The Reluctant Lawyer
Willie Dow started out in the Peace Corps and ended up in the courtroom
Published in 2007 New England Super Lawyers magazine
on October 23, 2007
Updated on October 2, 2019
Gov. John Grosvenor Rowland, the most powerful politician in the state of Connecticut, was watching his government crumble around him. Once wildly popular—the youngest governor Connecticut ever had, he had trounced gubernatorial opponents in three elections—Rowland, beset by allegations of rampant corruption, began to sense he’d be leaving office with a dubious legacy: first Connecticut governor to face impeachment; first Connecticut governor to do time in prison. There was only one person he could think to turn to for representation: William “Willie” Dow III.
The selection surprised few people. If you’re in a fix, you want Dow on your side. But go back 40 years and look at Dow as a young man. You’d never predict he would turn into the lawyer he is today. You wouldn’t predict he’d turn into a lawyer, period.
Dow was born in Stony Creek, a small blue-collar town, on Dec. 7, 1941—the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It’s become an annual joke in his family, which includes several adopted Asian children among his brood of seven.
“One of my sons calls me on December 8,” Dow says. “He says, ‘December 7 is not a good day for Asians to be calling.’”
Dow, an only child, was sent to a private school and did well enough to earn a scholarship to Yale, where he got by with middling grades and earned a degree in political science (the actor and fellow Nutmegger he’s often mistaken for, Sam Waterston, graduated from Yale a year before he did).
Dow was accepted into the University of Pennsylvania Law School but, to his family’s consternation, chose not to attend. Instead, having heard President John F. Kennedy’s call, he joined the Peace Corps and was sent to a tiny village in Colombia, where he helped locals obtain construction and medical supplies and learned to speak Spanish.
“I had a fridge that ran on kerosene and a bathroom outside,” Dow says. “I had a pet duck, a pet sloth. You’d sit inside and there’d be lizards crawling up and down the walls.”
His biggest lesson in two years there: He didn’t know anything.
“I thought I was going to flip up my Zippo lighter and people would start bowing and scraping,” he says with a laugh. “I’m a 21-year-old liverwurst graduate from Yale who finished in the middle of his class and who’s never been anywhere, and I’m telling some 40-year-old with four kids how to live his life? How bizarre is that? And the thing is, I thought I was right!”
When Dow’s Peace Corps tour ended, he returned to the States. He still had the service bug, however, and was eager to get back abroad. “I wanted to return to South America and sell meat or something,” he says.
His family had other ideas. Three uncles, who’d never been given the opportunities Dow had, took him out for 18 holes of golf and beat him, badly, while berating him.
“To them I was this jerk for turning down law school,” Dow says.
His family’s arm-twisting worked. He started at Penn Law in the fall of 1965. He hated it.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was intimidated by the people around me,” he says.
During his first summer break, he couldn’t get a job in the field of law. So he went back to Stony Creek and did construction work. By the time he graduated from law school, he had a wife—a schoolteacher from a large family in Indiana—and was starting what would be a large family of his own. But he still felt no real passion for the law. He fell into a fellowship doing poverty work for immigrants in Fort Myers, Fla., from 1968 to 1969, then bounced up to Washington, D.C., where he handled landlord-tenant matters.
“I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing,” Dow says. “I was like, ‘Give me a dance chart and I’ll do it, just don’t ask me to be creative.’ Don’t give me a blank canvas—it’ll stay blank.”
He found direction in 1970 from the highly rated public defender’s office in Washington, D.C., getting a lucky break with a friendly interview.
“I’ve got a résumé that looks like it’s good, but if you look at it closely, I’m in the middle of my class,” he says. “[This person] was interviewing Supreme Court clerks, guys who were federal clerks, guys who used to be professors. I was just some guy who didn’t want to be a lawyer.”
But he clearly made a good impression because he was offered a job. The office’s training program sharpened Dow’s legal skills and gave him the context he needed.
“It’s like when you’re a kid playing baseball, but you don’t really know what a cut-off throw is,” he says. “There’s a reason you throw to the first baseman instead of to home plate, but you don’t see it until you’re older.”
He worked his way to a supervisory position, but by 1974 he was burned out. His father died that year, too, so he moved the family back to Connecticut and joined the U.S. Attorney’s office. While there, he worked as second chair on a huge arson case and made headlines for charging Brandeis University students with contempt for withholding information about a bank robbery and murder.
Hugh Keefe, of Lynch, Traub, Keefe & Errante, remembers Dow from this period as even-minded, with a down-to-earth sense of humor. They met while Keefe was defending a check kiter against whom Dow was considering filing federal charges.
“There are some prosecutors who have no perspective and no compassion and are overly zealous, who feel all targets of investigation are bad people,” Keefe says. “There are others who realize bad people are a small percentage of defendants and that most are good people who made a mistake. Good prosecutors see the distinction. Poor ones treat them all the same. Willie was one of the good ones.”
In 1976, a court stenographer mentioned an opening at the firm that is now Jacobs, Grudberg, Belt, Dow & Katz. Dow’s sociability and knack for being at the right place at the right time boosted his fortunes again.
“The only lawyer I ever heard of as a kid was this guy Howard Jacobs—he was the lawyer all the big guys went to,” he says. “So when I had the opportunity to work here, I took it. I said, ‘You’ve got to let me go on spring training with my kids and you’ve got to let me go to Little League practice.’ Those were my conditions. We didn’t discuss money or anything like that. It was like letting me play in Yankee Stadium.”
And Dow would get the pitcher’s mound to himself in several highly publicized games. In the case of Antonio Lasaga, the Yale geology professor charged in 1998 with molesting an 11-year-old boy and possessing massive quantities of child pornography, Dow’s tenure was brief. Dow worked out a plea bargain that would include concurrent time for Lasaga’s offenses, but Lasaga fired him. Ultimately, the professor received consecutive sentences.
“The lesson is, no matter how smart you are, you still ought to listen to your lawyer,” Dow says, chuckling.
“I think in this profession, particularly in criminal trial law, one of the great necessities for survival on a long-term basis is a sense of humor,” Keefe says. “There’s a correlation between having fun doing what you’re doing and doing it well. Willie has a tremendous sense of humor and it helps you maneuver through days that otherwise would be pure hell because you’re dealing with unhappy people whose choices many times are bad.”
Judge Edward J. Dolan, who met Dow years ago when they were both trial lawyers, today sits on the Connecticut Superior Court. He can attest to Dow’s easygoing temperament. “He has the highest emotional IQ of anyone I’ve ever met,” Dolan says. Just don’t ask him to praise Dow’s athletic ability.
“When he first started to practice law, he called up and wanted to play on my softball team,” he says with a smile. “I thought because of his fancy Ivy League background that he wouldn’t be able to play and I said no. And I was right—he’s a great lawyer but a lousy softball player.”
But in the courtroom there are few he considers better.
“He’s not only an extremely good negotiator, but he can try a case if necessary,” he says. “He’s in the top 5 percent in both categories, and I don’t think that there’s 1 percent who have the ability to negotiate and try a case as well as he can.
“He just has a tremendous advantage in negotiations because he doesn’t let his ego get involved. Most big-time trial lawyers have people who don’t trust them. Willie doesn’t have that.”
Which is a good thing for an embattled governor looking for counsel. Rowland needed a lawyer who would speak truth to power, provide reliable and expert advice, and do so without using the case to bolster his own career. That’s what he got in Dow.
“In order to represent a client well, whether Lasaga or Rowland, you have to tell the score and not always accept the client’s decision about how the case should be handled,” Dow says. “There were times along the way with Rowland where frank discussions were called for, and my client understood where I was coming from.”
Rowland resigned from office on July 1, 2004. On Dec. 23 of that year he pleaded guilty to stealing honest service and was later sentenced to one year and one day in a federal penitentiary. He entered into the plea agreement with the understanding that the sentence would be imposed by Judge Pete C. Dorsey, who also sentenced Rowland’s chief of staff and contractor. He was released Feb. 10, 2006.
“I think the way Willie handled that case was typical Willie,” Dolan says. “I consider myself to be a good friend of Willie’s, and he was representing the governor for three or four months before I even knew it. He had no interest in using this extremely high-profile case to try to enhance his professional exposure. The selection of Willie was absolutely a sensible move on Rowland’s part, and the results are obvious. Very, very few people would have been able to negotiate that kind of a settlement.”
Not that Dow doesn’t occasionally doubt himself.
“You get wiser in the sense of knowing what’s a good deal and what’s a bad deal,” Dow says. “Of course, you always have misgivings. You wonder, ‘Am I the biggest wuss in the world?’”
Ever the reluctant lawyer, Dow tends to gloss over his other law-related endeavors, such as teaching trial law at Yale and Quinnipiac Law School and taking part in the Connecticut-Pskov Rule of Law Project. And outside of law, he loves to run, although recent hip surgery has sidelined him for the time being. Still, he’ll be sure to find a way to enjoy the next New Haven Road Race, a 20K that he attends religiously.
“He sits for half the race in a lawn chair near his house and then moves to the other side of town for the other half,” Keefe says. “The entire time he smokes a cigar and watches the racers run their ass off. It’s …Willie-esque.”