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Called Up

Ariel Roberson went from pro soccer player to business litigator and children’s book publisher

Published in 2021 North Carolina Super Lawyers magazine

A soccer phenom growing up, at 15 Ariel H. Roberson got called up to the U.S. U-16 National Team. But a week later, she tore her ACL. “It was devastating,” she says. Once she recovered, she continued to train with the hopes of playing in college and beyond. But her senior year, she tore her other ACL. 

“I worked really hard to get back after that second injury,” Roberson says. It paid off, and she played through college at UNC (in 2006, her junior year, UNC won the national championship). She began to generate buzz among national teams again, but she wanted to go pro. 

In 2009, she realized that dream when the Boston Breakers drafted her in the Women’s Professional Soccer league’s inaugural year. 

“When you work so hard for something and it’s in your grasp, it’s humbling,” Roberson says. “I felt so privileged. And I was playing amongst the best, like Angela Hucles, Amy Rodriguez and Kristine Lilly.” 

As much as Roberson loved the game, she was a realist. “My knees were so worn down that I realized I’d never get back to the level I expected of myself,” she says. 

Plan B was law school, an idea she got from former UNC head coach Anson Dorrance, who told her that if she wasn’t sure what came after the Breakers, a J.D. would open quite a few doors. 

“Playing soccer divinely aligned my life,” Roberson says. “I met some amazing people who opened my eyes to not only the possibility of practicing law, but also what it means to be in the service of others. Soccer helped me navigate the world in a way that I didn’t anticipate.” 

During her season with the Breakers, she studied for the LSAT between field practice and weight training, and started law school in 2010. 

Leaving professional soccer was tough, although Roberson is thrilled at the sport’s evolution. “I was generally the only little Black girl on the field,” she says, “so the way youth leagues are popping up all over, and girls being encouraged in new places to play, is fantastic.”

Now the game comes up in her day job. While Roberson mostly practices business litigation and employment law at Nelson Mullins, she’s been grooming a sports law niche. Former teammates were among her first clients, like Yael Averbuch West, creator of the Techne App, which helps players master the technical skills the pitch demands. “Among other things, I helped Yael reshape her articles of incorporation,” she says. “Sports law really meshes well with my practice group.”

Roberson also ensures she has time for pro bono, work that’s close to her heart. 

“From the time I entered law, pro bono work was very important to me,” she says. She mostly assists Legal Aid of North Carolina with landlord/tenant work. “Helping someone stay in their home is so rewarding,” she says. “I’ve seen firsthand how my colleagues and peers have rolled up their sleeves and really answered the call to helping people stay in their homes during [the pandemic]. I’m proud to assist in that work.”

Roberson counts representation as paramount, and it’s something that connects her athletic and legal careers: from being “the little Black girl on the soccer field” to “the singularity of being a Black woman,” Roberson says. Now she’s passing it on as the mentor of other young lawyers of color, as well as with a passion project she spearheads with her sister: Garden St. Inc, a publisher of children’s books. 

Garden St. is a nod to the home of Roberson’s Grandma Harris, where Roberson and her sister, Amber Payton, spent a considerable amount of time. “Most of the important lessons I’ve learned and stories I’ve heard about my family came from that house,” Roberson says. “It’s a place very near and dear to my sister and I.”

The sisters’ shared passion for educating young people about the African diaspora led to their co-authored book series, Sierra and Chad’s Stone Adventures, which explores historic African characters.

“Traditional education seems to provide us with only stories of overcoming slavery and injustices during the civil rights movement; however there is so much more than that,” Roberson says. “In the law, and with this project, my goal is the same—I want to open doors and expand our understanding of the impact the African diaspora has had on the world.”

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