Robin was truly exceptional. Calm, kind, carefully-spoken, dry-humoured, generous, understanding – all of these and quite brilliant: as lawyer and advocate, and as friend and mentor to everyone who knew and worked with him. A man of great accomplishment achieved with such style and charm.
His outstanding intellect was evident the moment he walked into chambers in 1986, then at 3 Paper Buildings. Regarded by at least one of his pupil supervisors as, without doubt, the most outstanding pupil he had mentored, he very quickly established himself as the junior every silk wanted to lead. In many cases, it was Robin who led the way. One silk who had the benefit of a superb ‘Dicker’ script in the early 1990s relegated his own role (albeit perhaps a tad self-deprecatingly) to that of ‘talking parrot’. Robin skipped straight over the ‘struggling junior’ part of the typical barrister’s career. He quickly became the junior of choice for city solicitors. The description of an overnight opinion produced by a young Robin mid-trial, from someone who instructed him many times over his career sums up why: “It was a typically crisp, clear and concise analysis that was thrilling to read and enormously helpful”.
That Robin’s early promise was fulfilled, and in spades, is a matter of record. The words “stellar career” are too easily said, but in Robin’s case they are a simply stated truth. A Westlaw search of “Dicker QC” reveals well over a hundred cases since he took silk at the early age of 38 in 2000, and many more before. As the same search shows, these include many of the most important cases in his chosen fields of commercial, financial, insolvency and restructuring law. He was equally at home in the Commercial Court, the Chancery Division, the Court of Appeal or the House of Lords/Supreme Court. In one memorable case, the power of his advocacy was such that he prevailed at first instance, in the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, notwithstanding that his case in the Supreme Court was the exact opposite of that he advanced before the trial judge. It is a rare feat to win at all levels despite switching sides. In another, one of the BCCI appeals to the House of Lords, the written case drafted by Robin was singled out by Lord Hoffmann, no less, as the best he had ever read. A roll-call of the major cases in which Robin appeared would fill too much space: much easier to name the few cases of the last three decades in which he did not make an appearance. None of this, however, fully does him justice: it is the way he went about his work that marks him out as special.
To those of us lucky enough to be on the opposite side of a courtroom to Robin, it was always the most challenging experience. Every point of weakness would be identified and exposed, clearly, incisively, methodically and persuasively, but never unkindly. The fear of the withering “as we understand my learned friend’s submission” (with the emphasis on we, conjuring up a picture of Robin and his team sat round until the earlier hours trying desperately to decipher whatever nonsense you had written or said) was just one of the reasons you had to work twice as hard when Robin was on the other side. Sparring in a courtroom with Robin was the real highpoint of my and many others’ life at the bar. His intellectual integrity meant you always knew where you were. His arguments were compelling and easy to follow: it was just that, if you did, and were not on his side, you invariably ended up at a destination where you – or more importantly your client – did not want to be. He was unfailingly calm and polite, no matter what provocation he received from the bench or the bar: it is impossible to think of an occasion where he lost that cool, confident and commanding air.
All this was the product not merely of innate intelligence, but of meticulous preparation. Indeed everything about him was meticulous, down to his incredibly clear, neat handwriting – and the exact alignment of the different coloured pens alongside his notepad on the desk. He set himself the highest standards, working long hours to ensure that every case was analysed from all angles, any weak points covered and all possible questions from the bench or from clients were anticipated.
As a leader, mentor or pupil supervisor, he expected the same high standards of others. First day of pupillage with Robin was generally daunting. Some feared they would not make it through the week. He was not someone given to small talk – never using three words where one would do. And more often than not, no words at all were necessary: who can forget his facial expression listening to a less than convincing explanation of a particular point? As one of his former juniors colourfully put it: “a look that was politely incredulous, more eloquent in its quizzical silence than any verbal unpicking of my errors could have been”. Preparing written work for him to review brought its own challenges – “frankly terrifying” was the description of one former pupil. Another junior recalls waiting with dread for the return of a draft opinion, only to receive a covering email with the promising remark that he had merely “moved around some of the deckchairs” (a favourite expression of Robin’s), but on reviewing the document itself finding that: the words were different; the structure was different; the points advanced were different; the cases cited were different; and – of course – the quality of the product was incomparably better. Juniors could expect a steady stream of emails in the days prior to a big case: no more than a line or two with a tightly worded question on one or other aspect, sometimes so short as to send the junior into a tailspin trying to fathom the import of, let alone the answer to, each question before the next arrived.