Michael Rothenberg ’91, executive director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), died on February 23 at age 47. Throughout his two-decade career, Rothenberg was a passionate and effective lawyer in the public interest.
NYLPI, which advocates for health justice, disability rights, and environmental justice through community lawyering, grew rapidly after he became its head in 2001: the caseload increased five times, both the operating budget and staff size tripled, and nearly 100 firms now take part in NYLPI’s pro bono clearinghouse. In 2010, New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman ’68 appointed Rothenberg to the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York, chaired by Helaine Barnett ’64. The task force held a series of hearings and submitted a detailed report with recommendations to Lippman in November of that year.
After graduating from NYU School of Law, Rothenberg, a native New Yorker, was a litigator in the housing unit of Brooklyn Legal Services, held a fellowship at the Rockefeller Family Foundation, and worked on jury reform at the Vera Institute of Justice. He became NYLPI’s associate director in 1997, and executive director four years later. He had worked for NYLPI in his student days at NYU Law, during which he also became president of the Public Interest Law Foundation and student president of the National Association for Public Interest Law (which later evolved into Equal Justice Works). Rothenberg also represented artists denied National Endowment for the Arts grants for political reasons in his role as an Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Fellow.
“Michael’s passion and drive for creating lasting social change has left a deep imprint on NYLPI and will have a lasting impact on everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him,” said Shelley Dropkin, chair of the organization's board of directors, in a statement. “Thousands of people across New York City have been touched by Michael’s vision and the work NYLPI does every day."
Sylvia Law '68, Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law, Medicine and Psychiatry and a Hays Program co-director, served as a mentor to Rothenberg. "Michael was stunningly optimistic and often effective," said Law. "In reforming jury service in New York for the benefit of litigants, jurors, and justice, he accomplished a task that most people thought impossible. Less successfully, he promoted the idea that all lawyers must do pro bono work. Michael was loved by many people, in many contexts. It is devastating to lose such an optimistic, effective, and beloved person."
The NYPLI has announced the creation of the Michael Rothenberg Fellowship, which will be awarded to an attorney working in the area of disability justice. This fellowship will serve as a long-lasting tribute to Rothenberg’s dedication to civil rights.
Posted on February 28, 2012