On growing up: I’m a middle child so from an early age I learned to negotiate and mediate; to eat fast and speak faster. We grew up in a small house in Surrey and it was a happy, noisy childhood. My mum brought us up alone, and worried about making ends meet. I’m immensely proud of her. I went to an all-girls comprehensive school in Epsom. Its motto was “Where girls excel” and the teachers really stretched, challenged and inspired us. I loved learning and I was always precocious and ambitious. At the age of nine, I decided I wanted to learn to play the violin so I accosted the music teacher in the playground and managed to blag a scholarship and a free violin. Inspired by Robbie Coltrane’s character in Cracker, I started out wanting to be a police officer, then realised I didn’t have the stomach for gory investigations. The desire to solve mysteries and address injustice remained – so I ended up studying law at Cambridge.
On her early career: I trained with a Magic Circle law firm but it wasn’t the happiest start to my legal career. I came out as a lesbian at university but, as a junior lawyer in the early 2000s, there was a pressure to fit in and to toe the line – I was told in an appraisal to “try and adopt a more professional demeanour”. I became more guarded about my sexuality and I suppose I tried to go back into the closet at work. I felt as if I was living two different lives; it was exhausting and debilitating. When I joined Mishcon de Reya 12 years ago I was encouraged to think of my individuality as an asset – and that was liberating. I felt like I’d spent years wearing uncomfortable shoes. I hadn’t really noticed the pain, and thought everyone felt the same. It was only when I put on a really comfortable pair of shoes that I realised how much easier life is when you can skip around. Everyone should be made to feel comfortable being authentic and themselves – inside and outside of work.
On her current role: I’m partner at Mishcon and head of the reputation protection team. My role is really varied. One day I’ll be advising a business magnate on politically-motivated defamatory campaigns against them; the next I’ll be acting for a celebrity on a threatened invasion of privacy. The job can be demanding and I’m on call 24/7, but I work from home at least once a week so I don’t have to commute (or wear make-up). I have a truly excellent team. I like to get home as often as I can to bathe my toddler and put him to bed, and it is easy to log back on afterwards. I’m always running about. I’m kept afloat by two 24-year-olds: my PA and my nanny. They’re both fierce, bright, super-organised women who aren’t afraid to boss me around.
On staying sane: I have to force myself to relax. If I’m feeling stretched, burnt out or over tired, I’ll book myself into the Moroccan hammam at the spa in Dolphin Square. When I shed skin, I shed worries. I have a wonderful group of female friends from uni who keep me sane. They all have big jobs and small kids so they understand the juggle and they’re an amazing source of support. It doesn’t matter how busy they are; if I need them, they’ll come. Our WhatsApp messages range from rants about sleep deprivation to “who’s around for wine?”
On her toughest moments: My marriage broke down last year and, at the same time, I had two promotions at work. It was extremely challenging and often overwhelming. Just when I needed to project extra confidence at work, it was being shattered at home. A friend gave me a copy of Sheryl Sandberg’s book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, which encouraged me to reflect on who I am and what’s important to me, to be more resilient and to learn to bounce forwards. I wrote down all the many things that I’m grateful for. I keep going back to that list.
On her go-to style: I like to feel powerful, together and present the best version of myself at work. When I walk into a room with chief executives and leaders (often older and male), I want them to see me as an equal before I’ve even opened my mouth. I’m also focussed on comfort. I can’t bear accessories, frills, scratchy material or anything that interferes with getting on with my day.
On her power suit: If I’m in court, I’ll always wear a navy, dark grey or black dress. Out of respect for the institution and its traditions, you need to look solemn and smart – plus you don’t want to wear anything that distracts from the case. In the office and around clients, I like to be more bold and a bit different. I wear heels but I avoid skyscrapers. I need to be able to keep up with my male colleagues when we’re all striding to court.
On her advice to other women: Be yourself. Recognise that opportunities can come out of setbacks. And remember to prioritise yourself – don’t feel guilty about carving out some “me” time.
Interview: Kate Bassett
Photography: Harry Borden
Emma wears: Haslemere dress, Adeline top, EC1 pencil skirt, and Rosemead dress
Accessories: Emma’s own
Shot at Mishcon de Reya’s head office
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