Championing the underdog

William Greenlaw ’22 has his sights set on the ‘least, lost, and left out’

If life itself is our greatest teacher, then a student who can apply lived experience to classroom learning has the benefit of a superior education.

William Greenlaw ’22 not only has these tools, but he is already applying them to the law. Having grown up in what he describes as a working-class family in Indiana, Greenlaw has already provided legal services for a labor union and co-founded (with Abraham Barkordar ’22) the Plaintiffs’ Law Association at Harvard Law School, for which he also served as co-president.

“Life cannot only be just grasp, greed, and gain. Instead, we should do our best to focus on the least, lost, and the left out,” said Greenlaw, paraphrasing his pastor (“among others,” he noted). At Harvard Law, his goal has been “to figure out how best I could do that.”

Greenlaw has long championed the underdog. As a data analyst at the New York State attorney general’s office before coming to Harvard Law School, he helped fight wage theft and anticompetitive corporate mergers, identifying white-collar criminals “who were using their power and privilege in society to take advantage of people who didn’t have those things.”

But after beginning law school, the 2017 Harvard College graduate had difficulty figuring out how to replicate that kind of experience. “There were a lot of opportunities in big law, but there weren’t many opportunities to work at plaintiffs’ firms — or plaintiff-adjacent firms — that would do the kind of work that we were envisioning,” he said. That work, he explained, is often “cases that people care about, whether it’s holding big tech accountable for privacy violations or large industries accountable for antitrust violations.”

Such efforts not only help individual clients with their suits, he noted. Ultimately “through strategic litigation, we can compel bad actors to alter the systems of their own design.”

The idea of a plaintiff-oriented law school organization had immediate appeal. “Many students were not aware that there was a gap in the kind of legal opportunity available. They were not aware that a plaintiffs’ firm was an opportunity.”

My interests are always aligned around the value of trying to work on behalf of working people. … To use the incredible privilege and benefits that I’ve received in my life, whether it’s from my family, my community, my friends, my mentors, and to project that outward.

The organization has worked to make those opportunities real, holding two job fairs thus far and placing a number of students in internships. “I think that there is an enduring appeal to this, once we’ve made it known that these opportunities are available,” said Greenlaw.

“My interests are always aligned around the value of trying to work on behalf of working people,” he continued. “To use the incredible privilege and benefits that I’ve received in my life, whether it’s from my family, my community, my friends, my mentors, and to project that outward.”

The sense of fairness at the heart of Greenlaw’s work springs from personal tragedy. A first-generation college graduate, Greenlaw describes his Harvard experience using poet Langston Hughes’ words, as “a dream deferred for my family.” His mother had registered at an institution that was subsequently bought by a for-profit college and shut down “under mysterious circumstances,” leaving her without recourse, he said. A 16-year Army veteran, his mother had left the service when she was placed in a position she felt was unsafe. After her discharge, she found her benefits “completely opaque” — a common complaint among veterans — and difficult to access. The situation was compounded by depression and difficulty finding gainful employment. A Black woman, she also found her complaints of chest pain ignored when she sought medical help, he said. Because of a blood clot that went undiagnosed, she died of a heart attack during Greenlaw’s freshman year.

“At each of these junctures, there was a compounding disadvantage for my family,” explained Greenlaw. “If the government policy was different, she could have stayed until her pension. If veteran’s benefits were clear, she could have gotten them earlier. If there were veteran enforcement to stop employers from abusing their employees, she wouldn’t have been bouncing from job to job. If doctors were more sensitive to systemic racism, she would’ve gotten better care.”

Despite such systemic failures, Greenlaw sees both reason to hope and a call to action. “I think the law is becoming more aware of that,” he said. “But we are not there yet.”

The drive to enact such change also has roots in Greenlaw’s family. Propelled in part by his father’s history as a steelworker and his stepmother’s as an organizer for the United Steelworkers (USW) union, he won a Peggy Browning Summer Fellowship and spent last summer with the USW in Pittsburgh. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard,” he said, of his time spent researching labor issues from freedom of speech, as it pertains to organizers and employees, to collective bargaining strategies. “I’ve been learning more and more about how to apply the law on behalf of working people as best I can,” he said.

This has been true throughout his time at Harvard Law School, said Professor Ruth L. Okediji  L.L.M. ’91 S.J.D. ’96, Greenlaw’s contract law professor, who he describes as a mentor. “William was always looking for the people, problems, or perspectives that were invisible in the doctrines and caselaw he studied,” said Okediji, the Jeremiah Smith. Jr, Professor of Law and co-director of the Berkman Klein Center. “He didn’t want to wait until graduation to tackle the hard problems or shine a light in the darkest places in society. From the first day of class as a 1L, William was intent on using his legal education to ‘turn mirrors into windows,’ enabling him to see, hear, and act on the silence of those too weary to speak — like members of labor unions where his dad also was a member.”

After he graduates on May 26, this drive will take him back to Indiana, where he has a clerkship with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Bloomington, followed by a clerkship in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana in Indianapolis. After that, he’s thinking of becoming a trial attorney with the aim of eventually working for the Department of Justice.

“My ultimate goal is to use the law to the advantage of working people who don’t necessarily have that voice,” he said.