Deborah Rhode, Stanford law professor and authority on legal ethics, dies at 68

Instead of being praised for their initiative, Dr. Rhode and the clinic faced legal threats from the bar association, which threatened to sue for the unauthorized practice of law.

The organization backed down after a women’s support group offered to put its name on the kits, providing cover for the clinic. But the confrontation left Dr. Rhode disillusioned, convinced that the bar had been fighting to preserve a monopoly over legal services. “I was angry all the time,” she later said. “I didn’t have the stomach for direct services.”

Instead, she channeled her advocacy efforts through the academy, joining the faculty at Stanford Law School and becoming one of the country’s foremost experts on legal ethics. In recent years she emerged as the field’s most frequently cited scholar, topping scholarly rankings compiled by Brian Leiter, a University of Chicago law professor.

“The field of legal ethics predated Deborah Rhode — but it was a faint shadow of its current self,” said Nora Freeman Engstrom, a Stanford Law colleague who collaborated with Dr. Rhode on the casebook “Legal Ethics,” now in its eighth edition. “When Deborah came along, she transformed it; she infused it with intellectual rigor and insisted that it wouldn’t just be about dry rules or abstract principles. Legal ethics would — and would have to — stand for justice, access, integrity and equality.”

As part of her pursuit of a more just legal system, Dr. Rhode mentored generations of scholars, developed new training programs at Stanford Law and wrote 30 books, examining subjects as varied as leadership, sexism, cheating, academic culture and racial diversity in the law. She was 68 when she died Jan. 8 at her home in Stanford, Calif. The cause was not immediately known, said her husband, Ralph Cavanagh.

“She was passionately committed to the value that lawyers can bring to society, but that led her to be just as passionate in the ways the profession falls short,” said David Luban, a Georgetown law professor and “Legal Ethics” co-author. He cited one of Dr. Rhode’s sharpest critiques, from a 1985 Stanford Law Review article: “Most lawyers will prefer to leave no stone unturned, provided, of course, they can charge by the stone.”

In books and essays for newspapers including The Washington Post, Dr. Rhode championed pro bono practice and proposed new ways for clients to access legal services. She criticized the lawyer disciplinary system, which she said failed to protect clients, as well as the character-and-fitness requirements for joining the bar, “documenting a long history of fitness examiners rejecting people for bigoted reasons,” according to Luban.

She also popularized the term “the ‘no problem’ problem,” in reference to the fact that gender inequality was often treated as no problem at all — or at least not considered a problem for those in a position to enact change. In a 2001 interview with the New York Times, she noted that women were far outnumbered by men in the judiciary, on law school faculties and in law firm partnerships, but that the growing number of women in law school was “too often taken as a sign that the ‘women problem’ has been solved.”

“Deborah pushed for greater representation of women and people of color in the legal world and in academia, especially women of color,” said Shirin Sinnar, a Stanford colleague. “But this wasn’t just a theoretical commitment; she went out of her way to support young scholars of color and women as a mentor and friend.”

Dr. Rhode was only the third female faculty member at Stanford Law when she joined the school in 1979. She later recalled that the dean unsuccessfully tried to convince her to teach negotiable instruments law instead of sex discrimination, as she wanted, saying: “You risk typing yourself as a woman.”

“Being typed as a woman would hardly come as a shock to anyone who knew me,” she replied.

Dr. Rhode later became the second woman to receive tenure at the school, following Barbara Babcock, with whom she was often confused despite the fact that Ms. Rhode was a 5-foot-1 blonde and Babcock was a much taller brunette. (Babcock died in April at 81.)

“At one point Barbara and I circulated a memo asking the faculty to perform a thought experiment: What if you were the only man teaching at the law school? It was like a feather falling into a well,” Ms. Rhode later told Stanford’s alumni magazine. “It became known as the ‘Barbara and Deb need a friend’ memo. That somewhat missed the point, though it was true.”

Deborah Lynn Rhode was born in Evanston, Ill., on Jan. 29, 1952, and grew up in the Chicago suburbs of Wilmette and Kenilworth. The daughter of an advertising executive and social worker, she excelled in high school debate, facing off against opponents such as Merrick B. Garland, who was recently nominated as President-elect Joe Biden’s attorney general.

“We were friendly rivals, but she was way better than me — she was way better than everyone,” said Garland, who serves on the federal appeals court in the District and was nominated to the Supreme Court in 2016 by President Barack Obama. “The quality of logical thought, fluid writing, persuasive argument, all of that continued” from her debating days through her years as a scholar, he added in a phone interview.

Dr. Rhode enrolled at Yale in 1970, a year after the college began admitting women, and became the first female president of the debate association, beating out Cavanagh. “I was following her with keen interest after that,” he quipped. They attended law school together and married in 1976, two years after graduating from college.

In addition to her husband, of Stanford, survivors include a sister.

Dr. Rhode received a law degree in 1977 from Yale, where she edited the law review and directed the moot court board. She began clerking for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall the next year (Garland was just down the hall, clerking for Justice William J. Brennan Jr.), and impressed Marshall with her legal talent as well as her photography skill, convincing him to sit for several pictures.

Though Dr. Rhode was far from imposing, she developed a commanding speaking style in the classroom at Stanford, where she peppered her lectures with references to Jean-Paul Sartre, Machiavelli, New Yorker cartoons and the TV show “The West Wing.” She founded the university’s Center on Ethics, Center on the Legal Profession and Program on Social Entrepreneurship.

Dr. Rhode’s books included “The Beauty Bias” (2010), an exploration of appearance discrimination; “What Women Want” (2014), a history of the women’s movement; “The Trouble With Lawyers” (2015), which diagnosed problems facing the American bar; and “Character: What It Means and Why It Matters” (2019).

She also led the Association of American Law Schools, which named a public service award in her honor, and served on the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession. She was the founding president of the International Association of Legal Ethics and a vice chair of Legal Momentum, an advocacy group for women.

Though Dr. Rhode seldom worked in politics, she served as senior investigative counsel to Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee during impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. The episode galvanized her research into leadership, according to her husband, and led Dr. Rhode to begin teaching one of the first leadership classes offered at a law school, with a focus on qualities such as integrity, self-awareness, empathy and persuasion.

“It is a shameful irony that the occupation that produces the nation’s greatest share of leaders does so little to prepare them for that role,” she wrote in a 2017 Stanford Law Review article, noting that lawyers made up fewer than 1 percent of the population but accounted for most American presidents.

“The need for effective leadership,” she added, “has never been greater.”

Janelle B. Smith

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