Stanford Law School Professor Deborah Rhode, leading voice on legal ethics and women’s rights, dies at 68

Stanford Law School Professor Deborah Rhode, one of the nation’s leading scholars on legal ethics, has died at age 68.

Rhode had taught at Stanford since 1979, when she became the third female law professor in the school’s history. She was the founder of the school’s Center on Ethics and served as president of the Association of American Law Schools, chair of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession, and founding president of the International Association of Legal Ethics.

She died at her home Friday. No information about the cause of death was immediately available.

Rhode was the author of 30 books, including “Lawyers as Leaders,” “Justice and Gender: Sex Discrimination and the Law,” “The Trouble with Lawyers,” “Cheating: Ethics and Law in Everyday Life,” and “The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law.”

“She was the most important voice in legal ethics in many years,” with important contributions on the needs of poor people, women’s rights and lawyers’ responsibility to represent needy clients at their own expense, said Richard Zitrin, a UC Hastings law school lecturer and former chair of the State Bar of California’s Ethics Committee.

“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,” said Paul Brest, a former dean of Stanford Law School. “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.”

Born in Evanston, Ill., Rhode was a champion debater in high school, where one of her favorite opponents was Merrick Garland, the future federal appeals court judge, Supreme Court candidate and President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for attorney general. The two became lifelong friends.

Rhode graduated from Yale University with honors in 1974 and then enrolled in Yale Law School, where she later said she realized she didn’t have the stomach for everyday legal practice. While working at a legal aid clinic, she and other law students wrote a handbook for uncontested divorces for clients who couldn’t afford the $1,000 fee attorneys were charging to fill out the paperwork. They were promptly threatened with a lawsuit by the local bar association, which backed down when a women’s group supported the students.

“I was angry all the time” about injustices suffered by the clinic’s clients, Rhode told Stanford Magazine. So she headed for an academic career, starting with a study for the Yale Law Journal that concluded couples in uncontested divorces got advice from law students that was just as accurate as the counsel offered by licensed attorneys. The co-author was her Yale classmate and future husband, Ralph Cavanagh.

After law school, Rhode served as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall before joining the Stanford law faculty. Like Yale, it was still a mostly all-male atmosphere, she later recalled, describing a 1981 retirement party for the Stanford law school dean at which alumni hired a stripper to perform. The dean was surprised but, later in the evening, “well-fortified by bourbon, warmly embraced the invited guest,” Rhode wrote.

It was after that incident, she said, that she decided to teach the school’s first course on gender and the law.

Another innovation was a class on lawyers as leaders, in politics and society, the subject and title of Rhode’s 2013 book. She said law schools do little to train graduates for leadership roles even though 26 of the 45 U.S. presidents, and a substantial percentage of lawmakers, have been lawyers.

“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,” Rhode said in a June 2017 article in the Stanford Law Review.

She did not allow her liberal orientation to affect the ethical assessments she provided to her readers and journalists. When a federal court panel considering California’s ban on same-sex marriage included a judge whose wife was an American Civil Liberties Union official and advocate of marriage rights for gays and lesbians, Rhode said the public “could legitimately have concerns” about the judge’s neutrality.

The judge, Stephen Reinhardt, denied bias, noting that his wife, Ramona Ripston, was not involved in the case, and wrote the ruling that overturned Proposition 8.

Rhode was honored by President Barack Obama in 2011 as one of the nation’s Champions of Change for her career-long work to increase access to justice.

She is survived by her husband, Cavanaugh, and her sister, Christine Rhode. The Stanford Law School said a memorial service is being planned.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @BobEgelko