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.

Women’s Suffrage at 100: A Celebration of Partial Progress
Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode (photo by Bruce Forrester Photography)

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. And she also made sure that 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.”

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Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode (photo by Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service)

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.

“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. “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.  At a personal level, she was also a cherished friend.  I have so many wonderful memories of conversations and walks with her.  From the moment I joined the faculty as an assistant professor, she always had an encouraging word, good advice, or a bit of dry humor to make the best of a bad day. It is hard for me to imagine Stanford Law School without her.”

Deborah L. Rhode was born to Frederick and Hertha Rhode in Evanston, Illinois, on January 29, 1952. In high school near Chicago during the late 1960s, she was a nationally ranked debater; 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.

Character: What it Means and Why it Matters
Photo of Justice Marshall taken by Deborah Rhode when she clerked for him

Rhode entered Yale College in 1970—part of only the second class to include women. She became the first woman president of the Yale Varsity Debate Association (her predecessors included John Kerry and William F. Buckley, Jr.) and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude. She attended 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.

At Stanford Law, Rhode was a mentor to students and new colleagues alike, often forming life-long bonds.

“When I first encountered Deborah Rhode as my Legal Ethics professor in 1981, I was struck by the clarity of her vision, the discipline of her intellect, and the reach of her scholarship. She knew how to cast a bright light on aspects of the profession that were often taken for granted,” said Mark Chandler, JD ’81, Chief Legal Officer, Chief Compliance, Officer and EVP at Cisco Systems. “That experience forty years ago was the beginning of a lifelong learning opportunity, most notably in the last few years through my engagement with her in connection with her leadership of the Center for the Legal Profession. She had an almost unique ability to bring together scholars, law firm leaders and corporate counsel to confront challenges and take advantage of opportunities to do more. From my first meeting with her, through today, she made me better at what I do.”

“Deborah was such a towering figure in the legal profession not only because of her monumental work on leadership and legal ethics, but because she modeled what it meant to be a principled leader and ethical human being in every aspect of her life,” said Shirin Sinnar, JD ’03, professor of law and John A. Wilson Faculty Scholar. “From the time I joined Stanford nearly a decade ago, Deborah was a committed and consistent mentor—asking what I needed, hosting workshops to provide feedback on article drafts, and pushing for diversification of our faculty to help create a stronger community at the law school.”

Rhode walked the walk with mentoring—quite literally.

“Her walks were legendary; she regularly invited colleagues, especially more junior colleagues, to walk with her to provide support and mentorship. I always admired the candor, authenticity, warmth, care for one’s well-being, and commitment to service that Deborah modeled throughout all my interactions with her over the years, including those regular afternoon walks,” added Sinnar.

“Deborah was a consummately generous colleague, eager to engage everyone on one of her wonderful collaborative walks. She not only wrote about leadership but constantly promoted the leadership of the women around her. I will greatly miss not only spending time with her but also vicariously experiencing her energetic engagement with Stanford Law School and our campus more generally,” said Bernadette Meyler, JD ’02, Carl and Sheila Spaeth Professor of Law, Associate Dean for Research and Intellectual Life, and professor (by courtesy) English.

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Stanford Law Professor Deborah Rhode (photo by Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service)

Rhode also kept up with colleagues on the “court.”

Paul Brest, former dean and professor emeritus (active),  at Stanford Law School, said: “Deborah was a pioneer and leader in every field she touched—sex discrimination, professional responsibility, pro bono legal practice, women and leadership, and just plain leadership. She aspired to be the very best in every endeavor, including racquetball, where she professed not to care about winning but played with focus and drive and truly loved to win. We will all miss her, but her imprint on the legal profession and academy will endure.”

“For most of the last 35 years, we played racquetball almost every week. When the pandemic made competitive exercise in a small, poorly ventilated room a bad idea, we played tennis twice a week. She was, from the first time I met her, driven to try to make the world better, from major policy changes to individual interactions. She succeeded. She was a good person and a good friend and I miss her,” said Hank Greely (BA ’74), Deane F. and Kate Edelman Johnson Professor of Law, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences, professor (by courtesy) Genetics, chair of the Steering Committee of the Center for Biomedical Ethics, and director of the Stanford Program in Neuroscience and Society.

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

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).

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SLS Professor Deborah Rhode at The Board of Visitors (photo courtesy Stanford Law School)

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.

“Deborah was a consummate university citizen, to whom I turned often as provost. Thanks to her wide-ranging expertise and generosity of spirit, she became one of my most trusted advisors on issues ranging from gender equity to student misconduct. The university has suffered a grievous loss with Deborah’s passing,” said John W. Etchemendy, provost, emeritus, the Patrick Suppes Family Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and co-director, Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI).

And Rhode was a generous collaborator.

“Deborah was the nation’s leading legal ethics scholar—not only because of her many books and articles, but also because she mentored so many of us. One measure is the list of her co-authors: I stopped counting at 30. She had boundless generosity and boundless energy,” said David Luban, professor of law and philosophy at Georgetown Law, and co-author of Legal Ethics.

“Deborah defined new fields and redefined old concepts: legal ethics, leadership, access to justice, antidiscrimination 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,” says 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 principles—and never hesitated to call them out when the failed. Especially given the role of lawyers in this dark period of American history, her loss leaves a gaping hole, but her indelible words and influence on all who she has touched mean that her voice, always speaking truth to power, will echo forward forever.”

Deborah L. Rhode Tackles the Beauty Bias

“She was a titan of the legal profession—one of our nation’s preeminent voices on legal ethics, but also a champion for the interests of the underserved and a pioneer in the cause of gender equality. Deborah lived these commitments in ways both big and small that had an enormous impact on so very many. She was a gentle warrior, fighting fiercely and with grace, for all her deepest values through her scholarship, teaching, public service, and charitable donations. But so too, her values shone through in her many more mundane interactions with those of us lucky enough to cross her path on a daily basis,” said Amalia Kessler (MA ’96/PhD ’01), Lewis Talbot and Nadine Hearn Shelton Professor of International Legal Studies, associate dean for Advanced Degree Programs, professor (by courtesy) History, and director, Stanford Center for Law and History.

Rhode’s scholarly legacy is firmly set in the 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.

“This slight, seemingly delicate woman was a gigantic figure in the study of the legal profession and in movements to reform it. She was one of a small handful of pioneers who in the 1970s and 80s began to transform the study of the legal profession and legal ethics into a serious field of scholarship,” said Robert W. Gordon, professor of law. “On many, many topics—like class conflicts in class actions, character-and-fitness requirements for admission to the bar, the legal monopoly’s policing of unauthorized practice, just to name a few—her’s is the definitive work that everyone else cites and follows. 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.  Her ruling passions were promoting access to justice for people who can’t afford it, and improving the status of women in the profession.”

“Her books and articles centered on a constellation of subjects that she linked together in important ways: professional responsibility, lawyer-leadership, gender equality. She wrote beautifully, in an accessible, policy-relevant, and often humorous style, but one never mistook her use of humor for a lack of urgency, nor the accessibility of her work for lack of rigor,” said Gillian Lester, JSD ’98/JSM ’93, Dean and Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, Columbia Law School, who had Rhode as her thesis advisor. “Her body of work has, over the arc of her career, laid the moral and policy framework for opening the doors of the legal profession and bringing new voices to the fore.”

“Deborah was a sterling example of the very best that both of her professions offered the world. As a scholar she was honest, creative, accessible and prolific; as a lawyer she was devoted to public service and integrity. Through her devotion to education and the legal profession, she touched countless lives and never wavered in her belief that we owed it to each other to build a more just world,” said Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuéllar, Justice of the Supreme Court of California and former member of the Stanford Law faculty.

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Professor Deborah Rhode with Annick Jordan, JD ’17, and Sophie Hart, JD ’17 at at recent SLS Public Interest Awards ceremony (photo courtesy Stanford Law School)

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.

“In retaining Professor Rhode on the faculty, Stanford Law School held lightning in a bottle for nearly half a century,” said Sarah Zandi, JD ’21, Claire Fieldman, JD ’22, and members of the Stanford Women in Law. “Professor Rhode was a mentor to hundreds, and for those of us who could count ourselves in those numbers, we could also count ourselves lucky. It was clear how committed Professor Rhode was not only to the advancement of women’s legal rights but also the advancement of all women in the law—to her students and mentees as young women lawyers starting our careers.”

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:


Read the LibGuide in honor of Professor Deborah L. Rhode by the Robert Crown Law Library