Remembering Deborah L. Rhode: Legal Ethics Pioneer, Stanford Scholar, Mentor to Many

In her 2015 book, The Trouble with Lawyers, Deborah 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.

“The current plight of indigent criminal and civil litigants is an embarrassment to any civilized nation, let alone one that considers itself a world leader on the rule of law,” Rhode, the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and director of the Center on the Legal Profession said in a 2015 interview for Stanford Lawyer.

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.”

A world-renowned scholar in the study of legal ethics and the legal profession and 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, SLS professor of law, Deane F. Johnson Faculty Scholar, and one of Deborah’s co-authors on Legal Ethics, a leading casebook. “But for me, her most indelible mark was distinctly personal. She was one of the best friends I’ll ever have. 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 passed away on Friday, January 8. She was 68 years old. She leaves behind her husband, Ralph Cavanagh, as well as her sister, Christine Rhode, and eight beloved nieces and nephews. A memorial service is being planned.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *