Michael Rothenberg, 47, the executive director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, died on Feb. 23. Mr. Rothenberg was suffering from depression and took his own life. His body was found on the fourth-floor terrace of a 33-story building at 100 Jay St. in Brooklyn and he was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the New York City Police Department.
During the decade since Mr. Rothenberg took over NYLPI in 2001, the organization’s annual budget had grown to $4 million from $1 million and its staffing increased from 14 to about 35.
Mr. Rothenberg defined the mission of NYLPI as advancing equality and civil rights, with a focus on health justice, disability rights and environmental justice, through community lawyering and partnerships with the private bar.
Shelley Dropkin, the chairwoman of NYLPI, said the loss of Mr. Rothenberg would be a crucial one to those seeking civil legal services in the state.
“He was an inspirational leader, a colleague, a mentor, to so many on his staff who have gone on to do great things,” she said. “He was a spectacular manager. He was wise and kind and good and I am dealing with a board that is just so heartbroken because they personally admired him so much.”
Mr. Rothenberg was well known throughout the New York legal community. He was one of 30 members appointed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in 2009 to the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, which looks for ways to funnel more money into the representation of civil legal clients.
One of the group’s first recommendations was that civil legal services funding from the state be increased to $25 million a year from $12.5 million a year.
In an interview with the New York Law Journal last year, Mr. Rothenberg said his interest in pro bono issues stemmed from his childhood memories of his highly educated parents struggling to find appropriate schooling for his developmentally disabled older brother (NYLJ, Sept. 30, 2011).
His father, Stanley, was an entertainment lawyer at Moses & Singer and his mother, Eleanore, held a doctorate in health care administration and led a non-profit group that monitored the quality of care at metropolitan-area hospitals.
He said he was active in social causes at Hamilton College as an undergraduate and when he was a student at New York University School of Law.
After law school, Mr. Rothenberg became a litigator in the housing unit of Brooklyn Legal Services. He won a fellowship at the Rockefeller Family Foundation, and worked on jury reform at the Vera Institute of Justice.
He joined New York Lawyers for the Public Interest as associate director in 1997 and was named executive director in 2001.
Mr. Rothenberg is survived by his wife, Zerline Goodman; their children, Brice, Garon and Zaya Rothenberg; his mother, Eleanor; and his brothers, David and Seth.
Funeral services will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26, at Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights, 75 Hicks St. The family’s rabbi will officiate.
Burial will be Monday, Feb. 27, at the Vassar Temple Cemetery, LaGrange Avenue Extension, Poughkeepsie.