Aberdeen Women in Law: In Conversation with Joanne Wheeler MBE

Aberdeen Women in Law: In Conversation with Joanne Wheeler MBE
2021-10-04

I am delighted to present the next instalment of the Women in Law Conversation Series. I conducted my conversation with Joanne Wheeler MBE with continued support from the School of Law’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

Background

Joanne is a renowned satellite regulation and commercial contracts expert with specialist interests in communications, satellite and space regulatory and policy matters, together with commercial contracts and PPPs. In 2014, Joanne won the Financial Times European Legal Innovator of the Year Award for her work with UK industry and Government in drafting legislation for activities relating to satellites. In 2017 Joanne was awarded an MBE for services to the space industry. In that same year, Joanne was also nominated as lawyer of the year. Recently, Joanne was appointed by the UK Space Agency to represent the UK at the United Nations space meetings in Vienna.

Joanne received her LLB (Hons) from the University of Aberdeen in 1993 and completed the Diploma in Legal Practice in 1995. Other academic qualifications include an LLM in Law and Economics from Erasmus University Rotterdam in 1994, a Masters of Studies (MSt) in Law and Economics from the University of Oxford in 1996, the BPP Law School Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test in 1998 and a Diploma in Telecommunications Law from the University of London in 2002.

Please tell us about your time at university.

I was the first in my family to go to university and I was not sure what to expect and was not particularly confident compared to my peers. I had not grown up with university stories, connections, advice or tips – it was all new and some of the experience was unexpected. To be open, I found the first year difficult (especially the transition from high school to university) and did not excel. I was keen to learn and understand, however, and began to enjoy the university experience by taking up some activities I was keen to do and speaking with the lecturers and professors about their subjects. They were all happy to make time for me.

I was impressed by many of the teaching staff: Professors Frank Lyall; Geoffrey MacCormack; David Lessels; Douglas Cusine; David Ott, and Margaret Ross; and Dr Angus Campbell. I was fascinated by Professor MacCormack’s Legal Anthropology course and took every course taught by Professor Lyall I could (Space Law, Environmental Law, Public International Law). I was lucky, and honoured, to be one of the students chosen by Professor Lyall to attend the first summer course run by the European Centre for Space Law (under the auspices of ESA) on space law and policy. I was hooked and tutored for the course for a further three years, including when the University of Aberdeen hosted it (and when we taught all the European students to ceilidh dance!). I felt lucky at the time to be able to study public international law, space law and environmental law, and I have done ever since. I still apply that background to what I practice every day.

In my last year, I was thrilled to be chosen by Professor Cusine to assist Margaret Ross in a project on mediation in the criminal justice system and to be involved in and speak at a conference on Women and Higher Education organised at the University. We produced an article and a book chapter out of the research. The experience encouraged me to keep researching, studying and writing; which I continue to do. I went on to take three further University degrees and began to research and write even more. I probably write far too many articles now on a range of subjects and have a column in the international journal Via Satellite. And secretly (well not too secretly) I would love to undertake a PhD and have the subject mapped out. One day…

I am proud to have gone to the University of Aberdeen, and it is great to see the University, and the Law Faculty, do so well over the last years.

What has been your career trajectory and what lead you to the area of law that you practice now?

What lead me to the area of law? When I was nine I had a wonderful teacher, Mr Haig, who allowed the class pupils to undertake a project on anything they wanted. My Father was a printer and had been bringing home astronomy books he had printed. After a trip to the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, there was only one subject I could write about – astronomy – and I did so every waking hour! Within a couple of weeks, I had filled a book-blank my Father had given me. So – when I went to Aberdeen I was keen to take up Space Law. Professor Lyall was an excellent teacher and one who did not suffer fools gladly. I related to this, and studied!

What got me hooked on the subject was that in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, states managed to agree on something bigger than any of them – the Outer Space Treaty. That international collaboration in the 1960s was a huge inspiration to me. Of course, it was not just altruistic collaboration; the Treaty is also a non-proliferation treaty. After I graduated with an LLB(Hons) from Aberdeen, I was lucky to receive a scholarship from the ESRC to take a Masters at the University of Oxford. I studied law and economics and did my thesis on the intellectual property rights of Earth observation data.

I then did a traineeship at what was McGrigor Donald in Glasgow and London and joined Slaughter and May on qualification. I think I worked with some of the best lawyers in private practice there. It was serendipity that Inmarsat (the international maritime intergovernmental organisation) was privatising while I was at Slaughter and May and I got pulled into it with my space law background. And so started the drafting of a huge amount of memos to educate the teams on space law issues and it was my responsibility to inform and educate… and get it right! I loved it! The memos continued when I joined Allen & Overy (to specialise more on communications law), as we were involved in representing the banks investing in the military satellite system – Skynet 5.

I stayed close to the European Space Agency and was encouraged to apply for a legal position – and got it. This really was a dream come true; working at the heart of the intergovernmental space community in Europe based in Paris. I led the commercialisation legal work for the International Space Station and human space flight (at a time when the UK did not invest in spaceflight at ESA). I also covered space debris issues and represented ESA at the UN. Just perfect!

I stayed at ESA for 4 years. I got married during this time and on returning to London to live with my husband, I joined Ofcom in London and had an excellent time working with the spectrum team there drafting the Procedures for the Management of Satellite Filings to the International Telecommunication Union. I did not know at the time how important and unique that experience was.

I then received an offer from Milbank Tweed to go back to join some of the team I had worked with at Allen & Overy. Milbank are probably the best in the business for space project financings. I stayed there for several years until I received an offer to join another part of the previous Allen & Overy cohort at CMS – and I joined as a Partner specialising in satellite and communications. After four years I received an offer from Bird & Bird as a Partner in communications and satellite – which I was pleased to accept. 

What was interesting is that at this time the practice of law was changing. More boutique firms were being created in the UK, Europe and the US. I began to receive remarks from clients that they did not want the larger firm ethos and did not want to have to “educate” their lawyers on their business plan and the technology. The clients wanted experts who could blend into their team and their management board and who knew the law and industry well enough to come up with innovative solutions.

It took me over a year to pluck up the courage to set up my own law firm specialising in space and satellite law – Alden Legal. My family and my husband’s family could not have been more supportive – and that was very welcome. It is not easy going out on one’s own. The best thing about Alden, however, is the loyal clients, who it is a pleasure to work with.

Please tell us about some of your career highlights but also any challenges that you have faced.

I need to start by saying that a highlight was being able to go to University; something my mother was unable to do although she wanted to study chemistry at Edinburgh University. Another highlight was being able to study space law – and keep studying and practising it.

 When I started out, there was no practice of “space law” as such. I spent a good 15 years being laughed at and mocked by many when I mentioned I wanted to concentrate on space law. However, I felt it was the way the market and technology was going. Bizarrely some of the people and firms who had doubted me have since asked for training! It was a real challenge for me to get all the expertise and knowledge I needed and to build a practice. The hours have been long and I have been dedicated to try to succeed for my clients and my family. I felt that I did not have enough nitty gritty telecoms law knowledge for example, so I pushed myself through a diploma in telecoms law while at Allen & Overy. Every weekend and every holiday was dedicated to passing it and writing a thesis to do so.

I’m afraid another challenge has been that I am female and from Scotland. Both have led to challenges, sometimes unexpected and unreasonable – but should never have. I now have the only dedicated space and satellite practice in the UK, which is a wonderful highlight. There is another practice in Germany, but I know we practice a wider range of space matters. The biggest challenge is recruiting experienced staff. The practice has grown so quickly with demand, but there are very few people with the relevant experience – especially on the radiofrequency spectrum side. Working at ESA was a highlight as was winning the FT European Legal Innovator Award in 2014. Seeing the website of the Satellite Finance Network (SFN) (which I co-founded in 2009 to bring the investment community close to the space industry) was also a great highlight. Linked to this, we really stepped up the SFN over lock-down. I was very proud that we conducted 69 one-to-one surgeries with SME companies from April 2020 to April 2021, several workshops and answered all the questions we received from our SFN members and published the work in a 45-page report.

The most wonderful highlight has been receiving an MBE for services to the space industry. This was the greatest motivation to do more, work for greater expertise and support others. I am also proud of the engagement we have with schools including monthly meetings where we bring in industry experts to meet students from year 10-12. I am prouder still of the work and success of some of the students.

Finally, my three girls have told me that they are proud of me – so really, perhaps that is the greatest highlight. The highlights have been worth all the effort.

What are some of the lessons that you have learned along the way or things that you perhaps see differently in hindsight?

I am still learning every day. Each day I am doing something new and applying law, policy and most often common sense in different ways to some interesting activities – or having to draft the regulations or laws to govern novel technologies. I have to use all the legal and regulatory expertise I have and apply other disciplines and reasonableness to the issues clients bring to us. Often, these are issues that lawyers will not have dealt with before. This is not easy for many lawyers however – and I had expected many lawyers to have more flexible minds. I talk about the nuances we have to apply to the practice of space law, such as international relations, national security and politics. But most lawyers have never had to do this before or advise on company strategy and corporate partners.

I had expected there to be more of a level-playing field at law firms based on merit, ability and dedication. I had also presumed that more lawyers would be dedicated to client service and understanding the business of their clients. I think I was rather naïve when I started practising.

Do you have an example of something that did not go to plan and how you dealt with that

Probably the main issue I have encountered is recruitment. This has been a problem for over 15 years. There are really very few people with space law, regulatory, policy and spectrum expertise. But the industry is growing quickly and needs such resources. We are trying to deal with this through engagement with students at high school level and are beginning a mentoring plan to encourage and support students, particularly female, not to shy away from law – and in fact consider space/technology law.

What is your advice to law students, particularly female law students, based on your experiences?

If you want to practice law, and a particular area, you need to go for it – start learning about it as soon as you can and get to know people/companies in it and the issues around it and attend meetings and workshops. However, don’t expect it to be easy going – there are still biases at work. There will be hard work involved – and you will need to be dedicated if you wish to succeed. There are no short cuts for hard work – therefore practice something that you are interested in and enjoy it!

What activities/interests do you enjoy in your spare time (when you have any)?

My working hours are long – longer just now than they have ever been. Any spare time is importantly spent with family; the three beautiful girls I am very lucky to have and my patient husband Alex (another lawyer). When there is time (usually blended with work) I will go to Scotland. I am from Edinburgh and love going back. As a family we have spent most holidays in the stunning northwest coast of Scotland. I am most content up a munro.

What type of approach or attitudes do you think would make the world a better place

Environmental sustainability is an important issue to me, extended to outer space. So one attitude which I would like to see more of is a long-term perspective, rather than a near-term one based on quick financial gain. More personally, there are very few people who actually “listen” to others. I have very few examples where I have seen this in a professional, or even personal, context. Very seldom do people listen and understand other’s perspectives, situations and positions. With listening goes respect – and respect for others and others’ perspectives and positions is all too often missing, and unfortunately I see that often. I would ask people to spend more time listening and understanding – and with that I hope will come greater respect for others and our environ

Published by School of Law, University of Aberdeen

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