Exploring Lady Hale’s X factor

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By Katie King on

Supreme Court president’s disarming charisma has earned her fans more loyal than One Direction’s

Lady Hale is the Beyoncé of the legal profession. This week’s An Exclusive Evening With Baroness Hale event at the Supreme Court helped us to understand why this is.

The Westminster building’s outside-Courtroom 1 waiting/networking area was bursting at the seams from around 5:30pm, over 200 people travelling from far and wide (well, I met some women from Manchester) to hear from the president of the Supreme Court herself. Event organisers LexisNexis said the room was as busy as a One Direction concert.

About 45 minutes later came a big scramble when attendees were asked to move from the networking space to Courtroom 1 to watch a short film starring Hale for the First 100 Years project. The doors flinging open just minutes after the project’s founder, Dana Denis-Smith, warned there wouldn’t be enough space for everyone and that an overflow court had been made available led to a giant rush for the best seats. One attendee said he hurt his arm in the tussle; another exclaimed: “It’s like being on the Tube!”

Mild discomfort is a small price to pay for a few hours in the presence of the woman herself, it seems. Would people flock in this way to see the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Ian Burnett, who is both more senior and better paid?

Of course they wouldn’t — no one cares about any other judge like they do about Hale. Her appeal on social media is unparalleled: Legal Cheek content racks up thousands of likes and shares if it has ‘Lady Hale’ in the headline, while her face has even cropped up in the weird and wonderful world of meme culture.


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In our eyes, Hale is rivalled in judicial clickability only by the now deceased Lord Denning (though we imagine Ruth Ginsburg has a similar effect in the United States). Seeing the physical crowds around her at this week’s LexisNexis/First 100 Years event affirmed Hale’s celebrity status transcends the online world. Maybe it was just a matter of time: she has been being compared to arguably the most famous person in the entire world for about two years now.

Hale is exceptional, but why? Paradoxically, the attribute attendees seemed to fawn over most this week was Hale’s normality rather than her exceptionalism (which is actually pretty exceptional in a world of privately educated, ‘out of touch’ judges).

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This certainly came through in the premiere screening of her film, The life and legal career of Baroness Hale, which traced Hale’s early years growing up in a small village in North Yorkshire. A self-confessed “country girl”, her life was turned upside down when her father died suddenly when she was just 13. Her mother, now a single-parent to three children, dusted off her teaching qualification and became a headmistress. “What a wonderful role model she was,” Hale reflected.

A screenshot from ‘The life and legal career of Baroness Hale’ – a photo of Lady Hale and former colleague Lord Neuberger on the day of their last judgment at the House of Lords

Hale’s surprisingly normal upbringing makes you feel as though you shouldn’t be intimidated by her. She certainly doesn’t look intimidating: standing no more than five-foot tall Hale dresses appropriately but not over-corporately, almost always donning a statement brooch which gives her a quirkiness you can’t help but warm to. Oh, a Legal Cheek exclusive: Hale revealed this week it’s her husband who is responsible for her esteemed brooch collection.

The same is true of her personality. Hale’s roots in social welfare law (both teaching and practising family law and mental health law) make her an anomaly on a bench jam-packed with former big-money commercial barristers. Her career in university teaching and law reform alongside practice, plus the nostalgia she adopts when talking about such, gives you the impression she genuinely cares about the law working best for everyone. Why else would she reject a magic circle training contract offer?

Lady Hale networking, white wine in hand, before the film screening

Strangely, though, there’s a risk Hale’s middle finger to the judiciary’s high-status norms adds a layer of mystery that actually makes her more intimidating. Like the law firm partner who comes to a strictly corporate networking event in Converse, you can’t help asking: How the hell did she get here? Or: How truly exceptional must you be to have got here?

Any feeling of intimidation floats away during a post-film Q&A session with BBC Radio 4/Strictly Come Dancing star Reverend Richard Coles (random I know). Here, she said she thinks one of her unique qualities is that she’s very smiley, whereas male judges do tend to be more straight-faced. She tries to be as warm and encouraging to barristers as she can be. “If you terrify them, you don’t get the best out of them,” she said.

Hale’s warmth and encouragement isn’t limited to the barristers on the cases she sits on. Perhaps the cherry on top of the ‘I love Hale’ cake is her helping-hand attitude to judicial diversity.

Now 72 and at the peak of her judicial career, Hale’s focus on her cases is accompanied by a desire to encourage the women coming up behind her. “There is a special place in hell for women who pull up drawbridge”, she famously noted, this week candidly revealing that being the sole female Law Lord and Supreme Court justice for 13 years was a “burden”. She hopes it won’t be another 13 years before herself and Lady Black are joined by a third female. “I certainly can’t promise anything,” she says, “we have three vacancies [coming up], it would be great if one could be filled with a woman, or even two or three.”

‘Nice’ and ‘normal’ boxes ticked, what takes Hale over the ‘judicial icon’ line is perhaps her sense of fun. Having been an academic at the University of Manchester for much of her career and only recently having stepped down from her position as chancellor of the University of Bristol, Hale has always been close to the students, and happily obliged to the stream of selfie-taking that preceded the video screening. Then, laughter rang out in Courtroom 1 during the showing of her film when she reflected on her time at Cambridge. She said:

“There were three women’s colleges and 21 men’s colleges. So, I think the women almost all felt a deep sense of privilege that we were in this wonderful place getting this amazing education, whereas some of the men undoubtedly felt that it was their right to be there. They were the ones you wanted to punch in the face.”

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