Restoring Justice CEO Kevin Coker ’18 Reflects on His Criminal Justice Career Path

Kevin Coker started law school in 2015 with an interest in litigation and supporting people in his community but unsure of his career path. His Trial Advocacy class with Nashville Public Defender Martesha Johnson and the criminal defense work he performed through internships helped him discover his passion for public defense and launch his career. He joined Beth Cruz ’10, Assistant Dean for Public Interest, earlier this month to discuss his journey.

Kevin earned his undergraduate degree at Morehouse College, which has a rich history of educating civil rights activists. He told Cruz that he was inspired to study law by two prominent Black lawyers who become role models: the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former Howard University School of Law Dean Charles Hamilton Houston, who spearheaded Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court case that desegregated schools nationwide. “I saw how they used the law to impact everyday lives, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.

Kevin visited Vanderbilt Law after he was accepted for the J.D. program and knew immediately Vanderbilt was a good fit for him. “I liked the collegial atmosphere here and knew I would be able to talk to my professors,” he recalled.

Still, he recalls his first semester of law school as “a scary eye-opener—my grades weren’t as good as I had hoped.”

He honed his study skills during his second semester and focused all of his energy on succeeding. “I did far better my second semester. That gave me hope that I could do it and that VLS was where I was supposed to be,” he said.

His work on a murder case as an intern with a law firm during his 2L summer confirmed his interest in criminal defense law. “The client had no criminal history, and he was going to trial in a serious murder case. I had an opportunity to really get to know the client. He was acquitted—in fact, they dropped the charge,” Coker recalled. “That experience definitely led me to criminal defense as a career path.”

As a 3L, he worked as an intern with the Nashville Defenders under Chief Public Defender Martesha Johnson, who had taught his Trial Advocacy class. “I fell in love with the Nashville Public Defender’s Office. The attorneys there were client-centered, and I knew this was a good fit,” he said.

Johnson encouraged Kevin to apply for a Gideon’s Promise Fellowship, a three-year program that provides new law graduates a pathway to permanent positions as public defenders. Gideon Fellows receive intensive training, and the program pays their salary and benefits. Kevin was selected as a fellow and matched with the Nashville Defender’s Office.

After three years with the Nashville Defenders, Kevin moved back to his hometown of Houston to join Restoring Justice, a legal nonprofit that provides client-centered representation to indigent clients. As the organization’s CEO and lead attorney, he heads a staff that includes two client advocates who help indigent clients navigate bail and other aspects of the criminal justice system, along with re-entry issues such as getting a driver’s license and copies of essential documents like birth certificates so they can seek employment.

Kevin says the most important aspect of holistic client representation is investing the time to understand each client’s case before meeting with them.

“Client-centered representation is built on the philosophy that the client drives the case, and that you as the lawyer represent the client and their interests—by listening to your clients and giving them information so they can decide how they want to plead,” he said.

While his process is more time-consuming, especially when clients have cognitive disabilities or mental health issues, Kevin says it results in better outcomes. “I’ve learned not to assume a client won’t understand a complex choice. It’s my responsibility to communicate with clients to the best of my ability so they understand their options and that they get to choose what works best,” he said.

Dean Cruz worked with Coker at the Nashville Defenders before joining the Vanderbilt Law Public Interest Office as Assistant Dean and Martha Craig Daughtrey Director for Public Interest in summer 2023. Her interview with Kevin was one in a series of Public Interest Community Conversations sponsored by the Public Interest Office that allow students to meet attorneys working in all types of public service positions and discuss facets of practice related to building long, healthy, and meaningful public interest careers.