Evan Coleman ’05: Merging Law and Public Service

Evan Coleman ’05 says he was so quiet and shy while at Rivers that his yearbook superlative jokingly suggested that he’d be most likely to become a motivational speaker. So, he told a group of students and professional community members in a Revers classroom on Tuesday, there was a bit of irony in finding himself back on campus in something like that very role.

Coleman was the second of three alums returning to campus this year for the Alum Speaker Series. The lunchtime event showcases the efforts and accomplishments of Rivers graduates who are actively engaged in their communities and working to uplift social justice values. 

At Tuesday’s session, Coleman sketched his journey from Rivers to his current role as an employment attorney-advisor for the U.S. Department of the Interior, representing the department’s sub-agencies in employment cases. He arrived at Rivers as a tenth grader, having previously attended public schools in his hometown of Plymouth. “My mom was big on education, and she wanted me and my sister to go to a school with better student-teacher ratios and better opportunities to go to college,” said Coleman. He considered several independent schools, but what decided him in favor of Rivers was the school spirit he saw on display at a basketball game in Haffenreffer Gym. The opposing team won, he recalled. “But what I appreciated was that the student section had so much enthusiasm. The students wanted to be here, and they had so much school pride and spirit.”

Soon he found himself among those students, playing football and basketball and building “core memories” that, he said, he finds himself revisiting frequently. From Rivers he went on to Wesleyan University, where he majored in psychology. “That doesn’t scream ‘law’ to most people,” said Coleman. But a course about psychology and the law pointed him toward his eventual career, landing him at the University of Connecticut’s law school following an Americorps year and a stint as a substitute teacher. 

The law school at UConn, Coleman said, is well known for its law clinics—“allowing law students to take all the theory they’re learning and implement it in real-life situations, providing legal services or arguing cases in courtrooms.” A project within one such clinic had Coleman researching inequities in how discipline is meted out in schools. Having that experience on his resume, he said, eventually helped him get a position at the federal Department of Education as a civil rights lawyer, after spending several years after law school at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. 

Coleman has been with the Department of the Interior for a little over a year, and to give the assembled students a taste of what the work is like, he presented them with a hypothetical case to work on. Splitting the room in two, he gave one half the task of coming up with arguments for firing a non-compliant employee, while the other half argued in favor of keeping the employee.
Students leapt into the case with enthusiasm, coming up with pro-and-con points that Coleman jotted down on the room’s whiteboard. The exercise was so engaging that, although technically Coleman’s time was up, the students asked that he go ahead with a second “case,” as planned. 

This one involved the real-world dispute between NBA players Oscar Tshiebwe and Giannis Antetokounmpo over the rights to a game ball. Plausible arguments, the students realized, could be made on both sides, and no clear solution presented itself. 

Coleman asked the students what the exercise had shown them about being an attorney. The lessons, it seemed, were evident—even if the right conclusion was not. “It shows how important it is that you know everything about the case, so you can build the most arguments that apply,” said one student. Another chimed in, “It also shows there’s a strong argument for both sides, and you could argue for either side.”
That, concluded Coleman, is one of the challenges inherent in his work. “A lot of what we do is argue for stances we don’t necessarily agree with. That’s hard to navigate.”

But at other times, his role gives him a wide range of latitude and autonomy, which he calls his “favorite part of the job.” 

“I enjoy serving as a mediator, when I get to resolve cases pretty much any way I want to,” said Coleman. “In settlement matters, I really have a voice in how those cases are resolved.”
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