Aberdeen Women In Law: A Conversation with Lady Dorian
2021-12-13

On behalf of the Aberdeen School of Law Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, we are delighted to share our next instalment of the Women in Law Conversation Series, an interview with Lady Dorrian. Lady Dorrian was installed as Lord Justice Clerk and President of the Second Division of the Inner House of the Court of Session in April 2016 and therefore holds the second most senior judicial post in Scotland. No woman has served at this level in the Scottish legal system before. Lady Dorrian is a graduate of the University of Aberdeen (LLB) and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1981. She served as Standing Junior Counsel to the Health and Safety Executive and Commission from 1987 to 1994 and as Standing Junior to the Department of Energy between 1991 and 1994. She was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 1994 and between 1997 and 2001 she was a member of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board. In 1988 Lady Dorrian had already become the first woman to serve as Advocate Depute in the Faculty of Advocates. In 2005 she was appointed a judge of the Supreme Courts, after serving as a temporary judge since 2002. In 2012 she was appointed to the Inner House.

Mary Gilmore-Maurer (MGM)

It is a huge pleasure to have you with us here today, Lady Dorrian, as part of our Women in Law Conversation Series through which we try to highlight and showcase our women graduates who have made a contribution to and left an impact on the Law School and public life. Perhaps we can start at the beginning and the main reason that you are with us today. Please tell us a bit about your time at the University of Aberdeen.

Lady Dorrian

I'm very happy to participate. It was fabulous. I loved being at Aberdeen and had a really, really good time. Of course, it was all new to me studying law, because although I had worked in a lawyer's office, I think one summer, just before starting, it was really all new stuff, you know. In those days, you didn't have any exams that you could do in law when you were at school, so it was thrilling, because it was all new and all exciting. We had some very good lectures. I thoroughly enjoyed it even if I didn't much like getting up for the nine o'clock conveyancing lectures on a Thursday morning, but it was all right, really. They were good lectures.

MGM

What made you choose law in the first place?

Lady Dorrian

Nobody in the family had been in the law, at least, you know, not on the right side of it. And so I didn't really know very much about it. At school we had very basic careers information, but really not very much. It was all English law based and I was reading something about a barrister. I thought, that sounded interesting and like the kind of thing I might enjoy. If you were good at certain things, you know, it might suit you. It seemed to tick the right boxes. There was also a TV programme at the time about a woman barrister, making a way in a man’s world in London. That combined with the real life barrister, Dame Rose Heilbron, who was actually doing that in reality, just sort of seemed to suggest to me that this was an area that I might usefully follow.

MGM

I think that's a really good point about the accessibility of the law and feeling that one might pursue something, even if it is not in your familiar surroundings to begin with. Often a perception of the law is that you already somehow have to have that experience through either family or friends.

Lady Dorrian

I agree with that very strongly. In fact, I'm involved in a charity, the Mock Court Project.[1] Unlike other such projects, it deals with civil cases. It involves junior school pupils as well as senior school students. They get to be involved in a real case, perhaps a medical negligence case, or perhaps a contract case. Some of them take the role of lawyers. Some of them play the witnesses, whilst others make the costumes. They all get involved. The whole idea is to acquaint them with the way in which the law actually affects our daily lives because people tend to think of the law as criminal trials. They don't think of the myriad of other ways in which the law regulates society. And a consequence of that programme, which has been running for quite a number of years now, is that we have had a number of students who have gone on to study law who might not otherwise have done that without that contact which made them think, “hey, maybe I could do this.”

MGM

Did you have any preset ideas about your career trajectory when you left Aberdeen? Perhaps you could tell us a bit more about your how your career unfolded after you left.

Lady Dorrian

I had set ideas only to the extent that I knew I wanted to go to the bar. That was the extent of it. There was nothing beyond that. So I did. I was relatively young. I did a full apprenticeship and then a post-qualifying year and qualified as a solicitor. After that I did my devilling training at the Bar, as you know, it's called, and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1981. I was still only 24 at that time. It was a good idea, I think, to do the longer apprenticeship and to do a post-qualifying year, as it gave me a bit more experience, and some much needed maturity before I actually went to the Bar.

MGM

Did that time help you to figure out what area of law you might like to focus on?

Lady Dorrian

Not really, because I was really just interested in court work generally. In an apprenticeship, obviously, you had to do everything. And so you had to do things that you didn't necessarily want to be involved in. I was much more interested in the court side of things even then as I did my post-qualifying year. I went as a Court of Session assistant to the firm, but actually I ended up doing probably as much criminal work as Court of Session work and civil Sheriff Court work. Even at that stage, I was doing a bit of everything. That was the way I tried to keep it after that. It's much more difficult for people to do so now, I should say.

MGM

When you did get to the Bar, I believe that you were one of perhaps eleven women at the time in 1981. Can you tell us more about that time?

Lady Dorrian 

When I was admitted, there were eight of us admitted on the same day and there were three women, which was quite a lot. But as you say that only brought the practising number up to you know, eleven or twelve. Over the years, of course, there had been women admitted all the way going back to Margaret Kidd in 1923. But they had practised in ones and twos. And then, you know, Hazel Cosgrove, later a High Court judge, had practised seriously at the bar and then gone to be a Sheriff. But I think there was a kind of tipping point roundabout 1976/77, when four women were practising and remained seriously practising. I think that made things a lot easier for those of us who came afterwards. In those four years, people had got used to these four women practising significantly in mostly the civil courts. So when I came along in 1981, I was one of the first really to practise significantly in the criminal court as a junior but I think those four who were admitted in 1976/77 really made a significant difference for women at the Bar afterwards.

MGM

And when you joined, did you feel because of the numbers any sense of camaraderie?

Lady Dorrian

We had a female robing room and so we were together a lot in the mornings or later in the day, sometimes at lunchtime. When I was first admitted, the room where the others had been for these years was two flights down next to the boiler room in a kind of cubbyhole. It was a terrible place. Eventually, we got better premises after that, and things improved significantly. But yes, I guess there was a bit of camaraderie as you put it.

MGM

Perhaps you can tell us more about the time when there was a complaint issued about the standard of dress of the female advocates?

Lady Dorrian

Well, that that must have been round about 1985, I think. One of the older judges had complained to the Dean that one of the female advocates had appeared in court, improperly dressed and his complaint really was that she was showing too much décolletage. The Dean of the day wrote to all of the women, referencing a complaint being made without actually I think, identifying whom it concerned. We were all furious because we were all very careful to make sure that we were properly dressed in court and that we couldn't be subjected to this kind of complaint. On the particular day that the letter came, we looked around at each other and we were all wearing high neck collars, scarves, you know absolutely impeccably dressed. So we decided that we weren't having this and we marched on the Dean's room, much to the surprise of everyone sitting in the library, watching all these women troop in. I think there were about eight of us who went straight up to the Dean's room and went in and said to him, “look, this isn't good enough, sending out a general letter for a complaint in relation to one person.” And, of course, the Dean burst out laughing because he saw the funny side of it and recognised that we were all dressed absolutely impeccably. He said he wished he had a camera. It just so happened that one of our group had one of these disposable cameras in her handbag, so he took a photograph. I've still got a photograph of it.

MGM

It sounds like a time that was quite exciting, in terms of women at the Bar and also the work. There must have also been challenges. I wonder if you could tell us a bit more about those along the way?

Lady Dorrian

Well, I don't think the challenges were nearly as acute as they had been for those who had gone before, for example the challenges Hazel Cosgrove, Lady Cosgrove, had coming to the bar around the late 1960s or mid-1960s. The challenges that people like Hazel faced and then the group of women who came together in 1977 were probably a lot harder than when we did because by the time we came people were starting to get used to the idea. I wasn't aware of any serious overt sexism, although I'm sure it was there to some degree. There were the odd incidents of boorish behaviour, maybe on circuit or something like that, but compared to what other people had to put up with, I think it wasn't too bad. Another aspect of it, I think, is that the Scots Bar in those days operated out of a library system without chambers. We had groupings of advocates but it was a relatively loose association. It wasn't like chambers where you had to know people to get into chambers or be beholden to the person who got you into chambers, and all that kind of stuff. You knew that if you came to the Bar, you were going to get a clerk and you could go into practice. I think that probably helped a lot because you didn't have, to the same extent, the possibility of people exercising control over your career. Obviously, the clerks could exercise a degree of control over it in terms of the cases that they passed on to you and the solicitors who instructed you. From the point of view of the Bar, I think it was probably a slightly easier system.

MGM

And has that system changed now?

Lady Dorrian

Well, it's changed to an extent that there are stables which are slightly more formal than groupings. But it has not changed to the extent that you might see in other systems.

MGM

Can you tell us about some of your highlights? Also, are there things that you see differently in hindsight, or that you have learned along the way?

Lady Dorrian

I think hindsight always tends to come with rosy tinted spectacles. I find it very difficult actually, because I tend to live in the moment and not dwell on what's happened in the past and just move on. Certainly there were highlights. I can think of becoming the first female prosecutor in the High Court in 1988. That was a big highlight, for me, a really big step. There were at that time, 12 prosecutors in the High Court. Becoming one of that team was a real highlight and a phase of my career that I really, really enjoyed. It was quite unusual to be working as part of a team in which you were to some extent not doing your own cases individually, but you would discuss cases. The marking was often done on the basis of a discussion with other deputes, as well as individually and there was more of a sort of team spirit about it, which was new, you know, compared to what life generally at the Bar is like. You sometimes go from team to team at the Bar in the sense that you're maybe in a case with a senior and you've got an instructing solicitor who's heavily involved in the case and that's a small team but that is quite different and so becoming a prosecutor at the High Court was a real highlight for me.

MGM

Perhaps it is hard to choose but do you have any cases that have left a particularly strong impression?

Lady Dorrian

A number of cases from my time as a depute stand out to my memory but really because they were so horrible. I remember once prosecuting a murder case where the victim was a woman who had been murdered by her partner. They were both alcoholics and quasi homeless. He had taken a plastic razor and, with a plastic sharp bit, made marks all over the body afterwards. It was a horrible case and very violent. I prosecuted that and he was convicted of murder. Afterwards, two people came up to me outside in the street. These were the family of the deceased. She had left her family through alcohol and had become involved with this person. They just thanked me for the care I had taken over the case. It's a memory that really, really sticks with me.

MGM

Do you think the approach to cases that also involve demographic and social factors has changed throughout your time?

Lady Dorrian

I think there have been changes. A good example is in relation to sexual offences and offences involving children, where the approach taken by the Bench, and the Bar has changed significantly in relation, for example, to the extent to which sexual history can be explored. That has changed significantly. The nature of the questioning which the court will permit has changed significantly. The idea that complainants in such cases might have their evidence pre-recorded has really embedded itself now in the system. Of course that has to be done in relation to children, which is a big step forward. So yes, there have been significant changes. I think there's been a change also in society's understanding of how these cases arise and about what's involved with them, particularly in relation to abuse within the family. So those changes in society are of course mirrored in the law.

MGM

And perhaps the understanding of different types of abuse as well?

Lady Dorrian

Yes, the extent to which power and control is an element and something that perhaps would not really have been even thought about 40 years ago.

MGM

There have been necessary changes also in relation to the operation of the courts during the COVID pandemic and balancing access to justice in terms of in person or virtual contact. Perhaps you can talk a bit more about that?

Lady Dorrian

Well, you know, there are pros and cons about this. We had to get ourselves up and running to do virtual hearings early on in the pandemic and have been remarkably successful in doing that. One of the challenges, though, has been to make sure that access to justice can continue through that. It was very important to us to make sure, for example, that journalists could get proper access to all hearings, civil and criminal when they were being done virtually. There are different views about what kind of cases should be done virtually and different views about what works and what doesn't work. We are at the stage of trying to work out in the professions and the judiciary what the best way forward is to utilise the best aspects of technology without losing the important aspects that can arise when cases take place physically in court. There are some cases more suited to one way or another and I think ascertaining that is what we are trying to do at the moment.

MGM

I think it is important when people understand that things don't always go to plan. Do you have any examples of things not going to plan and how you dealt with that?

Lady Dorrian

Oh, well, that's for sure. I think a lot of us look like a swan swimming along, but underneath things are moving furiously. There is quite a well-known story about a time when I went rushing into court. I was late coming into the building and I was slightly confused about what the case was, so I was a bit anxious. I had been wearing a bright pink tie. It was reported as a red scarf, but it was actually a bright pink tie. Normally, I would take it off. In those days, I normally put on a white tie or a bow tie or something like that but because I was in a hurry, I just grabbed my gown and ran to the court. Of course the judge said, “oh, Miss Dorrian, are you properly attired for this court?” I thought perhaps I had forgotten my wig but I hadn't. I glanced down and saw the pink tie. Of course, I realised immediately what he was talking about but there wasn't much else I could do. I did not feel the judge had handled it particularly well either. There were people on either side of me, so I just stood up and took the tie off and put my collar back down and I rolled the tie up quite slowly and put it in my pocket. I sat down and things moved on after that. Things can go wrong but you just have to just have to carry on and do your best.

MGM

That's quite good advice. We would be keen to hear your advice to law students generally who wish to pursue a career at the Bar, but particularly female students.

Lady Dorrian

Well, I think one thing that is worth saying is that not everybody has the same experiences. I would probably come down on the favourable side and recommend a career at the Bar to anyone. There are others who may feel less so you know, whose experiences might have been more mixed, but I would certainly say it's a good career for anybody. Don’t be put off by any thoughts that it's not for you. It's a very diverse place these days, and trying its best to be even more diverse. I don't think anybody should be put off going to the Bar if that's what they feel that they would like to do. My main advice to anybody would be to do something you enjoy. That's it. Do something you enjoy or that you think you're going to enjoy. Don’t go into a particular field of practice, just because it's secure or because it pays well or any of these other reasons because you're going to be doing it for a long, long time. Make sure you pick something that you're going to enjoy.

MGM

Were there any particular courses during your studies that have stood you in good stead in terms of skills or subject matter?

Lady Dorrian

I would have to say all of them.

MGM

A very diplomatic answer. When you do have some free time, are there things that you enjoy doing?

Lady Dorrian

I'm a keen sailor. I have a boat, which I keep on the West Coast. I like to spend my holidays, exploring the West Coast of Scotland. That is really a big interest of mine. Like most people, I enjoy going to the theatre and the cinema and the concert hall. I've got quite a big interest in painting. I collect paintings, but more to the point I'm involved in the Scottish Portrait Awards. We are also about to launch the Scottish Landscape Awards.

MGM

What kind of approach or attitude perhaps do you think is necessary to pursue a career in law?

Lady Dorrian

I think the role of the advocate is to represent clients, or as a prosecutor to represent the public interest. That's what they're there to do. They're not there to hold their own attitudes about the case. I would be wary of answering in any kind of positive way because I think that the role of the advocate is to stand apart from these things and not to judge or be the arbiter of these things but to present the case. When it comes to being the judge, equally, any personal views you have must be put aside in deciding the case. You have to decide it according to the law and the equities of the situation.

MGM

Do you think that are ways of dealing with challenging cases?

Lady Dorrian

I think that both lawyers and judges at the moment are dealing with some very difficult cases in the form of, you know, child sex abuse cases. But again, you have to try and stand apart from the subject matter and do the best you can, either to represent the interest in which you're appearing in the court or to be independent as a judge. The training that you get as a lawyer does help you with that.

Titi Adebola (TA)

Maybe one question on which you alluded to would be, what qualities should female law students interested in building a career in the law have or build? Some people have innate qualities, but some people have to learn the necessary skills and qualities. What skills should they prioritise or strengthen?

Lady Dorrian

I think one of the most important qualities for a lawyer of any kind is a degree of independence of mind so that you form your own thoughts and your own views about what the law means in a particular case to determine what is the best route through. You should try as much as possible to bring an independence of mind.

TA

Would you say that there are any limitations for women, or when women take certain positions, people might judge them as strong willed or assertive with negative connotations. What suggestions would you have for young female law students that have a strong voice?

Lady Dorrian

I really think you just have to be yourself. I don't think you can adapt your personality to the circumstances that you find yourself in from one day to the next. You really just have to be yourself. You can try to find ways to accommodate the situation without preventing your personality from showing through or without compromising your own individuality. The only way I can think of, is really to be yourself.

TA

Thank you so much. I have learned a lot from this.

Lady Dorrian

Thank you very much for having me. I am very happy to be involved and to assist the project.


[1] https://www.mockcourt.org.uk/

Published by School of Law, University of Aberdeen

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