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Cherie Booth QC: Lord Denning once told me ‘the bar really isn’t the place for women’

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The comment came during her call ceremony

📷: Cherie Booth QC (First 100 Years)

Never one to shy away from controversy, Lord Denning once told a fresh-faced Cherie Booth QC that the bar really wasn’t the place for a woman.

Speaking in an interview with the First 100 Years project (embedded below), a celebratory campaign to mark the year when women could first practise law, Booth explains how she excelled academically and was given the honour of sitting with the benchers (senior members of an Inn) during her call ceremony at Lincoln’s Inn.

Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a happy day took an unexpected turn when Lord Denning, himself a Lincoln’s Inn bencher, approached Booth with a spot of ‘careers advice’. Booth, who was called to the bar in 1976, said:

“I can remember call because I was a top student. I was invited to make a speech and sit with the benchers, and Lord Denning being there and saying to me, ‘well you know really the bar really isn’t the place for women’ — so it wasn’t exactly the most encouraging way to start.”

Fortunately, the LSE law grad rightly ignored the controversial judge’s comment and went on to forge a successful career at the bar.

The 2019 Chambers Most List

Having funded herself through an unpaid pupillage by lecturing at the Central London Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster), Booth went on to cover a broad range of practice areas, including personal injury, crime and family. She took silk in 1995 and was one of the founding members of Matrix Chambers, one of the most renowned sets at the bar. Booth, who is married to former British prime minister Tony Blair, has since gone on to establish Omnia Strategy, a law firm specialising in dispute resolution.

This, however, isn’t the first time Denning has dished out a tactless career pointer. As reported by Legal Cheek, the outspoken judge once told Lord Sumption, who stepped down from the Supreme Court bench late last year, that he was making a “big mistake” pursuing a career at the bar and that that he should “stick to history”.

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101 Comments

Amused

Comment made from one has-been to another (notwithstanding one was once a mighty legal brain and I don’t mean Islington Tony’s missus)

(11)(10)

Anonymous

At the time, they both had glittering careers in front of them. Not as glittering as yours though, I’m sure.

(16)(2)

Scounsel of counsel

I’d like to see how she’d handle the rough and tumble of a Birkenhead stage three

(13)(1)

Anonymous

I thought the path for such was eased by local counsel very helpfully re-ordering the lists so as to present the learned judge with cases in ascending order of quantum.

(6)(1)

Anonymous

Cough cough…Seed…cough

Anonymous

ahem…pick a…ahem.

Anonymous

…vance?

Anonymous

S and P are both greedy.
How they get away with it I don’t know.
Birkenhead is a stitch up

Anonymous

Yes and it was all a big charlatans circus with local counsel getting dodgy list officers to list way too many in one list where figures were plucked out the air, so they could bill £250-£500×10 every single day

Ruined it for the rest of the junior PI bar – this borderline fraud was a major reason for reforms to cfa and fixed costs regime

Greedy northerners

Anonymous

Don’t single out all northerners. I was doing un-greedy PI in Manchester, and believe me, no member of the Manchester PI Bar that I ever spoke to had anything other than harsh words for our friends on Merseyside.

Did you know that Birkenhead county court was the only county court Rupert Jackson visited in his fact-finding? Whether he knew that Birkenhead was a jurisdiction all of its own, or whether he thought that what happened there happened elsewhere too is unclear.

Goodnight Merseyside

Whiplash tariffs are coming.

Gonna be biblical.

Anonymous

About time someone applied the brakes on the PI gravy train.

Anonymous

Provincial stage 3s are a black hole. Once you go down that hole, there is no coming back.

The fact that she made silk is evidence she never went near them.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Silk in Lincoln’s Inn chancery commercial set recently said Chambers was no place for gay people.

(2)(0)

Mickey T

Lord Denning once told me the world is gonna roll me

(42)(0)

Mickey Mouse

Pluto! Get back in your kennel!

Bad dog!

(0)(0)

Lord Harley

Lord Thompson told me to wear my ribbons with pride

(17)(0)

Charlotte Proudperson

I was told to wear my nappy with pride!

(6)(1)

Anonymous

Where does the Proudman/nappy thing come from?

Is it an assertion that she is immature or is it a pop at a disability that she has?

If the former, fair enough (matter of opinion, after all), if the latter it is disablist.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

Immaturity reference.

(1)(0)

Starmer

Can people stop blaming Denning for his views? I’m sure other people born in the 19th century certainly had similar/if not more radical views than he did.

(33)(10)

Anonymous

There were plenty of judges who managed not to say that it would be better for innocent men to be convicted of murder than for the police to be seen to have lies. No context excuses that one.

(21)(0)

Anonymous

*lied

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Shame no-one told her husband that Iraq really isn’t the place for the British army.

(123)(6)

Anonymous

*mic drop*

(0)(4)

Anonymous

Absolutely true.

She is a disgrace. The Blair mafia is a carbuncle.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Strange timing to make an allegation about a negative event from 43 years ago instead of celebrating the positive.

(47)(8)

Anonymous

Lot of that going around at the moment…

(11)(4)

Anonymous

Timing obviously explained by the fact that she is being asked to reflect on how things have changed for women practicing law. The point is that this kind of view was once so commonplace that it would be expressed with impunity by people like Denning.

(22)(8)

Anonymous

The interview was in connection with what is, as the article says, a celebratory event though. Just seems strange to reference an allegation from 43 years ago rather than something more current and positive.

(7)(10)

Anonymous

It doesn’t seem at all strange to me. Acknowledging the barriers that women have faced in law underscores that their success has been hard-won – it would be strange to have a retrospective without such an acknowledgment imo. We are also talking about a 20 second segment of a 12 minute interview – it’s not like this is the only thing she has recalled from her career.

(16)(4)

Anonymous

But this part of the interview was the part which has been picked up on. I do find it strange because it wasn’t a retrospective but a celebratory event, so could have focussed more on the positive rather than the negative. Not saying she never have said it, just don’t think this was the place.

Anonymous

What would be the point of celebrating 100 years of something which presented no challenge.

The relevance of women’s historical struggle at the bar in this context is obvious.

Anonymous

Many anniversaries of events which presented no challenge are celebrated.

I see no obvious relevance here to womens’ struggles at the bar, hence why I find the negative reference strange when there are so many positive achievements by women to talk about instead.

Anonymous

“I see no obvious relevance here to womens’ struggles at the bar”. Haha, come off it. Why aren’t we celebrating 2,000 years of men in law then? Obviously the reason we are celebrating women in law is that their involvement in the profession was a recent and gradual development.

Anonymous

As it was for the majority of people.

But it is, as you say, a celebration of women in law – that’s why I don’t see any obvious relevance of womens’ struggles at the bar and find it strange that the comment focussed on the negative rather than the positive.

Anonymous

“Booth explains how she excelled academically….”. Going to the LSE is not excelling academically. If she had gone to Oxbridge, she could have made that claim. The fact is that she is second rate, and that also explains why she practised in crime, personally injury and family.

(17)(63)

Anonymous

Because you’re not a real lawyer unless you’re a braying Tarquin who keeps banging on about Oxford as though it were not a dump, and who now spends his time dealing only with boardroom sociopaths.

I’d take one of her over five of you.

(36)(2)

Anonymous

FFS it’s well documented that she got a high first at LSE and was top of the year in the bar exams. She beasted it.

(27)(1)

Anonymous

I remember that the year I applied to uni the national rankings were:

1. Cambridge
2. UCL
3. LSE
4. Oxford
5. Durham

(16)(7)

Anonymous

Boasting about getting a first at any universities other than Oxbridge is like rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

(6)(33)

Anonymous

That doesn’t make any sense at all, on any level.

(26)(2)

Anonymous

University. Oxbridge retard.

(5)(1)

Anonymous

True. An exercise in pointlessness.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

It’s a shame that Denning isn’t alive to refute this, as it comes across as a rather petulant allegation.

(10)(11)

Anonymous

Agreed

I’m sceptical whether or not this is true

(7)(7)

Anonymous

Lol did you think the same about Lord Sumption’s claim that Denning told him not to go into law? I wonder why?

(12)(2)

Anonymous

Lol at assuming the answers to your own questions.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

LOL. You are sceptical about whether or not Lord Denning made a highly offensive comment to someone.

No pulling the wool over your eyes is there?

(12)(0)

Anonymous

It certainly might have happened.

(0)(0)

New Labour Aberration on the arc of history

Yeah but everyone at Matrix is second rate and pretentious

(18)(2)

Matrix Management Team

Identify yourself and we’ll test that defamatory allegation in court, shall we?

(7)(3)

Anonymous

I am Alan Blacker, man of straw.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

When I was a pupil (3 years ago!) a male QC told me in a kindly sort of way that women are less successful advocates than men because they either have to act feminine, in which case they are not taken seriously, or masculine, in which case they will alienate the judge. I don’t know what he expected me (a woman) to do with this information.

(26)(6)

Anonymous

Could always transition…Thats pretty trendy at the moment!

(21)(4)

Anonymous

Fetch you another of those delicious mini Yorkshire puddings with beef and horseradish, I expect.

I think times might have changed since he was a white wig. The numbers are different now, and the attitudes he gave voice to are dying away. By the time you’re of a call such that you could be a silk imparting wisdom to junior colleagues, his observations will be as outmoded as the suggestion that women shouldn’t be at the Bar at all.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Sadly he is not a past-it silk, but a very active practitioner. But yes, hopefully these attitudes are become less acceptable.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

How did you respond to him?

(2)(2)

Anonymous

I was a pupil! I smiled and nodded and got tenancy.

(11)(3)

Anonymous

You should have kindly disagreed with him!

(20)(10)

Anonymous

I am confident that I was not the problem in that conversation.

Anonymous

I’m confident that neither of you were ‘the problem’. I think he shouldn’t have expressed those views and you should have disagreed with them when he did.

Anonymous

I really don’t imagine that many prospective pupils get very far by brandishing -isms at silks.

Anonymous

Although of course kindly disagreeing isn’t the same as ‘brandishing -isms’.

Anonymous

Yeah, those two “shoulds” are not really the same though, in a context where one of the two people in the conversation was shortly to vote about the future of the other one’s career…

I took the view that (1) a man who was fine with casually expressing outrageous sexism would not take kindly to being corrected by a young woman at the start of her career about his analysis of the profession following years of experience, (2) it was highly unlikely that he had not already been exposed to the radical concept that women can be just as effective at the bar as men so my repeating this to him was unlikely to impact his thinking, and (3) the slim chance that I would have any impact on his sexism was not worth jeopardising my career for.

I don’t think I made the wrong decision.

Anonymous

And yes, him and his type are the problem.

Anonymous

Clearly the 2 ‘shoulds’ aren’t the same, but I still think you should have told him you disagreed with him. And I don’t see either of you as ‘the problem’.

Anonymous

It is problematic for the profession and for the law in general when successful and influential practitioners express bigoted views. The idea that there is an equivalence between expressing a bigoted view from a position of power and not risking one’s career by challenging it in context when the upside to so doing was slim to nonexistent is laughable. I hope you are neither a lawyer nor a gambler, because your analysis of both the ethical balance and the risk/reward balance are poor.

Anonymous

No equivalence is suggested, as already stated. He shouldn’t have said that and you should have told him you disagreed, in my opinion. I think you’re overestimating the implications of what would have happened had you kindly disagreed. I don’t see either of you as ‘the problem’.

Anonymous

You haven’t given a single positive reason why you think I ought to have corrected him. And bizarre that you can’t see that a senior member of the profession going around saying things which are clearly offensive and bigoted is a problem.

As I have said, the likelihood of changing his view was sufficiently slim (he was and is not an innocent with no idea that anyone might object to this way of thinking) and the potential consequences sufficiently severe, that even if the quantum of the risk was low, challenging him would still have been a bad idea. I repeat, I hope you are not a betting man.

I also don’t know why you assume that this kind of thing wouldn’t have negative consequences. The meetings at which my tenancy decision was made was open to all in chambers, unminuted, and there was no secret ballot. There were four pupils competing for one or two tenancies. For a pupil to piss off a successful silk (who obviously provided work to numerous juniors in attendance at the meeting) with a wafer-thin ego and a poor moral compass would absolutely have been a risky move. He would certainly have been in a position to say that he felt that I was not a good fit on any number of spurious grounds, and his opinion would have carried weight.

Yes, it’s important to combat sexism. And frankly I don’t think any woman at the bar doesn’t have to do this from time to time. But expecting pupils to pick battles with silks is absolutely not the way forward. Pupils are not in the same position as tenants, and it’s incumbent on chambers/established practitioners to speak up on their behalf (and to be fair I am sure if any other member of chambers had been present for this conversation they would have challenged him).

Anonymous

Given the views he expressed, I think its self explanatory why you should have corrected them.

I take your point that it is not easy, but I still feel that you are overestimating the risk involved.

Both males and females at the bar have to combat sexism.

Kindly disagreeing with someone, silk or no silk, is not the same as ‘picking a battle’ with them’.

Did you tell any members of chambers once you got your tenancy?

Anonymous

No, it’s not self-explanatory why you expect a pupil to jeopardise her career by challenging a man on views that he has clearly had time to reflect on and which he is unlikely to change. I don’t actually see what positive consequence you think would have come from that. Are you seriously suggesting that this would have been the time when he decided that feminist arguments that he had spent a lifetime rejecting would have come home?

It’s also bizarre that you can’t accept my read of the situation. There are times when “kindly disagreeing” with someone is not a good idea. An important skill at the bar is knowing when to drop it. When a full of himself QC is imparting his wisdom in a self-consciously avuncular way to someone he considers far beneath him, in the street after a hearing that hasn’t gone that well, in the presence of his instructing solicitor, in the knowledge that what he is saying is seriously un-PC and insulting to his interlocutor – that’s one of those moments.

And yep, lots of people know the story.

Anonymous

I don’t think you would have jeopardised your career. I understand your reasons for not disagreeing, but I think you should have kindly disagreed with him. An important skill at the bar is being able to convey your views.

Did the people who know challenge him?

Anonymous

You keep saying things without providing any justification. It would not have jeopardised my career. Why the certainty on this? Because it is impossible that anyone who is “kindly” corrected can take offence? Clearly false. Because it is impossible that this person would have taken a dislike to me if he had taken offence? Again, clearly false that there is no chance of this. Because he would never have allowed his having taken against me to have coloured his view when he was asked to give his opinion at a tenancy meeting? Again, impossible to say that this could not have occurred. Because his view would not have influenced the outcome of a tenancy meeting? Again, why could this not have happened in circumstances where chambers is a seriously hierarchical place, and where there were more good candidates than tenancies? Clearly the precise risk of a negative outcome is hard/impossible to quantify. But your insistence, based on no first-hand knowledge whatsoever, that it was definitely 0% is just weird.

Forgive me if I continue to exercise judgment about when it is and is not advantageous to air my views. If you want to live life with no filter, well, you do you.

No, no one to my knowledge has brought up this one random sexist remark. He has been picked up for other objectionable views on occasion.

Anonymous

I didn’t say there was 0% risk – you did! But I don’t think you would have jeopardised your career.

As explained with reasons, I think that you should have kindly disagreed at the time. I appreciate that this was a difficult course of action. You weighed up your perceived risks to your career and chose not to.

The fact that you did so and that the members of chambers who you told didn’t in fact challenge him when you told them means that the opportunity has probably passed.

Anonymous

You said, several times, “I don’t think you would have jeopardised your career.” Do you know what the word jeopardise means? Hint: it’s a synonym of risk. You are literally saying that I could have said what you suggest with no risk to my career. If you accept that there was not a 0% risk then you accept that this is false (which it obviously is). Speaking up would have risked my career albeit that the precise level of risk is impossible to calculate. You do understand that if I say I was “risking” my career I am not saying that I definitely would have lost my career? I am genuinely confused about whether you understand the concept of risk.

In any case, I wasn’t prepared to take a risk in a situation where there was literally no upside to doing so. You also haven’t explained what benefit you think would or might have come from taking the risk.

Yes, clearly I did not raise this with anyone until tenancy was in the bag (for the same reasons I have explained), and clearly this mean that the moment to raise it was past.

I wonder why is it so important to you to make this partly my fault? I think you need to look at your own motivations here.

Anonymous

Saying that I don’t think something will hapoen is clearly not the same as saying there is 0% chance of it happening.

I don’t think the episode was your fault, but I think you should have kindly disagreed at the time, although I understand your reasons for not doing so.

I have no motivation for saying this.

Anonymous

I’ll say it once more. Saying you don’t think that I would have jeopardised my career is exactly the same as saying you don’t think I would have risked my career, because jeopardise and risk are synonyms in this context. And I’m done.

Anonymous

Ok, bye. You’re still wrong though, as clearly my thinking something won’t happen isn’t the same as there being 0% chance of that thing happening.

While I understand your reasons for not doing so, I think that you should have kindly disagreed with the qc’s views at the time.

Anonymous

“Saying that I don’t think something will hapoen [sic] is clearly not the same as saying there is 0% chance of it happening.”

Eh?

Anonymous

One refers to possibility, the other to certainty.

Doh?

Anonymous

No, it doesn’t. Unless you are using the word “think” in a way which is contextually impossible. Stop being intellectually dishonest.

Anonymous

Plainly it does though. To attempt to argue otherwise shows a fundamental misunderstanding of risk, intellectual dishonesty, or both!

Anonymous

Broadly speaking, far more outstanding advocates are male than female. And of the top female members of the bar, the majority have stereotypically ‘masculine’ attributes. It might not be what feminists want to hear, but the two easiest ways to be successful in life are to a) be a man or b) act like a man.

(13)(23)

Anonymous

My experience of women at the Bar, including silks, differs from yours. Competence, authority, intelligence, forensic analysis, oration and cross examination are not male or female traits; they are human traits. No gender has the monopoly on them.

(18)(2)

Anonymous

Women are, as a whole, more reticient than men; they are less likely to speak assertively; they prefer conciliation and consensus to the cut and thrust of debate in a court, all of which goes against the adversarial system of British courts. Such qualities make them excellent teachers or nurses or social workers; they similarly make them (generally speaking) poor tank commanders or barristers or politicians, except where they assume male characteristics.

(8)(16)

Anonymous

Have you ever been to a court? I can understand that some women don’t enjoy the shouty aggression of university debating or parliament (though others clearly excel in these contexts), but I don’t think this applies at all to courtroom advocacy. Aggression is a disadvantage in court – it makes you look unreasonable. Calm authority is ideal — neither gender is at a disadvantage in being able to display this (and it usually comes from being on top of your brief and the law, which is also clearly an equal opportunity game). If you think women are conciliatory by nature… come back when you get a girlfriend.

(18)(2)

Anonymous

Can I have one cup of your 1920s views please?

(1)(1)

Anonymous

There are more male silks than female absolutely. Never noticed any female silks being particularly masculine, unless you regard being career-driver/ambitious etc as inherently masculine traits (in which case the argument is circular).

(3)(3)

Anonymous

My wife’s boyfriend loves Cherie Blair and he approves this message.

(4)(0)

Anonymous

Lord Denning was a dreadful judge. He made the law up as he went along, with no regard for precedent, sometimes citing in support of his approach decisions which he knew had been overruled by the Lords. As such, he acted contrary to the rule of law. The intellectual quality of the substance of his approach was also deeply questionable. It is hard to think of any of his decisions or doctrines (such as that of “fundamental breach of contract”) which have not been abandoned as heretical.

(5)(3)

Twangler

Bollocks. He found the just result and then worked backwards through the law to justify it.

The man was a genius.

Heretic!

(5)(2)

Quacks

The bar shouldn’t be the place for a terrorist‘s spouse either.

She is a disgrace – and a human right lawyer! Given her husband‘s antics…

Beggars belief…

(5)(6)

Anonymous

Er… since when did we make spouses liable (morally or legally) for their opposite number’s actions?

She wasn’t an MP at the time and therefore had no vote on the war.

(3)(1)

Kriegentrump

I bet you are as fervent in defence of Asma Assad

(3)(0)

Barrister. Thankfully not in her chambers.

I fervently agree.

She is the wife of a terrorist.

End of.

She is disgusting. A human rights lawyer and all!

(0)(1)

Anonymous

Imbecile, on many different levels.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Denning would have held trenchant views on Theresa May.

(0)(1)

Anonymous

No, no, she does have a serious disability in that area. It’s actually really sad and anyone laughing at her for it should be ashamed of themselves.

(0)(0)

Curious George

Who has a serious disability in that area?

(0)(0)

The iPuffin

Never seen her (Cherie) in action, but the comments are a bit pointless. Why say it was Denning? Would the story have been any less effective if she had said “a senior member of the judiciary”?

As for the comments about female barristers being less effective than male barristers… tosh. The experience I have is that both are effective, and that if it is a female trait, then honesty in submissions is perhaps the most useful trait.

In many areas of law we will end up before the same old judges repeatedly. You can burn your reputation in one case, and then the judge will be less likely to take your words on. The key mistake I see is counsel who are inaccurate as to what the evidence is and overstate the evidence, rather than being more circumspect on the evidence and letting it be dealt with in submission. There is a big difference.

(2)(1)

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