General counsel comes from a decorated past

Mark Rotenberg has been working as general counsel at the University since 1992.

Ahnalese Rushmann

It’s approaching 5 p.m. on a Friday and Mark Rotenberg is still at his Morrill Hall office – perhaps because he’s about to be interviewed, perhaps because he’s thinking about how the University got sued in the past two hours.

Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel, said when he started his job in 1992, the school was getting sued roughly 300 times per year. Although Rotenberg said that number has shrunk to about 125, he thinks that’s still too much.

“If I get to lunch before being served with a summons and complaint, I’m having a great day,” he said with a smile.

Charged with overseeing legal needs for one of the nation’s largest universities, Rotenberg touches everything from medical malpractice lawsuits to coaches’ multimillion-dollar contract buyouts. He’s even argued the only University case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1999 alone, he provided counsel in the nationally covered men’s basketball academic fraud scandal and helped the school win a $300 million patent settlement for Ziagen, an anti-HIV drug developed by University scientists. Framed clippings from the Ziagen case, yellowing with age, hang proudly in the waiting area of his office.

“Sometimes I think if we had another five or 10 lawyers, we could probably get the place running even better than it does now,” he said. “All those lawyer jokes suggest that getting rid of lawyers would be helpful. But who knows who’s right?”

Working on a high-profile stage isn’t new to the Minneapolis native. After earning a law degree at Columbia University, Rotenberg went on to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, which advises the president and top federal executives.

In his four years during the first Ronald Reagan administration, Rotenberg said he learned the president didn’t like talking to lawyers.

“He was famous for having his morning briefing last under a half an hour,” Rotenberg said.

He said he’s actually met Bill Clinton more than Reagan, most recently when he and his wife hosted a luncheon for the former president, who was traveling in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Although Rotenberg said he romanticizes his Washington years, he said his father, also a lawyer, urged him to find a “real legal job.”

“These things that the president does,” he said, “(my father) would say ‘there’s only one client in the world who cares about the things that you’re doing.’ “

While his father was proud of him, his point was made, Rotenberg said.

“There aren’t any clients anywhere in the world that care about the commander in chief power,” he said. “So I ended up coming back here and getting a more normal legal job at Dorsey and Whitney, LLP.”

At the firm, Rotenberg worked with current U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., whose congressional seat Rotenberg considered pursuing in 2005.

“I set up an exploratory committee,” he said, “and realized that I’d probably need to find somewhere around $15 million to be successful.”

Rotenberg said he decided to save his time and money and is happy with Klobuchar.

“It was clear to me she’d be a great senator,” he said. “I’m pleased to see that she’s successful.”

Rotenberg’s political interests took on a more worldly angle in 2001, when he experienced two life-shaping events tied to terrorism.

Rotenberg’s cousin died in the World Trade Center attack and three months later, he witnessed a bombing in downtown Jerusalem.

Rotenberg said he and a friend were in a cab waiting at a traffic light, when he heard a “thunderous clap.”

“I looked out my window,” he said, “and about 20 feet from me was a human torso lying in the street without a head.”

Rotenberg and his friend decided to create Minnesotans Against Terrorism, a nonprofit group promoting global terrorism awareness. He said he wanted to make others aware of events beyond their boundaries.

“It just struck me that people in Minnesota really didn’t understand what this was all about,” he said. “I didn’t myself understand what this is all about.”

Bombs didn’t scare Rotenberg off. He returned to Israel with his wife and the youngest two of his three children to teach for a semester at Hebrew University’s law school.

“My mom and some of my friends thought I was crazy to go there because there are bombings,” he said.

Rotenberg said his family experienced a “very unusual, unique city,” where camels and fighter jets weren’t uncommon sights.

“My little boy would be shooting hoops in our neighborhood park and some Arab kids would come by on a donkey,” he said. “You wouldn’t see that in Kenwood Park in Minneapolis.”

Despite packed weeks, Rotenberg said he takes an occasional ski or scuba dive trip, even if it’s a struggle.

“Ever since I’ve been in my like, late 20s, I’ve been trying to find ways to cut back my kind of Type A, ‘gotta get this done, gotta get more done’ mentality,” Rotenberg said. “I think I’m doing better than when I first came here.”

Kathryn Brown, University vice president and chief of staff, said Rotenberg loves teaching and working with law students.

He takes great pride in helping students develop as lawyers, she said.

Andrea Wells, a second-year law student and law clerk at the Office of the General Counsel, said Rotenberg joins students for lunch and makes them feel included in the workplace.

“He always makes a big effort to meet with us,” she said.

Rotenberg said he tries to remember the University has a huge number of legal needs that’ll have just as many issues for him to work out the next day.

“It’s hard to just let it go and say, ‘I’m outta here,’ ” he said. “I’ve just got to understand, if it doesn’t happen today, there’ll be another struggle tomorrow; you have to pace yourself and understand that you can only do so much.”

Rotenberg said he’s happy at the University, in what he calls an “amazing job,” but said he’s not sure what exactly lies ahead.

“We’ll have to see what happens,” he said. “I’m not going to be raising $15 million for my next job, I’ll tell you that.”