“It’s a shameful irony that the occupation that produces the nation’s greatest share of leaders does so little to prepare them for that role.”[i]
Deborah Rhode often repeated this observation as we launched this movement in legal education to better equip law students for future leadership roles. She challenged law schools to be more intentional about inspiring law students to be difference-makers in the world around them.
As you undoubtedly know by now, the legal community suffered a heart-breaking loss on January 12, 2021, with the passing of Deborah Rhode, who served as the Ernest W. McFarland Professor of Law and the Director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford Law School. Even more grievous is the loss to society of her unfinished business. She had much more wisdom, insight, and guidance to share (as well as her cajoling and agitation at appropriate times) pushing us forward to form that more perfect union envisioned in the foundations of our democracy.
“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,” shared Dr. Amalia Kessler, Stanford. [ii]
Her former Dean Paul Brest 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.” [iii]
Stanford Law Dean Gillian Lester shared, “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.”
“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,” added her colleague Professor Robert W. Gordon.
Added another of her co-authors, Scott Cummings, Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, “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. 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.” [iv]
Deborah was a world-renowned scholar with 30 books and over 200 articles to her credit. I found her both awe-inspiring and intimidating when I first met her in 2014 as we served on a panel to discuss women’s leadership in higher education. When we finished, I gathered the courage to approach her, to share my ideas, and to seek her help with another reform needed in legal education. At that time, I did not know about her what others experienced in her presence:
“Luminary that she was, she somehow always found the time and energy to extend herself on behalf of others,” offered Professor Engstrom. [v]
“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,” shared Professor Shirin Sinnar. [vi]
I came to know that spine of steel softened by the generosity of time and spirit she lent to an effort she recognized as imperative to the future of the legal profession. Because she well understood the critical role of law in society, she also realized the importance to our democracy in preparing lawyer-leaders who are ready, willing, and able to step into action.
Others shared stories of the time with Deborah as she walked and talked while mentoring and collaborating. For example,
“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.” [vii]
In her honor, Stanford Law issued a call #WalkWithDeborah to honor her with posts about our walks in her honor last Saturday. I created a Twitter account for the sole purpose of honoring her with a walk and a picture in tribute to her leadership textbook.
Not only did she have tremendous sway within the academy and the practicing bar, leaders from a multitude of disciplines and backgrounds listened and learned and answered her calls to action. Mark Chandler, Chief Legal Officer, Chief Compliance, Officer and EVP at Cisco Systems shared, “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.” As Mariano-Florentino “Tino” Cuéllar, Justice of the Supreme Court of California, stated, “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.”[viii]
I was one of the privileged to know Deborah. I will forever treasure my time working side-by-side with her to find those kindred spirits across the academy and to grow the body of believers as we created the AALS Section of Leadership. Without question, because of her leadership and her stellar reputation within the academy the study of leadership has grown quickly to be recognized as a serious field of legal scholarship and a foundational and teachable subject in law schools. It is up to us to continue her legacy.
Based on what we are witnessing in our nation, our work is more important than ever. Our mission is to encourage law students and lawyers to embrace their obligation to serve clients and society, to better equip students for positions of leadership and influence, and to inspire law students and lawyers to boldly seek opportunities to be difference makers. We will honor Deborah’s legacy with each leadership lamp we light.
[i] Deborah Rhode, Raising the Bar: Lawyers and Leadership, Forward Vol. 69 Stanford L Rev. (2017).
[vi] Supra note 3.