I knew a wonderful woman at the Bar with an exotic name: Sabine La Belle Rougou. We met on the Bar Finals’ course. I arrived late on day one owing to my inability to read the preliminary blurb properly and met someone I already knew who had assessed the others in our tutorial group, including Sabine. ‘Crazy name; crazy woman!’ was his comment on her.
In the years afterwards, Sabine was an unpredictable force in court. I encountered her once when we were co-defending in what was a long trial for the era and our Call. Inevitably there were a number of legal submissions which fell to be decided by our trial judge, His Honour Judge Hayter, known to the Bar as Widow Twankey, owing to his performance as the memorable relict in a Circuit pantomime performance of ‘Aladdin’ in 1986. He employed some of the same theatrical techniques in court. Sabine used to make complicated submissions which were opaque at best and impenetrable at worst, but, because she was in fact exceptionally clever, there was always the kernel of an idea hidden in a forest of verbiage. The judge in every instance dismissed her arguments with the appropriate reasoned judgment required in those days – ‘I am against you.’
However, in the case of each of these submissions, the judge would come into court the following day and say: ‘Miss La Belle Rougou, I have thought carefully again about what you said yesterday and think now that you may in fact have made a valid legal point and, contrary to my previous ruling, I shall accede to the central part of your submissions.’ The judicial squirrel had discovered the hidden nut on the forest floor.
About six months later, I was going home on the Underground reading a well-known London evening newspaper and, in particular, a feature article on London’s leading lawyers including what was described as the ten best barristers in the capital, across all subject areas. Imagine my surprise when my eyes suddenly focused on No. 8, Sabine La Belle Rougou, standing out amongst stars of the commercial Bar, Chancery practitioners and Silks with almost household names. I did remember Sabine was extremely well-connected in the world of arts and literature, frequently hosting parties and events and running a cinema club which showed films more likely to be seen at Cannes than the local Odeon. But I could not possibly explain how she had come to be regarded as London’s eighth most stupendous barrister.
The ordering of legal excellence nowadays is a more predictable and ordered process involving enormous research including in-depth interviews, references and analysis. I fear Sabine would have, at best, have achieved a quirky mention today. Andrew, my Senior Clerk, Paddy Corkhill and myself were invited to a launch party given for one of the Directories. Paddy was attracted mostly by the generous supplies of wine whereas Andrew and I bore the early networking preliminaries with increasing anxiety. Where would Gutteridge Chambers be ranked? What would be said about us? Had we gone up or had we gone down? And, being honest, I was mildly interested in the same questions regarding my own ranking and, of course, those of rivals.
By the time the charming young editor was addressing us, I had induced in myself a feeling amounting to mild panic and, gulping down a glass of red, waited for the moment when we would be offered our complimentary copy. It came all too quickly. Clutching my goody bag which was incredibly heavy, I copied everyone else and tried unsuccessfully to look nonchalant. However, as soon as Andrew and I had left the hotel, we shot round the corner and tried to find the entries by streetlight.
We had retained our position. My chest relaxed. Hetty Briar-Pitt, who has been moving steadily up the rankings, was described as ‘vigorous, passionate and particularly committed’. This was without doubt a very good description of her but might possibly have been improved by adding the words ‘especially to her horses’. The trimming Twist brothers had been accurately analysed in Roderick’s case as ‘able to see both sides of a problem’ and in Alexander’s as ‘always gives lengthy and anxious consideration to every aspect of a case.’
Then I came to my own entry. It is always strange to see someone else analysing one in print. ‘William Byfield continues to provide expertise, humour and comfort to his diverse client base’. I read it again, and again. It was very complimentary. But the reader might wonder why it was they all needed comfort…