“Recruitment crisis” in Northern Ireland’s courts reveals misalignment in candidate and recruiter expectations

Northern Ireland is facing a serious shortage of judges on its High Court, and a recent report on the problem sheds some light into why. The government wants to promote only top barristers to the position, eschewing the candidacies of lower-level judges. But it turns out the targeted barristers are not interested:

Among the startling findings of the report obtained by the Irish News is the blunt admission by top lawyers that it simply does not pay to apply for what in the past was regarded as a promotion, with “considerable rewards still available to barristers and solicitors through non-publicly funded work”.

“As far as solicitors are concerned, the head of the Belfast branch of an international firm asked us rhetorically why he or she would want to take a 50 per cent pay cut in order to become a High Court judge,” the authors said.

“It seems clear, certainly, that in Northern Ireland there is a cadre of high-earning lawyers who, at present, are not likely to be interested in applying to become a High Court judge because they would be significantly better off financially if they stayed in their current job.”

One QC said simply: “I just wouldn’t be interested in the job.”

This seems like a straightforward (if painful) example of the market at work. Lawyers who leave private practice for the bench give up high—sometimes astronomically high—salaries and a level of private power. In return for a lower salary, these judges-to-be receive a level of governmental power, reasonable job security, and the satisfaction of public service. But that trade-off no longer seems to be worthwhile for the top barristers.

Interesting to me was the additional explanation that top lawyers feel that their private practice affords them more work-life balance than a judicial position. Certainly many (if not most) of the high-profile U.S. attorneys that I have encountered have a work-life “balance” that slants heavily toward work: their jobs are high-earning but also stressful and unrelenting. A judicial position, while still hard work, often represents a better work-life balance than a partnership at a large firm. But if Northern Ireland’s top attorneys cannot be convinced that even that tradeoff exists, the High Court is facing a serious problem indeed.

The logical alternative for judicial recruitment is to draw from within, elevating to the High Court those lower court judges who show promise. The article suggests that there is little faith in the appointing ranks that lower court judges are up to the task. I cannot speak to that conclusion, but if that is the concern, perhaps the courts should be redoubling their efforts to recruit and train young judges with promise, in the hope of some day elevating them to higher ranks. In any case, something will have to give soon.

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