Tim Smith has been appointed as a Fee-paid Judge of the First-tier Tribunal, Social Entitlement Chamber. He is a partner at Berwin Leighton Paisner LLP.

“I am a planning lawyer and in my practice I do a lot of contentious work.  So I am used to second guessing what a Judge or a Planning Inspector will do, and I wanted to go beyond this to be the resolver of disputes. A barrister friend asked whether I had considered a part-time judicial appointment.    

“Whilst I thought that a judicial appointment may be of marginal benefit to my practice I was honest with my firm and said that the main reason I wanted to do it was because I was genuinely interested in it. My firm has been very supportive throughout. There are three other lawyers here who are part-time judges and the firm has also signed up to the Law Society's initiative to support judicial appointments. Prior to making my first application I asked my Managing Partner for his consent to an appointment, as required by our partnership deed. He asked about my interest and about what an appointment would entail, but he had no concerns about my taking it on. Questions about compensating the firm for a loss of some fee-earning time did not arise. 

“My advice is to be honest with your firm about your motivations for being a judge.  Showing that a relatively modest time commitment makes an aspiring solicitor more fulfilled professionally can be a compelling reason for allowing it. Solicitors given the dispensation to apply are more likely to be fulfilled in their jobs for longer and are more likely to want to repay their firms with their long-term loyalty.

“For potential applicants, investing time in learning about a judicial career is vital.  There are plenty of resources available to help with this. Before my first application I sat with a District Judge through the judiciary's formal judicial work shadowing scheme. This showed me the range of experience one would need for that role and allowed me to meet a number of solicitors who had made the transition to the bench. I attended a number of JAC and Law Society outreach events and picked up some useful tips on completing my application form.  I also volunteered to take part in one of the JAC's dry-runs of an interview for a selection exercise I was not applying for, and this was very valuable because it gave me instant feedback on my interview performance. The interview panel raised some points I would not have guessed at, which made me better attuned to what the interviewers would be looking for when I was interviewed for real.

“The most useful person in helping me prepare for applying for judicial office was a solicitor friend of a work colleague who held a number of judicial appointments. He had been through the JAC processes and gave me some excellent practical advice. Before I undertook my role play exercise and interview he spent one evening firing questions at me and so I was very well prepared for the real thing!

“I also used examples from my non-fee-earning activities on my application form and at interview.  As a member of the Law Society's Planning and Environmental Law Committee I have been able to consider from a position of neutrality how the law should develop rather than always looking from the perspective of a particular client.  My role as a member of the Law Society/Bar Council Joint Tribunal was my first experience of dealing with both sides of an argument, having to weigh up the evidence and come to a decision on disputes about the payment of counsels' fees.  

“I would strongly advise applicants to consider how competitive the most popular appointments are likely to be, and to consider whether their experience equips them well to succeed against strong competition. I made three unsuccessful Recorder applications before deciding I needed to broaden my horizons. I had a bit of experience of social security applications and appeals through volunteering at the Legal Advice Centre supported by my firm in Shadwell. This gave me some sense of the workings of my tribunal and I was successful in my first attempt at securing an appointment there.

“Although some knowledge of your jurisdiction is valuable it is by no means a pre-requisite that you be an expert in it. The training for the Tribunal was absolutely fantastic. The written guides on the legislation were very accessible. On the residential training course there was as much emphasis on procedural points and practical tips as there was on the black-letter law. At the end of it I felt well-equipped to sit as a judge in the tribunal.

“Sitting in the tribunal you are also eased in gently. I initially had a shared sitting, involving a second judge as well as a medical member. I still felt like I was running hearings but I had a safety net and assistance on issues such as how our decisions should be phrased. There can be up to eight or nine oral hearings in a day plus paper cases you need to deal with. The tribunal has a very inquisitorial approach – it is the responsibility of the judge to ensure there is enough evidence to decide each case, but this has to be balanced with the need to deal with cases as efficiently as possible. These responsibilities play well to a solicitor's strengths. I would say that sitting has improved my time management skills and generally sharpened my basic legal skills.

“My top tip is to look at all the many roles out there rather than sweat over multiple applications for the most competitive roles. There are many very worthwhile tribunal appointments that will complement your skills and give you a good sense of personal fulfilment.”