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Where are they now? 1997 MLK scholarship winner Phylicia Powers shares her life as a lawyer

Editor's Note: This story along with several others will be featured in a special section called More than a Month: Black History. The section, which comes out Sunday, Feb. 13, will include engaging stories on Black-owned businesses and local history and interviews with some of the brightest activists and business leaders in the community. The More than a Month special section will come out quarterly, starting with Black History, followed by Pride, Hispanic Heritage and Native American months. 

When Phylicia Powers received the Martin Luther King Jr. Trust Fund Scholarship in 1997, she knew it was a big deal.

"Growing up everyone knew about the MLK scholarship and it was one of the only ones for students of color," she said earlier this month.

In 1997, Powers, now 41, was a student at The Williams School in New London. The $10,000 award helped her pay for college textbooks when she attended the University of Maryland, helping reduce the cost for her parents. Powers said it also opened doors for her, guest speaking at the MLK award ceremony in 2015 and other MLK-sponsored events.

Almost 25 years after receiving the scholarship, Powers is an accomplished juvenile and adult criminal defense attorney in North Carolina, named one of the state's Super Lawyers and Rising Stars in 2019. She was also named one of the top 100 lawyers for the National Black Lawyer's Association for 2020-'21.

Born in Wilmington, N.C., Powers moved to Connecticut when she was 9 since her father, now retired Lt. Col. Ronald K. Powers, was in the Army. She lived in Mystic for many years until leaving for college.

Upon graduating from the University of Maryland with an undergraduate degree in Criminal Justice and African American Studies, Powers knew she wanted to go to law school, but the journey proved more difficult than she thought it would.

Powers said she applied to law schools but was not accepted.

In the meantime, she returned to North Carolina to teach. She accepted a teaching job at Charity Middle School in Duplin County, where her parents were raised. The middle school was once the segregated high school her mother attended, said Powers.

Powers said her time as a teacher was meant to be, as it helped her teach her clients about their cases and the criminal justice process. She said people are often misguided about the system due to the false narratives on television crime shows.

"Having had to prepare differentiated lesson plans for learners at various levels of learning has assisted me in being able to communicate with my clients at the level where we 'meet' whether they read on a sixth grade level or have a college education," she said.

In 2008, Powers was accepted by the North Carolina Central University School of Law, the 20th law school she had applied to attend and a historically Black university. She graduated in 2011 and passed the state bar exam the same year. She then worked as an assistant public defender  in Durham, N.C., for eight years.

She is currently an attorney at Roberts Law Group in Raleigh, N.C. She has gained experience in juvenile and adult criminal defense and litigation work, covering 29 counties in central North Carolina.

"It's funny," she joked. "I got out of teaching to get away from kids to go to defending kids in court."

Although her cases can range from misdemeanors to serious offenses such as crime and drug trafficking, she said 60% of her cases deal with sex offenses.

Powers said people tend to "scrunch up their noses" whenever she tells them about her expertise. Given our current political and social climate, she said what most people do not understand is how easy it is to get charged with sexual offenses.

"The lines are murky," said Powers. "Every case is not the same, every person is not the same."

Throughout her education and life, Powers said she has encountered many mentors, pushing and guiding her. To this day, Powers remembers the words her seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Mirabito, told her: "I don't know what you are going to do with your life, but you are going to be an advocate."

"It's my job to be an advocate for my client," Powers said. "We're going to be on a journey together and they have to confide in me."

Now Powers strives to be a mentor to young attorneys.

She is also an adjunct professor at her alma mater, NCCU School of Law, and at Strayer University. She also serves as a trial coach, assisting second- and third- year students at NCCU who compete in a regional American Associates for Justice (AAJ) trial competition, having been involved in similar competitions when she was a student.

j.vazquez@theday.com

 

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