Sparer Forum Celebrates the Life and Work of Professor Minna Kotkin
On March 23, the Brooklyn Law School community, colleagues, students past and present, former clients, and friends came together virtually for the Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Forum to celebrate the life, work, and indomitable spirit of the late Professor Minna Kotkin, who died on September 30, 2021. Prof. Kotkin had been a tireless Sparer Committee member since the program’s founding in 1985.
Kotkin, a trailblazer in employment law and sexual harassment law, joined the faculty in 1984. She created and taught the Federal Litigation Clinic and the Employment Law Clinic. She was a dynamic teacher of employment law, N.Y. civil procedure, administrative law, civil rights law, and interviewing and counseling. The Forum opened with a slideshow of photos of Kotkin at all stages of her career along with written remembrances and the moving Maya Angelou poem “When Great Trees Fall.”
The Good Fight
Dean Michael Cahill welcomed the group, likening Kotkin and the clinical faculty “as field generals in the battle for a more just and fair society, both leading others and participating in the effort themselves. Minna was involved in many important victories; to be sure, the battles are not over, nor won, but Minna’s fighting spirit lives on and will be carried forward by the many she led and inspired. She benefitted our community and the people on whose behalf she fought.”
Kotkin’s longtime clinical colleague, Associate Dean of Experiential Education & Professor of Law Stacy Caplow, offered a testimonial that touched on the many facets of Kotkin that made her so respected and beloved. “Minna’s life is not measured by the cases she won or the many speeches she gave or articles she wrote, or number of students she taught,” Caplow said, “but she will be remembered as the singular, charismatic, no-nonsense, truth-telling woman, teacher, lawyer, scholar that she was, who could cut to the core of the issue while enjoying every minute of the party.”
Friend and colleague Elizabeth Schneider, Rose L. Hoffer Professor of Law, said, “Minna was a total force of nature in every aspect of her work. Her loss brings so much sadness, but also so much joy at how lucky we were to know her and work with her over many years.”
Leading Clinical Education with Fierceness and Humor
Kotkin’s importance as an innovative and inspiring clinical educator was touched on by those like pioneering clinician Elliott Milstein, Professor of Law Emeritus and former Dean of American University Washington College of Law. She was, he said, “part of the ‘Inventing Generation of Teachers.’ In her constant search to be better, she jumped in and became central to reflecting our goals of developing our students’ social justice skills and legal knowledge, and designing programs to reflect those goals, while always challenging her own assumptions.” Kotkin’s mentorship through the clinics inspired many of the testimonials. Professor Carolyn Grose ’94 of Mitchell Hamline School of Law, who had been both Kotkin’s student and a teaching assistant in the Federal Litigation Clinic, said that experience moved her to follow the clinical education path in her own career, all with a high level of expectation and a lot of humor. “She was always looking for people to broaden the conversation that might change her mind,” Grose said. “To encourage and amplify new voices that might encourage you to spit out your coffee and say, as she often did, with a laugh, ‘What the ‘f’ are you talking about?’”
Others, like Kotkin’s former TA’s Jamie Levitt ’21 and Peter Gallagher ’20, recalled how in 2020, in response to the nationwide shutdown of businesses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Kotkin launched the Pandemic Employment Relief Clinic (PERC), which rallied hundreds of law students to help nearly 1,000 New York workers who had been displaced. “In the midst of tragedy and chaos, Minna just came in and said, ‘Look, I have a vision and I want you all to come along with me,’” said Gallagher. “She came in with joy, inspiration, and leadership.”
Leadership and Scholarship in Employment Law
“Minna exhibited the power of the clinician-scholar model in academia,” said Ann C. McGinley, former Brooklyn Law School professor and current William S. Boyd Professor of Law at the Boyd School of Law of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Speaking of Kotkin’s research and scholarship on the problems arising from secret and confidential settlements generated by mandatory arbitration, McGinley said, “Invisible cases were made visible through her study.” Added Jamie Levitt, “She’s somewhere celebrating the passage of the Ending of Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act. Her testimony was brilliant.”
The program began and ended with speakers who had benefitted from Kotkin’s mentorship while students. Professor Peter Margulies, now a clinical teacher at Roger Williams Law School, described Minna’s exacting supervision when he was her law student intern at NY Lawyers for the Public Interest, 40 years ago. Current Brooklyn Law School student Megan Cooney ’22, her most recent mentee, described a similar relationship.
Lureen McNeil, a client of the Employment Law Clinic who worked closely with Kotkin and Levitt, witnessed the power of Kotkin’s advocacy firsthand at a series of mediation sessions, at the end of which Minna secured a meaningful settlement in her employment discrimination case. “When I walked into that clinic, they believed in me, understood me, and fought for me,” said McNeil. “The work that you do, the lives that you touch. You understand the pain people go through in a process like this. Professor Kotkin had a very profound impact on my life.”
That Laugh, That Voice
Recounted time and again during the Forum, and through dozens of remembrances and testimonials from others gathered online, were Kotkin’s unique raspy voice and bold laugh, as well as her gift of friendship; her generosity; her rejection of academic pretension; her sense of fun; her support and fight for the vulnerable; and her love for her students, her partner Deena, her sons Eli and Sam, her dogs, a dry Martini with olives, and, of course, a good argument.
“It’s an unfathomable loss. There was so much more to know,” said Elliott Milstein. “But although her voice may be stilled, what we learned from her is instilled in all of us.”