoming a salaried district judge I have been able to focus mainly on civil work, and I have specialist tickets for:

  • Business and Property Courts work
  • specialist personal injury and clinical negligence cases
  • specialist financial remedy work

This means I deal with longer and more complex cases. There is also continuity in respect of ongoing cases, which you don’t have as a deputy district judge.

There are opportunities to get involved with local issues or national projects. Near the start of lockdown, one of the first projects I was involved in after being appointed was setting up the dispute resolution hearings pilot for small claims. This was to alleviate the backlog of final hearings being adjourned due to the pandemic, by listing small claims for telephone dispute resolution hearings.

6. In October 2021, the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) launches a recruitment exercise for district judges. Why would you encourage solicitors who currently sit as fee-paid judges to consider applying for the role?

As a salaried district judge you can contribute even more to this vital part of our justice system. Aside from the intellectual challenge and the satisfaction of giving parties a fair hearing, the role is rewarding in many ways. I thoroughly enjoy the work I do and have found that the role also offers a good work-life balance.

There are plenty of opportunities beyond the courtroom to get involved in interesting aspects of the judicial role. The digital reform program is underway, and judges can play a part in shaping the future of the justice system, for example by giving feedback on pilots or being part of working groups considering aspects of reform.

I am part of a Civil Justice Council working party group looking at the future of the resolution of small claims. This is an opportunity to work with judges and court staff from different courts across the country.

7. What are your top tips for a solicitor thinking about applying to be a district judge?

The JAC website has a lot of useful information. After I was appointed as a deputy district judge, I took part in a judicial work shadowing scheme, and I attended a Law Society event prior to my application.

As a deputy district judge, I had a district judge mentor who has been very supportive. I’m now a mentor to a couple of deputy district judges myself. Below, I’ve listed three key tips for applicants.

Invest time in completing the application form

Gather a number of examples for each competency; ensure the examples in your form are as focussed as they can be on the action you took in a particular situation, and save additional examples for interview discussion.

Talk to judges

It’s important to find the right assessors and speak to them before making your application, as what they’re required to do is quite time consuming. You may want to speak to one of your appraising judges, and it’s helpful to speak to your mentor district judge about your application.

Be patient

Don’t be discouraged if you're not successful first time – you'll have learned from the process and increased your chances of being successful the next time (remember, you can ask for feedback). It's worth persevering.

Further resources

On 7 October 2021, the Judicial Appointments Commission is launching a recruitment exercise for up to 100 district judges across the country.

Sign up for updates on the vacancy

The Law Society provides support to aspiring and sitting solicitor judges. We deliver webinars and produce digital resources, share case studies of solicitors in various judicial positions and run training schemes to prepare solicitors for judicial applications.

Find out more and join our Solicitor Judges Division

See more judicial careers resources from the Law Society

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