Lesley Smith is a full time Judge of the Upper Tribunal, Immigration and Asylum Chamber. She was previously a fee-paid Lawyer Chairman of the Residential Property Tribunal, and a senior Government lawyer with the Treasury Solicitor's Department. Lesley is a former ILEX Fellow.

Judicial appointment. What happened next?

Lesley updates us on how she's getting on in her new role in the Upper Tribunal

“My experience of the JAC recruitment process was very positive. The judicial competition process is also becoming increasingly diverse. The majority of Upper Tribunal Judges appointed with me are women and some work part-time or with flexible arrangements.

“I come from what is an unusual background for the salaried judiciary but there are more and more people coming from different backgrounds. I am often approached by others in the Government Legal Service to discuss or give talks about being a judge which shows the increased interest in this route whether on a part time or full time basis.  

“I started my current job in July 2015. It is a steep learning curve, particularly not having sat in the First-tier of my current Tribunal; although the area of law is familiar to me, the processes in the First-tier Chamber were not. I have enjoyed the challenge and was surprised how easily I fitted in. Some people say that judicial roles are lonely. I have not found that to be the case at all. All the other judges and tribunal staff are very friendly and helpful. The work is mentally demanding but that is what I wanted. All in all, I am really pleased that I went down this route and look forward to my future judicial career”.

We first spoke to her about her career path and her tips for someone wanting to become a judge.

"I did not do a law degree at university – I studied French – and was not sure what I wanted to do afterwards. I started off in banking and hated it.  

"My whole family were civil servants and I ended up going down that route. I put the Treasury Solicitors Department (TSol) as an option on my application form because I had learnt some law as part of my banking exams and enjoyed it. It was the time of the Crown Proceedings Act, which allowed people to sue for personal injury, and TSol were looking for people. I knew very little about the law, courts, or claims and arrived to find I had 60 cases to handle. That was 27 years ago.

"The main reasons why I started to train as a legal executive, rather than a solicitor, were that I was not sure where I wanted my career to go at that stage and I was also married and had a mortgage, so going back to college full-time did not really appeal.

"I did it the long way – everything by correspondence and part time – and it took me about eight years. You could not join the Government Legal Service (GLS) as a legal executive. I also found out that back then, if legal executives decided to go on to become a solicitor, they did not need to do a training contract. So I made sure I did the right legal executive exams to get the exemptions for the Legal Practice Course (LPC), and then studied for the LPC at Nottingham part-time over 2 years.

"I eventually became a Deputy Director in TSol – a management position – and as much as I enjoyed it (and continue to do so), it is not what I became a lawyer to do. My friends said I was a frustrated barrister and being a litigator, I always loved being in Court. So I began to look for other options.

"Many of my lawyer friends had decided to become judges. Also, through doing a Masters in International Public Law, I realised how important the tribunals had become. The GLS is very good at developing people – there are several lawyers who sit as part-time judges – and my boss started to ask me after a while 'are you ever going to do this?'

"I had focussed on immigration law for 10 years, so becoming an immigration judge was the obvious thought – but I couldn't because of the conflict of interest with my day job. I had also done some housing law for TSol in the past, and therefore my route into the judiciary was through becoming a fee-paid Lawyer Chairman of the Residential Property Tribunal (now the First-tier Tribunal, Property Chamber).

"There is a good mentoring scheme in the tribunal where you sit a few times as a 'winger' on the tribunal panel, alongside another judge. I now work for the tribunal one to two days per month.

"I always knew I would enjoy being a judge and would like to be a salaried judge one day. I am a born organiser and managing a court room is not that different to managing a team of lawyers. Some lawyers who have become judges struggle with having to deal with people as they are used to working on their own – but I have had a lot of interaction with people my whole career. I have also done a lot of drafting, so I do not find it difficult to produce the written decisions.

"If you are going to become a judge you need to love the law and be decisive. I was appointed the first time I applied and my main advice to those who are interested in putting themselves forward, is to get to know the judicial roles, courts and tribunals you are interested in. When I applied, I was amazed at how few people had done this – it is common sense that you need to know about what you are applying for. I had done some judicial shadowing in the tribunal and was allocated to the person who is now my mentor (and also wrote my reference when I applied for the tribunal). I also prepared for my application by going to a JAC outreach event and looking at the qualifying test past papers on the website."