International Women’s Day 2018: An interview with Emma Roe of Shulmans

Emma Roe, partner and head of commercial at Shulmans, talks about her career successes, how she’s overcome challenges, and the advice she’d give to women considering a career in law

Today is International Women’s Day 2018. The event is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. This annual day of celebration also marks a call for gender parity. With International Women’s Day in mind, Emma Roe, partner and head of commercial at Shulmans, talks about her career successes, how she’s overcome challenges, and the advice she’d give to women considering a career in law.

How did you become interested in commercial law?

Emma Roe: When I started my law training, I felt that commercial law was the area that regularly changed the most and would keep me interested for the longest. I knew I’d be doing this job for a long time, so I needed to make sure my specialist area was something that would keep me engaged and enthused for as long as possible. Commercial law has definitely proved to be the area that has always kept me on my toes and satisfied my desire to keep learning—there’s always something new to get stuck into.

Can you tell us about some of the key initiatives you’ve led at Shulmans?

Roe: I moved to Shulmans a couple of years ago after reaching the limits of how much I could really influence and continue developing at another firm. Shulmans is the kind of organisation where you can really make a difference rather than just be a cog in the machine. For instance, I’ve recently been working on key offerings such as our work in relation to the imminent changes on data protection.

A big attraction for me in coming to Shulmans was also the opportunity to re-ignite my international work, which I had enjoyed in a previous firm. I’ve been working for overseas clients for a large part of my career and it’s another exciting opportunity that commercial law has allowed me to pursue. The credibility and heritage of the English legal system is highly regarded worldwide. So, in an increasingly global market, clients in other countries often choose English law as the preferred option for governing their international contracts. It’s a choice their counterparts can often get on board with as it is not as controversial as other choices.

Likewise, we’re also seeing the globalisation of regulation with more recent developments such as the Bribery Act and General Data Protection Regulation having a wider impact than just applying to companies in the UK or Europe—these regulations apply to companies doing business here even if they themselves are based much further afield. As a result, clients I work with in the US and elsewhere in Europe often need that local law perspective to help them through the unfamiliar legal landscape when they are wishing to trade into the UK.

What barriers have you faced, as a woman, in becoming successful in your field? How did you overcome them?

Roe: Law is a career that is pretty evenly split between men and women at the applicant level, so at the start of my career I wasn’t as aware as I am now of the challenges that can lie ahead. As we have seen in the media recently, in many sectors and industries, rising through the management ranks and ensuring you’re paid a comparable wage to male counterparts is not necessarily straightforward for women.

There was an occasion earlier in my career when I felt discriminated against for being a woman. I was given unpleasant feedback at my annual appraisal, which focused on my appearance rather than my actual performance in the job—which I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have happened if I’d been male. I left the job to find a new opportunity—I wasn’t prepared to keep working with the individual who felt they could judge me in that manner and speak to me that way.

Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career in law?

Roe: Don’t put up with being treated in the workplace in a way you don’t believe is respectful. Whether you’re male or female, we all have boundaries of acceptable behaviour and I think that’s not solely a ‘women’s issue’, but a manners and courtesy issue, if I’m honest. There are enough challenges in most jobs to try to ensure that how we treat each other on a day to day basis is not one of them.

What different challenges do you think women face internationally?

Roe: I think in the UK, we’re very fortunate in that women’s access to education, healthcare and the workplace has certainly reached a point where our expectations are that we will have equal rights and opportunities. What often disappoints me is why our representation in positions of power doesn’t reflect an equalised position. Ultimately, we must always remember that in so many countries around the world girls and women are much further back than we are on the pathway to equality. Across the world we still have so much more to achieve to reflect a true position of equality.

Is there a book or author you recommend that reflects the spirit of International Women’s Day—a celebration of the acts of courage and determination by women who have played extraordinary roles in the history of their countries and communities?

Roe: I’m a big reader. I read every day without fail and can’t sleep without reading first. On International Women’s Day, I would definitely recommend a book called If This Is A Woman by Sarah Helm. It’s a tough, but really important, book that finally gives voice to a previously unheard historical female perspective. I would also recommend checking out The Atlas of Beauty by Mihaela Noroc, which is a gorgeous collection of photographs of women from around the world. Also, I love anything by Margaret Atwood and Caitlin Moran to remind me of the uniqueness of a female perspective on life.

Which women have inspired you throughout your life?

Roe: I have some very strong female role models in my family and I enjoy doing research into my family tree. I’m often discovering stories of strong women doing amazing things in my family, which keep me thinking about legacy and challenges. It also makes me realise how relatively straightforward any challenges that I face are in comparison to my counterparts in the past.

Emma Roe (pictured) is a partner at Shulmans