Leading legal academic Deborah L. Rhode dies at 68

Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode was a legal ethics pioneer, prolific scholar, and friend and mentor to countless.

Deborah L. Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford University, died on Friday, Jan. 8. She was 68 years old.

Law Professor Deborah Rhode portrait

Deborah L. Rhode (Image credit: Eun K. Sze)

“Deborah was a pioneering woman on the Stanford faculty when she joined the law school in 1979. A beloved teacher and mentor to many, she will be missed by her faculty colleagues, current and former students, and generations of lawyers and legal scholars across the globe,” said Jenny S. Martinez, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and dean of the Law School. “She was a tireless advocate for a vision of law as public service, and an advocate in the profession for women, people of color and others who felt marginalized.”

In her 2015 book, The Trouble with Lawyers, Rhode recalled how, as a law student at Yale in the mid-1970s, she came face-to-face with both the desperate deficit of legal services for the poor in this country – and the intransigence of the legal profession. She was interning at a legal aid office, where demand far outstripped the capacity to supply legal representation. So, Rhode and her colleagues created a simple “how-to” kit – a precursor to the many tools now available online for self-representation. But the effort was quickly threatened with legal action by local bar association officials who charged them with the unauthorized practice of law.

That early insight not only became the through line for Rhode’s prolific academic career, but it also put Rhode on the cutting edge of the profession. A world-renowned scholar in the study of legal ethics and the legal profession and one of the nation’s most frequently cited legal ethics scholar, Rhode’s work was relevant and often timely.

“She was a pathbreaker. A towering intellect, her dazzling ideas ignited scholarly inquiry in many critical areas of law – not just legal ethics, where she was the nation’s foremost expert – but also gender studies, access to justice and leadership,” said Nora Freeman Engstrom, professor of law, Deane F. Johnson Faculty Scholar and one of Rhode’s co-authors on Legal Ethics, a leading casebook. “But for me, her most indelible mark was distinctly personal. As soon as I arrived on the Stanford faculty, she took me under her wing, providing a sounding board, mentorship, tough love and steadfast devotion. She had a huge heart, a quick wit and a spine of steel.”

Rhode was born to Frederick and Hertha Rhode in Evanston, Illinois, on Jan. 29, 1952. She was a nationally ranked debater in high school in the late 1960s, according to her sister, Christine Rhode, who noted that one of her favorite rivals was Merrick Garland, who went on to become a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and President-elect Biden’s nominee to be U.S. Attorney General.

She attended Yale College and then Yale Law School, where she was editor of the Yale Law Journal and director of the Moot Court Board. She graduated in 1977 and clerked for United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall before joining the Stanford Law School faculty in 1979 – only the second woman granted tenure.

Widely considered to be the founder of the study of legal ethics, Rhode’s scholarly legacy is firmly set in more than 30 books and 200 articles she penned, many focusing on access to justice, pro bono service and reforming the legal profession – including The Trouble with Lawyers, In the Interests of Justice, The Beauty Bias, Women and Leadership and Moral Leadership: The Theory and Practice of Power, Judgment and Policy.

“Deborah defined new fields and redefined old concepts: legal ethics, leadership, access to justice, anti-discrimination law and many others. She founded the field of legal ethics, infused it with intellectual rigor and insisted that it stand for values of justice, access and equality,” said Scott Cummings, professor of law at UCLA School of Law and co-author of Legal Ethics. “She not only made it legitimate to study lawyers and their role in society but made it possible to demand that they live up to their very highest principle – and never hesitated to call them out when they failed.”

While Rhode was enormously productive, producing a small library of influential articles and books, she was not quietly tucked away in academia.

“This slight, seemingly delicate woman was a gigantic figure in the study of the legal profession and in movements to reform it,” said Robert W. Gordon, professor of law. “But she didn’t just write about problems with the profession and its ethics: she took practical action. She was a tireless promoter – as a chair of many bar committees, columnist for legal periodicals, head of the law teachers’ association – of legal reform.”

And she agitated for change in the legal profession. As the president of the Association of American Law Schools, she led an initiative that established an Association Section on Pro Bono Service and Public Interest Law. As founding president of the International Association of Legal Ethics, she helped ensure that pro bono service and equal justice initiatives are central to legal educators’ global agenda. She also served as senior counsel to the minority members of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary on presidential impeachment issues during the Clinton administration. She was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and vice chair of the board of Legal Momentum (formerly the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund).

In 2008, Rhode founded the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession and launched the Roadmap to Justice Project to bring greater visibility and expertise to the issues surrounding access to justice. But she also made sure that technical innovation was part of the center’s research. “In the United States, some of the impetus for legal innovation has been blocked by restrictive bar rules on the unauthorized practice of law,” she said in a 2013 Stanford Lawyer article. “Technology has opened our eyes to the ways that traditional licensing structures have impeded effective and efficient delivery of services.”

In recognition of such work, she received the American Bar Association’s Michael Franck award for contributions to the field of professional responsibility, the American Bar Foundation’s W. M. Keck Foundation Award for distinguished scholarship on legal ethics, the American Foundation’s Distinguished Scholar award, the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award for her work on expanding public service opportunities in law schools, and the White House’s Champion of Change award for a lifetime’s work in increasing access to justice.

Rhode was also active in Stanford University leadership. She was the founder and former director of Stanford’s Center on Ethics, the founder and former director of the Stanford Program on Social Entrepreneurship, and the former director of the Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford.

In 2003, Stanford Law School established the Deborah L. Rhode Public Interest Award, which is given annually to a graduating student who has demonstrated outstanding non-scholarly public service during law school.

Rhode is survived by her husband, Ralph Cavanagh, as well as her sister, Christine Rhode, and eight beloved nieces and nephews. A memorial service is being planned.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Deborah L. Rhode Pro Bono Fund at Stanford Law School, which was established and underwritten by Deborah earlier in 2020 to support students providing pro bono services to communities in need: https://law.stanford.edu/DeborahRhodeProBonoFund.