A Life in the Law: From Articled Clerk to Deputy High Court Judge
Alexandra Marks has had a storied career in the legal sector, being a former partner at Linklaters who now sits as a recorder and a Deputy High Court Judge, in addition to many other high-profile roles she has held.
At LegalEx, we were able to speak with Alexandra and learn more about her professional life. Below, she offers advice to solicitors who may be interested in applying for the judiciary and shares some insights into her ongoing social justice work.
Good morning everyone, thanks for coming. My name is Alexandra Marks. I am going to talk to you about my route to the judiciary, and if there are solicitors here, I really want to encourage you to apply; I am going to talk a bit about that. I also want to talk a little bit about my current job, which is chief adjudicator for the Business Banking Resolution Service.
As you say, you began your career as a solicitor. You trained at what is now Mayer Brown before going on to become partner at Linklaters, and then moving on to become a judge after 13 years. Am I right in believing that you wanted to become a solicitor and to work in law from your childhood from age eight?
That is right, I did. I was one of those people who wanted to be a lawyer from a very young age. I did not actually want to be a solicitor, sorry; I wanted to be a barrister. I wanted to have a flowing gown and do justice — those of you who are old enough might remember a TV show called Justice with Margaret Lockwood, who was upholding the rights of the wronged and that sort of thing.
I had a very, very conventional career. I studied law and joined what is now Mayer Brown as you say. I was not at all convinced, actually, that being a solicitor was for me, and I was thinking about changing career, but instead decided to look at other firms. So, when I was six months qualified I moved to Linklaters, which was a very scary experience to begin with. The culture was very much sink or swim, though it is different now. And I had a very enjoyable, interesting, stimulating and sometimes very scary experience there.
I became a partner, which was again very rewarding and interesting. But I always had a real interest in social justice and civil liberties. I pursued those interests outside my day job, and indeed when I applied for my role at Linklaters I was already on the council of Amnesty International. In my interview I explained that that sort of thing was why I became a lawyer.
I was very fortunate in that I was able to balance these commitments and have a very rounded experience.
And it was your role at Amnesty International which eventually led you to become a recorder and a deputy judge?
Yes, it was. While I was a solicitor, the director of Amnesty asked me at some point whether I had thought about becoming a judge and I told her no – I did not know that solicitors could. So I filed the thought away and a few years later, I began to wonder whether that might be something that I could explore.
I was one of those people who wanted to be a lawyer from a very young age.
I had always been very interested in miscarriages of justice. I spent my teenage years in Guildford, which was a place of some significance in that time because the Guildford Four, who had been accused of the pub bombings there, were notoriously victims of unsafe convictions. I found that whole issue fascinating, and therefore thought, “Maybe I could do something directly in that area,” though I had never had anything to do with criminal law.
I became a recorder in the Crown Court and a part-time circuit judge — that was a bit of a baptism of fire, I would say. Again, quite a scary and stretching experience, and very rewarding. As the judge, you can do what you think is the right thing. Of course, there is a good deal for jurors to take on board before they can find defendants guilty or not guilty, and as the judge I certainly always make sure that my summations are totally neutral. All of that I found very gratifying, in a way.
It is an awesome responsibility. As you mentioned in an earlier talk, you often see, particularly in some civil cases, a sort of David versus Goliath struggle. You mentioned that it is very gratifying to assess that balance and be able to deliver justice.
Indeed. All of my roles can be said to involve a sort of David and Goliath dynamic. A criminal trial obviously involves the defendant going against the state, and the other judicial roles that I have taken on more recently, including in the High Court, include an element of this. Some of the work may sound incredibly dreary, but many of you can nonetheless appreciate that the judicial review is actually extremely interesting anywhere, because public authorities – including government parties, ministers, etc – are held to account by individuals who challenge the way they have made their decisions.
Then there is, as you say, the awesome responsibility of dealing with someone who is due to be deported as an illegal immigrant, or someone who has been convicted of a criminal act and is being sent back to their country of origin nearly decades after they have arrived in the country, against the home secretary. Or indeed, the mother of a disabled child seeking to get formal education for their child, or homeless individuals desperate to find accommodation. Again, trying to do the right thing within the neutral borders of the law, and of course you have to make very difficult decisions – particularly if you feel very sympathetic to the applicant, but unfortunately the law does not enable you to do what they are asking you to do.
All of my roles can be said to involve a sort of David and Goliath dynamic.
Yes, being able to do the right thing, hearing from people who are there in front of you, is something that I never, frankly, had experienced in my previous roles. It enhanced my practice, because it gives you a different skillset.
Could you tell us some more about the skills you developed through your work in the High Court?
Although it is true to say that senior managers at my firm could not really see the relevance of my criminal law work in my day-to-day practice – because I am actually a property and finance lawyer by background – it did have relevance in other respects. One was being able to hold your own in a very difficult situation. Another was being able to speak in complete sentences because every word you say is transcribed, and it is quite embarrassing to see transcribed half-sentences. There were other things too: being able to listen, but not necessarily fill in the silence.
And aside from that, I was totally surprised by the fact that the property and finance people actually found what I did at the Court really fascinating. It meant that there was something to discuss that was of interest to them. Unexpectedly, my children – who were then primary school age – actually, for the first time ever, understood and were interested in what I did during the day. Criminal trials in particular are everyday stories of burglaries, robberies, assaults, and the human cost and experience of those, which is something that everyone can relate to.
So, in your current position, you are trying to raise awareness that this is in fact a valid career path for solicitors to branch out into. How could more solicitors be encouraged to explore this career path?
As I said, I did not even realise that solicitors could apply. I think it is important to be inspiring people in this community to apply, even if, like me, you are not a litigator and not an advocate. It is also true that whilst becoming a judge is a competitive process, it now works on an open application basis. It is a competency-based process, so it is not your experience that counts, but what competencies you have and can demonstrate. That is why I would encourage people who do not have direct experience to apply regardless. However, you do need to be able to show how you deal with difficult legal problems, communicate well, manage work efficiently and work well with others. These are all things, of course, that solicitors have to do every day as part of their jobs.
I think it is important to be inspiring people in this community to apply, even if, like me, you are not a litigator and not an advocate.
I am pleased to say that there are now far more solicitors applying for judicial roles – everything from deputy district judge (which means part-time county court judge) to tribunal judge to Deputy High Court Judge. I think tribunals are an excellent place for solicitors to sit, as you will be working with colleagues who have different viewpoints and different expertise. Also, the sitting pattern is relatively easy to accommodate with your day job, as it is usually at a time of your choosing. You can accept or decline an invitation to sit; I had one this morning asking if I would be available on 16 January, so you have quite a lot of time to say no. It is also much less formal. A court is obviously quite a formal environment and an intimidating one.
What other advice, then, would you give to a solicitor who is considering pursuing a judicial role?
Crucial, I think, is to prepare. There are quite of solicitor applicants who do not really understand what the role that they are applying for is. They do not prepare good examples to show that they know how to do the various things that I have just described. So it is not enough just to say “I have been a senior partner at such and such a firm for donkey’s years, I could do this in my sleep”. You have to give real-life examples of what you did in a particular situation to demonstrate that you can do it.
We also put in a test. Literally, there is a role-play in the selection process which is pretty daunting. You play the character of the judge and there are actors playing two characters apart from you. Of course you are given a scenario where things go wrong, and you are invited to do and say what you think would be right in the circumstances.
The process has a lot of support online, and I do say to anyone who is seriously thinking of it: do prepare, do talk to people about it. The Law Society has an excellent scheme of solicitor judges who are prepared to support you. So there are a lot of people who can help give you a better shot.
Just in closing, perhaps you could tell us a little bit about your new role as chief adjudicator of the Business Banking Resolution Service.
The BBRS is, again, very much the David and Goliath dynamic, because it deals with small businesses who are now going up against their bank. It should not take much to appreciate that they are not going to be able to sue their bank very easily, even if they have the money. Some of the cases that we are looking at rise from the financial crisis of 12 years ago, where many businesses feel that they were forced into insolvency by banks calling in their overdrafts or loans in situations where trading was problematic and finance was difficult to come by.
What we are to do, then, is try to resolve these disputes based on what would be fair and reasonable for the circumstances. So we are totally independent, we are neutral; we are an ombudsman service. I am the chief adjudicator, which means that I am responsible for the way we work out what counts as fair and reasonable.
Could you give us a brief overview of what the BBRS does?
It is a free service for any small business that has an outstanding complaint against their bank but is too large for the Financial Ombudsman Service and has not already taken their complaint to court or another redress scheme. They have to have taken that complaint to their bank first and been dissatisfied. When they bring it to us, we provide expert support, helping them to articulate what their complaint is, organising their documentation, and generally supporting them all the way through the process.
We only launched in February, so we are still a very new service, but we are very optimistic that we can provide a much-needed service to businesses.