Feisty divorce lawyer comes across as tremendously likeable, very capable and perhaps just a little bit scary.

The reason for going to see the leading divorce lawyer Lady Deborah Chambers, QC, was ... No, I can't say and nor can she. Obviously she can't talk about her clients and - as she last week won a case in the Family Court in which the Herald On Sunday sought to have the orders suppressing details of a nasty, drawn-out divorce involving a prominent person, down to the names of the couple's dogs, overturned - nor can I.

Still, I said: Oh, everyone knows who the couple involved are. She disagreed, firmly. You really don't want to get into an argument you can't prove with her. She is a very good lawyer. But, honestly, how does she not laugh if, say, a client came to her and said: My ex-wife has dognapped one of the dogs? That must be one of the nuttiest things she's heard. She looked at me coolly and said: "I can't talk about individual cases." I said: "I said 'if'."

"Well, woo hoo! That's a clever disguise!" Yes, all right, it was a pathetic attempt, and I don't know why I bothered. And I was more interested in her. She might be disguised - or not disguised at all - as a formidable woman of the sort invariably described as scary. Still, I did wonder whether she regarded this particular win as one to be celebrated. What I meant, I suppose, was that it all seemed so nasty, that it might not. She thought for a very long time (very good lawyers are very good at the long pause; it's theatrical). She said: "I think that the result was fair. In terms of a win to be celebrated? I think that in many ways it's tragic if people have to go through the long agony of a defended hearing and my preference, where possible, is to settle cases so that people don't have to go through that and, boy, we tried to settle that case. We couldn't." Crowing would not, either, be the done thing. It would not be the dignified thing either, and she is rather dignified without being a bit pompous or stuffy.

She looks rich but not perhaps born rich, which is because she wasn't. I made another pathetic attempt to get her to tell me how much she earned. She didn't even dignify that with any sort of answer beyond a snort. All of her clients, I said, are rich people, aren't they? "Noooo!" How else could they afford a thousand dollars an hour? She said: "Oh, here we go! Actually, people who have a straightforward legal issue, a straightforward relationship property split, they don't really need me and they don't need a senior lawyer so if they come and see me or speak to my PA, I generally recommend some other lawyers ... There's no point me doing the straightforward stuff. I just feel like I'm ripping someone off. So I only do the complicated stuff. And it's not just Rich Listers. You know, there's people who come to me with a single complicated issue where the law is not clear and they will be, Michele, ordinary New Zealanders and there are so many ordinary New Zealanders with issues."


I don't know if the grateful client who gave her the exquisite antique writing box was an ordinary New Zealander. I did ask who it was. "A client," she said. I was wandering around her office, looking at things. She said: "Having a good look at my desk, are you, Michele?" I claimed to be able to read things upside down, but really, I didn't bother trying. Do you think she'd have left anything sensitive lying around? And you really wouldn't want to annoy her.

She said: "I think I'm pretty tough." How did she get tough? "Glenfield makes you pretty tough."

I think she was born tough, Glenfield notwithstanding. She grew up there, in a State Advances house. Her father was a men's clothing salesman (he died of motor neurone disease 13 years ago), her mother a shorthand typist. She went to Takapuna Grammar and then the Catholic Carmel College - she is now an atheist, Richard Dawkins having proved "the last nail in the coffin" for her Christian faith - then, for her last school years, to the newly established alternative school, Metropolitan College. She had got fed up with her Catholic school, where she was often in trouble for challenging the rules she regarded as idiotic - and where the nuns recommended that she go to teachers' training college with the idea of becoming a science teacher.

She and a girlfriend wagged school for a day, managed to enrol themselves at Metropolitan and, when her parents balked, said she'd run away to a Social Welfare home. "Like the Social Welfare would have taken me! They'd have sent me straight back. But I was naive and stupid."

Half of that statement may be true. She got her way and it was the making of her future way. She was never expected to go to uni but at the end of her first year, a teacher recognised her cleverness and suggested law.

She has risen to the top because she worked really hard, she said, and because she is clever. She doesn't muck around with false modesty and what would be the point? She is clever. She became a prosecution lawyer and did the really nasty stuff, including sexual abuse cases. "And I did start to think: 'Whoo. This is going to get to me if I keep doing this.' It's pretty hard to do that year after year without starting to get very cynical. I thought: 'I don't want to see the world through this perspective, constantly seeing people as potential criminals."'

So she switched to what I'd call the mucky business of mucking about in the aftermath of people's marriages gone sour. She would, and does, say that she's helping people. She finds this immensely satisfying, and intellectually challenging. The money is "the icing on the cake".

There is a picture of her on her website in which she has her arms crossed, in that severe way that serves to suggest authority. She is immaculately made up and wearing what is no doubt a very expensive, power-conveying jacket. She looks clever and slightly intimidating. In person she looks ... clever and slightly intimidating. She might look scary.


She doesn't like the word scary because she thinks it "sounds kind of slightly childish to me. It sounds like a child who's scared of a monster under their bed or something. I don't think of myself as frightening, but I suppose if you are nervous about being cross-examined by me someone might feel intimidated". I am to say authoritative. "Could you get the word right? Ha, ha." I can, and it's a fair point: Men are not scary. But it doesn't do any harm for a lawyer to have a scary reputation, does it? "No. It doesn't at all. I think you have to be pretty tough generally, but as a litigation lawyer you have to have different gears. You can't be tough and ferocious the whole time."

"I actually think that dress for women lawyers is quite important. It's still quite hard out there for most women lawyers and I think one of the reasons is that some people still find it difficult to see women as authoritative. And so I think the dress can assist in that regard."

She was wearing very high heels and she had her fingernails and toes painted slightly different shades of blue. She wasn't sure about the fingernails. She is sure about the heels. She wears them most days. Don't they hurt her feet? "A little bit." Why does she wear them then? "Because they look great! Now, why do I wear them? This is what I think, Michele. I actually think that dress for women lawyers is quite important. It's still quite hard out there for most women lawyers and I think one of the reasons is that some people still find it difficult to see women as authoritative. And so I think the dress can assist in that regard." But isn't it ridiculous that high heels can in any way suggest authority? "Height does." She said: "It's impossible not to be a feminist if you're a female lawyer."

She is blonde; she wasn't always. She is 52. When did she go blonde? "As I got older, it just seemed to naturally happen. Ha, ha! No, it's because it hides the grey better." Would she ever go grey? "No! God, no!" Never? "No. My mother is still dying her hair and she looks great." Her mother is 79 and lives in the house next door which is not, surprise, in Glenfield. She looks very Remmers these days. "I've been there a long time now."

She lives in the house built by the parents of her second husband, the Supreme Court judge Sir Robert Chambers. He died, of a brain aneurism, in May last year.

He'd have turned 60 in August and on what would have been his birthday, she went to a gallery and bought the Andrew McLeod painting now on the wall in her chambers. It is an amazing painting; everything in it it a bit askew; not as you'd expect them to be. She didn't need to say why she bought this particular painting. I had asked about it as soon as I arrived and I was sorry, because she was so terribly upset. Of course she still is mourning. She was wearing all black; she made a decision to do so for a year. This is rather lovely and quite Victorian. "It's just a signal to my community and it feels respectful. Actually, most New Zealanders don't notice because most women, like you, are all in black. Are you in mourning?"

Even at her most vulnerable, she's sharp, and funny. Work has helped. "Work is amazing and I'm so grateful that I've got it. It's such a great distraction ... I think to myself, 'This is another reason why women should keep working even when they have children, divorce and, oh, death'."

She believes in love, despite daily dealing in divorce. "Because I've been incredibly happily married." She is still friends with her first husband - they have two daughters, 19 and 22; she has two stepsons, from Robert's first marriage.

She is Lady Deborah because Robert was knighted posthumously. She does use the title and "that was quite a difficult decision because it all kind of changed after Rob died, because I felt if I didn't use it, it would just be lost". They had talked about whether she'd use it in court and she felt then probably not because she didn't want "to be seen pulling rank in court by rubbing their faces in the fact that I was married to a Supreme Court judge ... But of course I'm no longer married to a Supreme Court judge, tragically. So that changed as well ... But it still feels very hard for a girl from Glenfield to carry it off!"

Oh, what rot. She could carry off anything she set her mind to. She's tremendously likeable and admirably feisty - unless of course she happened to be on your ex-husband's side in a courtroom.

In which case, when she was cross-examining you in her sky-high stilettos, her Versace bracelets clanking, her chunky pearls gleaming, she might, I'm afraid to say, just be a little scary.