I am both a practising black belt and a practising barrister, dangerous both in and out of court. Alongside my practice at the Bar, I am a 4th degree black belt, with thriving clubs of over 250 students, a qualified instructor and a national level Taekwondo judge. The Taekwondo International World Championships were held in July this year, and my students did incredibly well. Backed by local sponsorship, we were able to field 69 students across 97 events. We came back with 59 medals, including 22 World Champions. One of my students even got four gold medals!

Once I earnt the coveted black belt in 2011, something strange started happening in court. When I mentioned the fact that I was a black belt to male opponents, they treated me with more respect in court! While this should probably irritate me more than it does, it actually makes me laugh. I often joke that ‘if I don’t get them in court, I can get them in the car park afterwards’. My black belt barrister skills got me noticed by Legal Cheek back in 2013, when they made a series of gifs of me breaking a one-inch thick piece of wood with my bare hands.

‘You eat what you kill’, a phrase often applied to the self-employed Bar, is felt all the more sharply when it’s just down to you – and you alone – to get all your work. I practise out of Alpha Court Chambers, a tiny set of chambers with no building, no clerk, no staff and – *whispers* – no rent. This does, however, mean that I have to generate all my own work myself. Much of my self-marketing is on social media, and I hold on tightly to the wise words the eminent Kerry Underwood once told me; never tweet when over the drink-drive limit. It’s like not responding straight away to an email that makes you angry; write it by all means, but don’t send it until you’ve cooled down.

My most famous student of all time has to be Secret Barrister. There was an accident. Presents were knocked everywhere. Silly bunny. However, this did allow intrepid onlookers a unique opportunity to help Secret Barrister gather up all the presents while avoiding scythe wielding MPs and journalists… picking up points on my website Christmas game. This is now a regular feature every December, and last year I even managed to cajole a silk into making some sound effects for snowballs hitting judges. Any guesses who? This is one of the more fun aspects of my self-marketing!

After a hard day in court, it is great to let off a bit of steam, and kicking and punching something really hard is most cathartic. How did I get into Taekwondo? My then 6-year-old daughter announced one day that she no longer wanted to do ballet, but could she do Karate instead?! I found an advert for Taekwondo classes locally, and I reasoned she wouldn’t know the difference. One of the instructors encouraged me to join in, but it took me nearly six months before I did so. On achieving my red belt, I told DJ McHale at Northampton CC (long since retired) that I was now officially ‘dangerous’ and without pausing to draw breath he retorted, ‘Mrs Robson, you’ve always been dangerous!’

Arguments over ‘fixed costs or no’ get quite interesting. I have quite a niche practice: 90% of my practice concerns fixed costs. Why costs you say? It sounds so boring! However, the lengths some solicitors will go to in an attempt to evade fixed costs, or get to the next bracket up, is actually quite fascinating, and certainly amusing. As keen as a solicitor might be to help their client achieve a great result, they are often more animated about their costs. Over the years I have seen a variety of ‘cunning plans’, though many fared no better than Baldrick’s! Paying lip service to pre-action protocols is never a good strategy.

It’s been great to actually create some law. With the advent of various fixed costs regimes, I’ve been involved in many test cases. Practising mainly in fixed costs I see a lot of different permutations and appreciate the costs consequences which flow from many possibilities. Fixed costs take on a life of their own. I’ve found that having such a depth of knowledge in this area enables me to beat some really senior barristers, including silks.

I love keeping a record of what percentage of cases I won or lost. Even newly on my feet, I’m quite proud of the fact it was in the 90s. It remained that high when I fell pregnant with my second, so yah! – no baby brain here! However, once I started to show, I noticed that I was losing cases hand over fist. This was not baby brain; I was still winning in the 90s when I didn’t show. I sadly concluded I did not look like a ‘swish barrister’; I looked like a mum, and perhaps they didn’t want me there. This has always stuck with me. I hope things have moved on by now.

Body language is as important in advocacy as it is in sparring. Advocacy remains not just what you say, it’s the whole package – how you look, how you speak, and the impression you give. You can’t let your opponent know you have any weaknesses. Or a favourite kick – they will be ready for that. Recently I was given a stark reminder of this. when walking down a busy shopping street in full dobok and black belt. Ordinarily on a busy street I would step out of the way of (mostly men) coming in the opposite direction; they wouldn’t step out of my way. However, in my dobok, men were stepping out of my way! The dobok gave me authority, in the same way my pregnant belly took away my authority. I was the same person, yet people treated me very differently because of how I looked and the impression that gave them of me.

There are times at the Bar when you will literally have to work your socks off, and you won’t get much sleep. You can only do this in short bursts though. You’ll simply burn yourself out if you maintain that for long periods. I found that when time was short, what you need to do is work smart. Focus. I did my law degree while working full-time. I had to get on with it in the evenings and weekends as there was no choice. Once I had a baby, I could only work when she was asleep. She taught me to focus in a way no schoolteacher ever could!

A final thought: Taekwondo has a saying: ‘Hard work will beat talent if talent doesn’t work hard.’ The same is true at the Bar. I have beaten senior barristers because I have worked harder than they have. You can be afraid of going up against a big name in your field, and indeed I have been. But they don’t always win. 

Sarah Robson