In Memoriam: Ronald D. Rotunda

4 Min Read By: Thomas D. Morgan

American lawyers lost a good friend and valued adviser when Professor Ronald D. Rotunda died on March 14 at the age of 73. Coming just two months after the death of Geoffrey Hazard, Ron’s passing has deeply affected many in the legal ethics community.

Like many of today’s senior figures in professional responsibility, Ron Rotunda did not expect legal ethics to be his field of expertise. Ron graduated from Harvard Law School in 1970, clerked for Judge Walter Mansfield of the Second Circuit, and spent two years practicing law at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering before becoming Assistant Majority Counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee amid a Constitutional crisis. From that experience, he evolved into one of the country’s leading experts in Constitutional Law, a demanding field that makes the scope of his body of work in legal ethics all the more remarkable.

In 1974, Ron Rotunda started his academic career at the University of Illinois, where I was also a young professor. That was a watershed year in the study of legal ethics, because the ABA responded to the Watergate scandal by formally requiring all law schools to offer instruction in legal ethics as a condition of maintaining their accreditation. None of the faculty at Illinois—or at most law schools around the country—had the necessary expertise to offer the required courses. The ABA had adopted the Model Code of Professional Responsibility in 1970, and that Code had been quickly adopted in most states. There were few casebooks, however, and those that did exist mostly covered what were then the three “big” issues—the constitutional right to counsel, the lawyer’s duty not to advertise, and the tension between a lawyer’s duty to clients and to the courts.

Thus, Ron Rotunda and others entered the academy at a moment when effective teaching and serious research about legal ethics were in short supply. Ron recognized the need for new materials and brought his seemingly endless energy to the job of producing them. He shared the belief that legal ethics was less a branch of philosophy than a reflection of the realities of a public service career that is central to our constitutional form of government. We decided that legal ethics could be taught most effectively using problems that required students to picture themselves in the roles they were studying to assume. The wisdom of those assumptions, and Ron’s commitment to teaching legal ethics as “real law”—based on rules and court decisions, not platitudes—have been validated by experience. The casebook we co-authored is now in its 13th edition. By now, other casebooks treat those ideas—which were counterintuitive to many at the time—as their own governing principles as well.

Ron Rotunda worked in a variety of professional settings beyond the classroom. He was a member of the ABA Standing Committee on Professional Discipline. He served as a liaison to the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, and he was a member of the drafting committee for the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam. He served as an expert witness on legal ethics and malpractice issues, and he worked on the proposed changes to lawyer advertising regulation soon likely to be presented to the ABA House of Delegates.  His Legal Ethics: The Lawyer’s Deskbook on Professional Responsibility is perhaps especially important, as it sits on the desks of thousands of lawyers—both ethics specialists and “real” lawyers—around the country.

Ron Rotunda’s interest in public service continued all through his career. He was the only lawyer with a leading role in investigating impeachment of U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, one from each major political party. He also spent a year serving as Special Counsel to the Department of Defense on ethical and constitutional issues relating to Guantanamo Bay detainees.

After retiring from the University of Illinois faculty in 2002, Ron taught at the George Mason University School of Law until 2008. For the last decade, he taught at the Chapman University Fowler School of Law. As the academic world became more specialized in recent years, Ron Rotunda maintained the breadth of his interests and his commitment to making lawyers more effective ambassadors to the institutions and the public whom they serve.  All Americans have been affected by his work, and all American lawyers are diminished by his passing.

By: Thomas D. Morgan

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