A `sense of obligation'

Blending: The new dean of the University of Maryland Law School has a history of bringing students from different departments together.

April 13, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

It is hard to imagine Karen H. Rothenberg was ever anything but enthusiastic about the University of Maryland Law School. Yet she says she was a reluctant recruit when she first set foot there 17 years ago.

Rothenberg, who was named dean of the school last week, comes across as its most energetic cheerleader. But when the school's dean in 1983, Michael Kelly, approached her about teaching, she was dubious.

She had spent the previous four years as a member of a large Washington law firm, Covington and Burling, working on the increasingly complex legal issues emerging from the changes that were about to revolutionize the health care industry. Rothenberg says she was not sure she could have an impact on those areas teaching in a law school.

"I was feeling very good about what I was doing," she says. "And I was making a lot of money at the same time."

Looking out the window of Kelly's office and seeing all the other schools at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, she was intrigued by the juxtaposition of the state's law school and its health care institutions.

She remembers saying to Kelly, "If I could do something to get all these schools to work together, I might be interested.

"He said to me, `Sure, you could do that.' "

A few months later, Rothenberg was an assistant professor with a full teaching load, a much smaller salary, a new baby joining her older sister at home and a daily commute from Bethesda.

Seventeen years later, she can tick off program after program that gets law students together with medical students and social work students and nursing students and others on UMB's campus -- all of them gaining new perspectives on their work.

"She started her career at my law firm, and my impressions of her were formed early and reinforced constantly in everything she did," says Charles Miller, whom she describes as her mentor at Covington and Burling. "She brings terrific energy to any job as well as a great deal of knowledge and background."

Rothenberg can also point to a ream of scholarly publications and public appearances that have made her one of the most influential legal scholars in the area of health care law, which has only gotten more complex. She now deals with the legal implications of issues like cloning and genetic research, cutting edge work that bridges science and philosophy, ethics and medicine.

"She could always be counted on to be candid and directly on point with her questions," says Leroy Walters, director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University, who served with Rothenberg on the National Institutes of Health Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.

"We all very much appreciated her articles on the ethical questions arising from genetic testing, how it could be used to discriminate against people," Walters says.

Rothenberg, 47, has often been among the first wave of women -- as a member of one of the first co-ed undergraduate classes at Princeton, at Covington and Burling, on the faculty at the law school, and now as a law school dean. There are perhaps 20 women deans of the country's 180 law schools.

As Rothenberg tells it, virtually every step of her career has been in a direction different from the one she started out on. She grew up on Long Island, daughter of a plaintiff's lawyer who didn't want her to follow in his footsteps.

"He got paid when he won, so there were years we didn't have many things in the house," she says.

She went to Princeton intending to study art history but got a master's in public affairs. She seemed headed for a doctorate but instead went to work in Washington in an organization dealing with health care issues and ended up in law school at the University of Virginia.

"I was sure I was going to end up working for the government, writing health care policy," she says. Then Covington and Burling recruited her.

"I was very idealistic," she says. "I saw law as a profession, not a job. I wasn't sure I would like keeping track of my time" to bill clients.

But she found Covington and Burling a wonderful place to work and had no intention of changing careers when the University of Maryland Law School came calling.

Miller of Covington and Burling says he tried to keep her, but was not surprised when she left.

"Almost from the beginning, she told me this was what she had in mind, if not academia, then a think tank or government service," he says. "But she liked the practice of law and was very good at it. She did a lot of good work, the fruits of which continue to be beneficial to clients she represented."

Rothenberg said she was hooked on the scholarly life the first time she got an article published. She had no intention of becoming dean when Donald Gifford resigned suddenly last August.

"I did it in part out of my sense of obligation to this institution," she says of taking the interim post and then deciding she wanted the permanent job.

Robert V. Percival, director of the school's environmental law program, says, "I think she's going to be a very aggressive advocate of the law school in all forums.

"The school is in the position that it is still sort of an undiscovered gem," says Percival, who was on the search committee for a new dean. "We need someone to raise our visibility."

Miller is not surprised that she took the job. "She has been at this teaching for almost 20 years and conquered an awful lot of hills and mountains," he says. "At this stage in her career, it is time for a new assignment, for new challenges."

Rothenberg said the skills required as dean are similar to those she used as a teacher. "Teaching is about finding what someone is passionate about and giving them the tools they need to realize that," she says. "You are doing the same things as a dean with people on the faculty."

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