The series “Five Years Out” catches up with Bowdoin alumni to learn what they’re up to and where they’ve been since earning their diplomas in 2011.
This summer, Phoebe “Coco” Sprague left Texas, her home state, to intern at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York City. She is a rising third-year law student at the University of Texas School of Law.
Sprague describes the Brennan Center as “part think-tank, part non-partisan law and policy institute.” One of its core missions is to end mass incarceration and to ensure racial equality in the legal system. “I came to law school to understand what it means to achieve justice in a system that is broken right now,” Sprague said. “I want to affect change.”
Sprague has already put in many hours toward this goal. “My entire career trajectory starting at Bowdoin is what led me to come here,” she said. The path began when Sprague, as an undergraduate, interned for the Maine Volunteer Lawyers Project in Portland, Maine. Her experience with this nonprofit, which provides free assistance to low-income people facing civil issues, convinced her she wanted to enter the legal field.
“That job hit me hard,” she said. “The minute you plug in the phone, it starts ringing. People across the state really need these services.” Only 10 percent of the cases reported to the organization get taken up because MVLP does not have the resources to help everyone, according to Sprague.
An English major and a government and legal studies minor at Bowdoin, Sprague said her interest in law was also nurtured by several classes she took. One of these was constitutional law with, she said, “the late, great” Richard Morgan, who was Bowdoin’s William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Constitutional Law. Another was a class by Associate Professor of Africana Studies and English Tess Chakkalakal looking at African American literature and the law, and a third was a philosophy of law class.
A week after graduating from Bowdoin, Sprague started a job as a legal assistant with a criminal defense firm in New York City. Because this was a smaller firm, Sprague said she got to help with a lot of interesting cases, including a number of pro bono ones. “I had a lot of opportunity to see what life was like as a lawyer,” she said.
In 2014, she began her studies at the University of Texas. As a law student, she’s clerked for the federal public defender for the southern district of Texas, and she has worked at the juvenile justice clinic for her law school, helping young people charged with both misdemeanors and felonies. “It was so eye-opening for me,” Sprague recalled. “These kids were so great — I loved working with them in that clinic.” The young people were often trapped in spirals of drug abuse and mental health, and part of Sprague’s role was not only to help them navigate the justice system but to direct them to social services.
Spargue said that next year, after she takes the bar, she will seek jobs where she can provide direct service to the most needy. “My interest is criminal defense work,” she said, “and my most rewarding experiences have been working with indigent clients.”