Last year, we lost one of the nation’s leading public interest law figures and our executive director, Michael Rothenberg. Over the course of 11 years, Michael used his impressive talents to vastly expand NYLPI’s capacity and effectiveness. He convinced New York’s top law firms to contribute their time and generous resources to strengthening NYLPI’s mission in advancing equality and civil rights. He reinforced the organization’s core commitment to the principles of community lawyering and the use of multifaceted approaches in solving deep societal problems. He did it all with a human warmth and kindness that will be missed as much as his brilliance.
Michael’s seriousness of purpose about living a life grounded in principles he held dear was leavened by a razor sharp wit and penchant for puns. In addition to his work at NYLPI, in 2010 Michael was appointed by Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, to serve on his task force to expand access to civil legal services in New York. He was one of six legal services leaders to receive this honor. In the same year, The New York Times Company honored Michael’s leadership by awarding NYLPI its prestigious Nonprofit Excellence Award, which recognizes management excellence in the city’s nonprofit community. NYLPI was the first legal organization to win this award.
Born in New York City, Michael graduated from Stuyvesant High School, Hamilton College and New York University Law School. Michael’s interest in social justice initially stemmed from observing his parents struggle to find schooling for his developmentally disabled brother.
As a law student at NYU, Michael became president of both the Public Interest Law Foundation and Equal Justice Works, an organization devoted to providing funding for public advocacy training to law students across the country. He also was awarded an Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program Fellowship.
After graduating from NYU Law School, Michael became a litigator in the housing unit of Brooklyn Legal Services. He then won a fellowship at the Rockefeller Family Foundation, and subsequently worked on jury reform at the Vera Institute of Justice. Drawn to institution-building, Michael joined New York Lawyers for the Public Interest as Associate Director in 1997 and was named Executive Director in 2001.
He is survived by his wife, Zerline Goodman, and their three children, Brice, Garon, and Zaya.