Jo Ann Boylan-Kemp is a Fee-paid Judge of the First-tier Tribunal, Social Entitlement Chamber (Social Security and Child Support). She is also a Principal Lecturer in Law at Nottingham Law School.
“Legal academics have a different skill set to that of a practising lawyer and these skills can be very beneficial when undertaking a judicial role. We look at the law in a lot of detail – we really study it – and it is this skill, this in-depth consideration of the finites, which is very transferable and valuable when sitting as a judge.
“Originally I did the Bar Vocational Course but did not undertake pupillage, choosing instead to go into legal academia upon qualification; at that time the work-life balance of being a university lecturer with a young family was an appealing career choice. When starting my legal career my ultimate goal had been to become a judge, but as I had not practised as a barrister I thought I wouldn’t be eligible for appointment and that this option had long passed me by – I was therefore very pleasantly surprised to discover that this career progression was still a possibility for me.
“In fact, had I followed the more traditional legal career route I think it would actually have taken me longer to achieve this goal. Before applying I undertook some tribunal work shadowing with one of my colleagues at the Law School, who already held a fee-paid judicial office. I found this a very interesting and informative experience as it helped me to understand the requirements and responsibilities of the role, while also allowing me to appreciate the vulnerability of those who come to the tribunal and how the work of the tribunal directly impacts upon their lives. I also took part in the formal Judicial Work Shadowing Scheme, shadowing a District Judge in the Magistrates’ Court, and used the information provided on the JAC website to further inform me; all these experiences were valuable and added to my knowledge and understanding.
“I was appointed on my second attempt – having applied in a previous competition round, where I had got through to the role play/interview stage. This first attempt at the appointment process was a fantastic experience and made the second time around much easier – I knew what to expect and could prepare well for it. I found the written test the most challenging part of the selection process due to the fact it is so time pressured, but so are the situations you deal with in the tribunal on a day-to-day basis and so it helps to ensure you have the ability to cope in such an environment.
“In terms of coming up with examples for self-assessment and interview, you need to recognise first that as a lecturer you don’t just simply teach, and then secondly, come up with concrete examples that demonstrate how you, personally, meet the criteria. Academics have many other responsibilities, such as looking after students’ pastoral needs and dealing with quite vulnerable people, and these responsibilities will have helped you to develop the skills that you will need to use in a tribunal hearing. For example, an element of my academic role is to chair an Academic Irregularities Panel, which deals with allegations of cheating. This role has helped me to learn how to listen to both sides of the argument, how to ask probing but relevant questions that enable me to make an appropriate decision, and how to deal with what can be a highly emotive hearing and highly emotional individuals. Outside of my direct work experience I also used to be a trustee for a women’s refuge and have sat on a committee for woodland management. The skills you learn from these external roles are all very transferable and should not be forgotten.
“Since my appointment I have, on average, been sitting as a judge a couple of times a month. I am really enjoying it as it is very different to what I do at the university (I predominately teach crime, evidence and advocacy). The jurisdiction I have been appointed to deals with a variety of welfare benefits, but you are trained incrementally on the different areas of law to stop you becoming overwhelmed and to help you settle in to the role. Through the university we are allowed a number of days per year for continuing professional development and sitting as a judge is counted as this. Legal academia allows a certain level of flexibility in working patterns and so I don’t need to be in the office from 9-5 five days a week – all in all the roles complement each other very well.
“I would encourage other academics to apply. In comparison to the more traditional lawyers you have something different, but equally as valuable, to offer to the tribunal and the people who use it.”