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How Founder Ryan Clarkson Built a Law Firm for Underdogs

“Our values are what we export throughout our communities, and ultimately, to the rest of the world.”

As one of five kids born into the blue-collar suburb of Wixom, Michigan, Ryan Clarkson has always had an affinity for the underdog. “I grew up in metropolitan Detroit. It’s a resilient place that tests your mettle,” he says. “It helped shape me. I have that mentality.”

Ryan came up in a tightly knit, working-class community centered around the Ford factory, and he began to defy the odds early on. No one in his family had attended college, but Ryan excelled at school, something he attributes in part to being “a social butterfly with an endless need to ask questions.” After undergrad he went on to graduate from law school at the top of his class, catching the attention of numerous prestigious law firms.

Ryan’s initial trajectory post-graduation is a familiar one: Ambitious boy from the factory town makes good as a high-powered lawyer. But after several years representing the auto industry behemoths that essentially ran his hometown, Ryan came to a realization: “I began to find that when I did my job well, it often felt like I was denying someone justice that really deserved it and needed it. I just felt like I was working for the man.”

“I wanted to get back to my roots. I wanted to flip to the other side and represent everyday people as plaintiffs against corporations that injure, pollute and cheat. It was my way of fighting for my community against corporate wrongdoers and doing what I could to help level the playing field.”

Ryan founded Clarkson as a public interest law firm in 2014. In the Q&A below, he walks us through his journey of how the firm came to be, why it’s different than other class action law firms out there, and how he is building a passionate, diverse team of lawyers who are committed to a fairer future for all.

What was behind your decision to start Clarkson, versus joining another law firm?

After leaving Big Law, I spent a couple of years at a class action law firm working on behalf of people against corporations who were violating the law. I had strong mentors and was exposed to so much as far as what to do and what not to do. After some time, I started to have my own ideas about better ways to represent clients and get better results for them. I wanted to pursue cases and causes I found important. So I decided to take a shot at it.

I started really small, with just a few cases, and I tried to deliver my clients the best results I possibly could. I had some early successes which enabled me to represent more clients. It was all word of mouth. One stone in the river at a time. Eventually, I added a paralegal and a few law clerks. And then Shireen came over, and that’s when we really started to build. One of the biggest things I realized is that when you start your own firm, yes, you’re building on your own experience; but you’re also able to lead with your own set of values and build an organization on the foundation of those values.

We value a safer, sustainable environment. We value the right of every worker to receive a fair wage. We value fair competition in the marketplace. Our values are what we export throughout our communities, and ultimately, to the rest of the world.

How is Clarkson different from other public interest law firms?

The biggest differentiator is that we lead our practice with our value system in mind. While it’s true that we’re always trying to achieve the best possible outcome, it’s bigger than that. We seek to work with clients whose cases can potentially contribute to our broader goal of building a fairer future for everyone. We want to create opportunities for our clients to become champions for a cause, and I’m not sure that’s necessarily top of mind for a lot of other firms.

We also consider it part of our responsibility to educate our community and the general public about their legal rights—the right to safe products and services; the right to secure data and privacy; the right to a fair wage and a workplace free from discrimination of any kind; the right to clean air, safe drinking water, and an environment that’s not polluted.

From an operational approach, we’re a very collaborative law firm, where we are constantly leveraging each other’s superpowers to deliver the very best result for our clients and achieve our goals as a firm. In other words, we’re not siloed into teams that never interact. Growing up in a large, close-knit family, my father taught me the value of hard, honest work, and my mother taught me empathy—to treat the janitor the same way you treat the CEO. So at our firm, we check our egos at the door, give everyone a voice, and emphasize cooperation. Everyone on our team understands that if you’re going to win a championship, it can’t be one guy shooting threes all day even if you’re Steph Curry. You have to move the ball around. You’ve got to rebound. You need to take high percentage shots.

Is there a recent case or settlement that stands out to you as a good representation of how the results can affect meaningful change for the public?

We’ve achieved a lot of success recently in addressing the way manufacturers package foods they sell to the public. As a firm, we’ve settled a handful of multi-million-dollar class action lawsuits against manufacturers who package their foods in oversized packaging. It’s a sneaky way for them to pass their own cost increases on to the consumer by selling less food in larger containers.

Cases like these have enabled us to help educate consumers so they’re aware of it when making their purchase decisions. Additionally, we’re able able to effect change within the industry and persuade manufacturers that their legal liability associated with this deception is not worth the profits they realize from engaging in it. So as a result of our efforts, manufacturers have begun to package their products in containers sized commensurately with the amount of food they contain.

Clarkson brings on a lot of lawyers who are early on in their careers. What’s the thinking behind this approach?

Our firm is a very energetic, creative group of lawyers and legal professionals. And cultivating young talent definitely was and is a deliberate decision. We’re interested in bringing on people with fresh ideas. And sometimes—though certainly not always—they are younger folks.

We’re interested in new ways of thinking, and that can come from a whole range of experiences. Overall, we’re interested in hard-working, creative, talented people that will help us build a strong, diverse, vibrant firm.

Let’s jump tracks in the space-time continuum. There’s a Ryan out there who didn’t go to law school and become a lawyer. What is he doing, career-wise?

I think he’s a storyteller of some kind—an author, a screenwriter, or a director. A love for storytelling is very much a part of my DNA, and I see it as a big part of what Ryan the Lawyer does. Every case is an opportunity to tell the story of a client or a cause.

OK, last question: If you could educate people about one aspect of public interest law, what would it be?

It would be that members of the community do not have to feel powerless against the huge corporations that seek to run our world. They don’t have to sit idly by and just accept the status quo. There are laws on the books that empower citizens to hold corporate wrongdoers accountable. Everyday people can do it. They can champion a cause.

Even if the case seems small, the effect can be huge. When lots of people are affected in the same way, firms like Clarkson can help them band together. There’s serious power in numbers when it comes to effecting change.