Emma Rodriguez-Ayala, '06: Fierce Advocate Combines Business Career with Social Justice

Emma Rodriguez-Ayala, '06

At St. Louis University, from which she graduated summa cum laude, Emma Rodriguez-Ayala had a double major in international business and criminal justice. “I wanted to be a fierce defense attorney,” she recalled, “but my father, who owned a small business in Puerto Rico where I grew up, wanted me to get a business degree. So I did two majors, which turned out to be great preparation for me.”

Today, Rodriguez-Ayala, who graduated from the Law School in 2006, is general counsel and a senior managing director of Mesirow Advanced Strategies, a 10-billion-dollar provider of hedge funds to institutional investors. She is a member of the firm’s operating and executive committees, and she sits on the boards of more than a dozen of the company’s investment funds. Mesirow Advanced Strategies is a subsidiary of Mesirow Financial; both are based in Chicago.

She officially took on the GC role in 2013, but she had been providing the bulk of Mesirow’s legal and compliance services for a few years before that, through the law firm that she cofounded in 2010, Rodriguez-Ayala Sullivan (now Sullivan Wolf Kailus). Mesirow Advanced Strategies had been a major client of hers before that, too, when she worked as an associate at Sidley Austin until founding Rodriguez-Ayala Sullivan.

“I quickly realized at Sidley that the hedge fund industry was for me a particularly fascinating, challenging, and satisfying sector,” she said. “Brilliant and highly creative people are innovating every day in substantial ways to create the most value for clients, and practically everything they come up with is in some complex regulatory gray area. As GC, you have to be a business person first, without giving up being a strong legal advisor.” 

She said that the Law School prepared her for the success she has experienced: “My grades had some wild swings in my first two quarters. Some were great and some were really awful. I was worried that I wasn’t going to make it through. Then it clicked for me that I was there to learn how to deeply and precisely analyze things, how to weigh costs and benefits, size up risks and opportunities. Once that all fell into place, I was on a wonderful learning path that I have applied every day in everything that I have done since.”

She got her share of the fierce advocacy part at the Law School, too, participating in a case in the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project that was settled on behalf of a client for a million dollars. The case had not been resolved when she graduated, and a fellowship funded by Sidley Austin allowed her to continue working on it until the settlement was reached. “I can’t say enough about the clinic and Craig Futterman,” she said. “The work was so fulfilling, and Craig still is a model for me of what a lawyer should be.”

She hasn’t shirked her social justice commitments since graduating. Her extensive pro bono portfolio at Sidley included representing a death row inmate in Alabama through his appeal process, and today she is a member of the advisory board at iMentor, which builds mentoring relationships that empower first-generation students from low-income communities to achieve their goals, and she is on the Chicago senior leadership committee of the Association of Latino Professionals for America. She also mentors a second-year Law School student as part of the Doctoroff Business Leadership Program.

The birth of her first child earlier this year has prompted some thinking about the future, she said: “I love my work at Mesirow, and I so appreciate the faith they placed in me as a relatively young attorney. But now I feel like I have something like a quadruple major, combining a business career, social justice commitments, and being a wife to my wonderful husband and mother to my beautiful son. I want to be sure I can continue to do right by all of my commitments. It’s a remarkable gift to be blessed in so many ways, and I want to do the best I can with that gift.”