Working for Justice

Professor Deborah Rhode: We Will Miss You Terribly

Posted March 5th, 2021 by David Sanford, Melinda Koster and Meredith Firetog in Commentary.

As it appeared on the Stanford Law School Blog

By David Sanford ’95, Chair of Sanford Heisler Sharp and member of the Stanford Center on the Legal Profession Advisory Board

Deborah Rhode was a great friend, and a devoted supporter of our civil rights law firm, our firm’s mission, and our firm’s clients.

I first became aware of Professor Rhode in 1990, when I read her book, “Justice and Gender.” I subsequently taught that work in my Williams College philosophy of law class. Shortly afterward, I attended SLS and spoke with Professor Rhode about her work and the influence it had on me and my students.

Years later, Professor Rhode served as an expert in our gender discrimination class action against Novartis and in our gender discrimination case against Columbia University. I had the honor of preparing her for her depositions and defending each one. Rhode grasped every nuance, every detail, and testified truthfully and masterfully in each. Both Judge McMahon in our Novartis case and Judge Abrams in our Columbia case granted defendant’s motion to exclude Rhode from testifying at trial, holding that – essentially – she was too powerful, too good, and too smart and therefore likely to sway a jury to our side. We won both trials without Professor Rhode’s testimony and we learned a lot about how best to present our case as a result of her input and guidance.

I have given yearly lectures at the Stanford Law School for the past 15 years. Professor Rhode always invited me to give a talk to her students while I was at Stanford and to present at the Center on the Legal Profession. Following my talks, we typically had dinner at a neighborhood restaurant in Palo Alto with students or, as we did last year, had dinner at her house. We had lively debates about politics (though not that lively given that our politics always seemed to be in alignment). Whenever I had an ethical dilemma, I sought her counsel, which she always gave with serious attention and trenchant thought. And she was unfailingly thoughtful on a personal level, most recently sending my 6-year-old daughter a book on courageous and talented women.

Professor Rhode was in the midst of completing a manuscript on animal rights, lending her prodigious talent and compassion to an area that would have immensely benefitted from her perspective. Despite a voluminous output of 30 books and about 200 articles, and despite teaching thousands of students over 40 years, she had much unfinished business in life—so many students yet to teach, inspire and guide; so many words yet to speak; so many thoughts yet to course their way through a uniquely gifted mind. If only we could have one more day, one more semester, one more year, one more lifetime with Deborah Rhode, we would all be further enriched, further enlivened, further enhanced in our collective quest for wisdom and goodness and charity and compassion.

I was closer with Professor Rhode than I was with anyone else on the Stanford faculty over the course of the past two decades. The loss I feel is deep and profound. Professor Rhode’s passing is a great loss for the legal profession and a great loss for the Stanford community. And her passing is a great loss for my daughter, who I hoped would meet Professor Rhode and be inspired by her as so many thousands of people have been over the years.

Thank you, Deborah, for all you have done for generations of law students, for the profession of law, and for legal ethics. Thank you for your kindness, your graciousness, your intelligence, your passion, your body of work, and your ethical compass. We will all sorely miss you.

***

One of our firm’s attorneys, Meredith Firetog (’14 SLS), wrote to me after I informed our firm of Deborah’s passing. She has given me permission to share what she wrote:

“Professor Rhode was my dearest mentor at SLS. I met her in 2011, at admitted students weekend, where she approached me to say, “I read your application and understand you are getting a masters in women’s studies. That’s what I do, my name is Deborah Rhode.” I did my best to hold back from screaming in excitement; I obviously knew who she was, and I felt like I was meeting a celebrity. She convinced me to go to Stanford, despite my conviction that New York is the only place worth living.

Professor Rhode took me under her wing, and she taught me a tremendous amount both in and outside of the classroom. She also helped me find direction in the first years of my career, and she was a fundamental driver and supporter of my decision to work at Sanford Heisler Sharp. I will miss her terribly, and will always be grateful for her mentorship, her brilliance, and the ways in which she made our profession both more equitable and ethical.

In addition to her prolific scholarship, Professor Rhode was also a talented photographer. She photographed her friends and family, and her home was filled with black and white pictures (along with a seemingly endless supply of Diet Coke). Every year, she donated to the Stanford Public Interest Law Foundation auction a photograph she took of Justice Thurgood Marshall when she was his clerk (alongside Merrick Garland). My own copy of this photograph is one of my most cherished possessions.”

Another firm attorney, Melinda Koster (’12 SLS), also shared with me these thoughts, which I share with permission:

“Professor Rhode was a terrific mentor to me and countless others at Stanford Law School.

I had the opportunity to take two classes with Professor Rhode while at Stanford. In the first course, Legal Ethics, Professor Rhode’s passion for building the next generation of lawyers shone through each day. She led her class in deep, spirited discussions about integrity and ethics that still guide me in my own practice.

My second class with Professor Rhode–Gender, Law, and Public Policy–was a standout course for me and one of the highlights of my law school experience. This class exposed me to many of the foundational concepts and cases that I draw upon today in representing clients who have endured gender discrimination in the workplace. As with her Legal Ethics class, Professor Rhode was a skilled facilitator, pushing her students to think critically and fostering intellectual debate, even among relatively like-minded students.

Outside the classroom, Professor Rhode was extremely generous with her time. She opened her home to host Women of Stanford Law students, served as a faculty public interest mentor to a women’s rights public interest group, donated to the Stanford Public Interest Law Student Foundation, and guided students, myself included, as they navigated clerkship and career decisions.

A few years ago, my interactions with Professor Rhode evolved from the academic domain to the professional when she ended up serving as an expert in one of my gender discrimination and retaliation cases. Professor Rhode delved into the record and provided a powerful framework that contextualized discriminatory conduct. Beyond this, she evinced that same generous spirit, empathy, and kindness that she imparted to her students in the classroom. After I finished working with Professor Rhode on the case, she sent me an orchid as a gesture of her appreciation. The orchid, which sits in my kitchen, is a regular reminder of her graciousness. That quality, coupled with her brilliance, was what made her so special.

I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to learn from and work with Professor Rhode, who was a true titan in her field. I will sorely miss her as a professor, mentor, and role model.”

Finally, Jenifer Rajkumar, (SLS ’08), a former attorney in our firm and the first South Asian American woman elected to and now serving in the New York State Assembly, also has agreed to share her thoughts here:

“I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to know and learn from Deborah Rhode, a titan of the legal academy. At Stanford Law, I had the honor of being her student and sitting with her on the school’s Public Interest Committee. Her sharp and formidable presence was striking and made an impression on all she encountered. It was only matched by her generous heart and her wonderful sense of humor.

She was a great Professor who empowered her students. She supported me at every step as I pursued a career in the public interest. It meant so much to me to have her kind, steady support throughout the years. No matter where I moved in my career—whether DC or NYC, law firm, nonprofit or government—Professor Rhode was always there supporting my endeavors. After graduation, I moved to New York. I made sure to attend Professor Rhode’s talks when she came to town. She made sure to let everyone know that I was an excellent student.

When I was 22 and just beginning my legal studies, I took her class “Gender, Law, and Public Policy,” famous among generations of Stanford Law alums, and it made a lifelong impression. In the class we often broached sensitive topics, and then were dazzled by Professor Rhode’s brilliance as she exposed us to the legal aspects of gender equality issues in a way few in the world could. It was simply a privilege to have the opportunity to learn from her. Later, I took her “Legal Ethics” Class. I will never forget when I made a presentation on Pro Bono Lawyering where I showed a clip from the movie Legally Blonde. Professor Rhode laughed for a full 2 minutes. “There you have it,” she told the class, “Pro bono lawyering.”

I would have liked to share with Professor Rhode that I just made history as the first South Asian-American woman to be elected to a government office in New York State. Though I won’t get that opportunity, I will strive every day to emulate her intelligence, her generosity, and her dedication to making the world a better place through the law.”

David Sanford is the Chairman and co-founder of Sanford Heisler Sharp, LLP. Since 2004, Mr. Sanford has recovered more than $1 billion for individual clients and the United States government.
More About David

Melinda Koster is a Senior Litigation Counsel in Sanford Heisler Sharp’s New York Office who represents employees with a wide range of claims, including discrimination on the basis of gender, pregnancy, and age, in both public litigation and privately negotiated settlements.
More About Melinda

Meredith Firetog is a Senior Litigation Counsel in the New York office. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Swarthmore College, received a Masters of Studies in Women’s Studies from the University of Oxford, and her law degree from Stanford Law School in 2014.
More About Meredith

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