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

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

2021-01-13 05:38:20

By Ravi Kumar V

Dr.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 at her home in Stanford, Calif. The cause was not immediately known, said her husband, Ralph Cavanagh.

As a law student at Yale, Deborah worked at a legal aid clinic, helping clients who were unable to afford lawyers for their divorce cases. Dr. Rhode and the clinic faced legal threats from the bar association, which threatened to sue for the unauthorized practice of law.

 “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.”

“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.”

Dr. Deborah L. Rhode 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. Dr. Rhode was only the third female faculty member at Stanford Law. Dr. Rhode later became the second woman to receive tenure at the school, following Barbara Babcock. 

Deborah Lynn Rhode was born in Evanston, Ill., on Jan. 29, 1952, and was the daughter of an advertising executive. 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).

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