An exhausting and harrowing day in court had just drawn to a close.
For hours on end, prosecuting barrister Alison Dorrell had grilled the man in the dock.
But suddenly she found she herself was on trial.
The female judge presiding over the case had ordered Alison to her private chambers.
“I was instructed to lay my hands on her desk like some naughty schoolchild and told off in no uncertain terms for turning up to court in coloured nail varnish,” says the eminent 50-year-old Sheffield legal eagle, still smarting from the incident of many years ago.
“I’d gone to work wearing the pale peach polish I’d painted on for a new Year’s Eve party two days before.
“It was utterly ridiculous, but then so are many of the restrictions on the way female barristers present themselves in court. We have to dress like nuns; we might as well put a wimple on.”
Before she can step into Sheffield’s Crown Court, Alison has to ensure every strand of her flowing blonde hair is scraped from her face and hidden beneath her barrister’s wig. Her make-up must be barely visible, her jewellery restricted to wedding and engagement ring, her heels low and the clothes beneath her mandatory black robe be sober and plain. No flesh must be visible. Her arms cannot be bared above the wrist and a high white collar must cover her neck.
She well remembers the day, in the middle of a rape trial, when the judge announced he was retiring and would not return to the courtroom until Ms Dorrell had re-arranged her attire. A glimpse of her neck had apparently been on display.
The issue infuriates her: “In my opinion, these are Victorian values designed to keep us down and de-personalise us. I cannot see any reason for it in this day and age,” says the criminal law barrister, a Grade 4 prosecutor who specialises in cases of adult rape and child sex abuse.
Alison is married to fellow barrister Paul O’Shea – they share chambers on Campo Lane. They also attempt to share the parenting duties for their two sons, now 13 and 15, but most of them inevitably fall on Alison.
“The arrangement is we take it in turns, depending on who has the case on at the time,” she says. “But generally speaking it’s still the woman who runs the home. I have to deal with much of the parenting stuff and juggle a caseload as well.
“I went back to work two weeks after having my first child and was at work the morning of the Caesarean birth of my second, which had been planned for medical reasons.
“It’s an incredibly tough job for women. You can’t expect judges to be sympathetic to your childcare dilemmas, there’s zero tolerance.
“Whatever is happening at home, you have to walk into court with your mind on the case, a smile on your face and every hair in place,” says the Sheffield-born former Silverdale pupil.
Women at the Bar rarely go on to become judges. “They say many retire early because of motherhood but I think that’s tosh. I am surrounded by highly capable and promotable women who won’t get a look in when it comes to furthering their career,” says Alison who gave up such aspirations 10 years ago.
Her area of legal expertise is one of the most distressing, she admits: “You are listening day after day to the harrowing experiences people have been subjected to and it often casts a dark shadow.”
But what gets her through, she says, are other women in the profession.
“In court we fight one another hard,” she says. “But as soon as the robes are off, you’ll put your arm around her and do what women do; console and support.”
Legally Blonde The Musical starring Les Dennis, Ray Quinn and Niki Evans runs until Saturday.
Rachel appreciates the back-up at home
Many a male lawyer can dedicate himself to his career secure in the knowledge that family life is safely in the hands of his wife.
Rachel Roebuck, head of the children’s team at Sheffield law firm Lupton Fawcett’s Absolute Family, is one of very few female lawyers bestowed with the same privilege.
“It’s a tough, stressful job with very long hours. To go as far as you want in this profession and have a family life you have got to have support at home.
“And I’ve been very lucky - my partner Andy gave up his career for the sake of mine,” says the 49-year-old Barnsley mother of one.
“Andy took early retirement from his civil service post when our son Samuel was nine months old and I was due to go back to work.
“It affected us financially, but the back-up I’ve had has been invaluable.”
When Sam turned three, Andy Mayo got a part time job that fitted around nursery hours and now he’s 12, it’s Andy who finishes work in time to pick him up from school, leaving Rachel free to manage her department’s immense workload without worrying about her child.
Consequently, she strives to support staff with children. She explains: “In family law there is a high proportion of women. We have a diary and we factor in everyone’s childcare arrangements.”
After 32 years in a traditionally male profession, Rachel insists she has never met with sexism. “You’re judged on your skills,” she says. “I have never had a problem with a male colleague purely because I’m a woman in the job.
“I’m tall and blonde and appearance-wise, while I’ve strived to achieve a balance between professionalism and looking approachable to the children and families I deal with, I have never denied the fact that I’m female – though I’d like to think colleagues see me first and foremost as professional, hard-working and forthright.”
Collette still likes to ‘think pink’
Collette Noonan is a girl who likes to think pink.
“I can definitely identify with Elle, the character in Legally Blonde,” she giggles. “I often add a girly touch – maybe a pink shirt or a pair of pink court shoes to a smart grey suit. I’ve even got a fluffy pink pen, just like Reese had in the film.”
“I want to be able to express my personality in the way I dress for work, but that can be difficult, particularly if I’m going to court, when it needs to be much more formal and respectful,” says the 28-year-old litigation executive at Graysons with Watsam Esam in Paradise Square.
“I tailor my look according to the day’s requirements, although often that smart court suit could well have come from Dorothy Perkins or even Asda – I have to buy them so often, I’m continually searching for bargains.”
Collette is, by her own admission, “a bit ditsy at times” and known for her sense of humour. “But I’m also intelligent, hard-working and good at what I do,” she says.
“I think people still jump to the conclusion that blondes are a bit dim. It’s nice to surprise them,” she grins.
“Clients’s faces often register surprise when I walk into reception to meet them. They expect someone older and male. Back in the day, this was a male-dominated profession and some clients still have the stereotypical view.
“There was one occasion at my previous law firm when a client was adamant they wanted a man to represent them, not me.”
Collette loves the Legally Blonde movies; she has them both on DVD and has already been to see the musical at the Lyceum.
And just like the character Elle, she has plenty of blonde ambition.
She’s determined to become a fully-qualified solicitor. “It’s what I’ve wanted since I was 11,” she says.