Community Honors Retiring Professor Debbie Bechtel

Debbie Bechtel

More than 150 members and friends of the Brooklyn Law School community gathered Tuesday evening to celebrate the career of Professor Debbie Bechtel, who founded the influential Corporate and Real Estate Clinic, and is retiring after 27 years of teaching, mentoring, building connections citywide, and helping to bolster the school’s reputation for excellence in practical training.

Upon beginning her teaching career in 1997, Bechtel founded the Corporate and Real Estate Clinic the same year to address both the need for free, high-quality legal services to assist struggling low-income cooperative boards and a desire to provide Brooklyn Law School students with transactional clinic experiences. Every semester since, students have helped preserve hundreds of affordable housing units by negotiating and closing loans needed to discharge arrears and address rehabilitation crises. Students have also been part of teams working to avert foreclosures and provide extensive advice to co-op boards of directors.

President and Joseph Crea Dean David D. Meyer, in his remarks, described feeling a mix of happiness for Bechtel in her retirement, awe at hearing those in the room describe her staggering accomplishments in the affordable housing advocacy community, and trepidation at losing her as an educator who students repeatedly describe, in her teaching evaluations, as simply amazing.  One student wrote, “She is smart, well-connected, and truly cares about her students. I would not have survived Law School without her,” said Meyer, who noted Bechtel’s unofficial yet celebrated roles as a “model career placement director” and a “model alumni network director” for the school.

“As a dean, I have a very knowing sense of what an enormous loss this is for Brooklyn Law School, to lose Debbie from the role that she has played for 27 years,” Meyer said. “So many of you are the living testament to the impact that she has had through her network, her irrepressible desire to help people, to make connections, to mentor, and so I offer my deep gratitude and tribute to Debbie for the service that she’s done for all of us and for Brooklyn Law School and beyond.”  

Professor Stacy Caplow, who was the law school's first dean overseeing all aspects of clinical and experiential education, said she worked with Bechtel longer than anyone present, and asked attendees to raise their hands if they’d worked with her as well through various decades in the clinics since the beginning of her career. Across the room, many hands went up. “And how many people who worked with Debbie would say that she had a profound influence on your careers?” Caplow asked. “And how many people in here were adjuncts or professionals who Debbie corralled to be part of the Brooklyn Law School community to teach or to mentor students?”

The room burst into applause on both counts. Caplow saluted Bechtel for having a “brilliant idea” 27 years ago to create a transactional clinic at a time when Brooklyn Law School clinics and others around the country largely focused on client representation.

“There were very few, if any, clinics where students learned the types of skills and client representation and project work that a transactional clinic provides,” Caplow said. “It was a great idea because it was a social justice focus for housing preservation and housing security, for all of the properties and people who lived in those buildings that she and her students represented over the years.” 

In presenting Bechtel with gifts, Caplow noted that the New York City Mayor’s and Brooklyn Borough President’s office had each presented her with certificates of recognition for her service.

Another speaker was Director of Graduate Programs John Rudikoff ’06, who is also an adjunct professor of law and a former student of Bechtel and the clinic.

“I’ve known Debbie for about 20 years now, and in that time, she’s been an excellent professor and mentor, but most importantly a friend, which I think many of you can relate to. In the 10 or so years that I was unaffiliated with the law school, before I came back to teach, she was the single connection I maintained to the Law School,” Rudikoff said, adding that she was always willing to give insight and support to graduates with her signature good sense of humor. “As demonstrated by many of the people in this room, this is an experience that many of us had with Debbie.”

In remarks, Bechtel, whose family members also joined the event, expressed gratitude to members of the community, including the adjunct faculty members who she credited for taking on teaching real estate courses, especially in the evening.

“I really want to thank our adjunct faculty members. They really helped the real estate program here at BLS,” Bechtel said. “I’m especially proud of the ones that are alums of my clinic and externship, which are a fair number now, [Professor] Richard Sobelsohn ’98, who you heard remarks from, [Adjunct Professors] Evelyn D'Angelo ’13, Eleor Cohen ’13, Mary Willis White ’13, John Rudikoff ’06, and Celeste Russell ’21.”

She added her thanks to other adjunct professors on the team, and applauded the work of the Law School’s Real Estate Society and said she was privileged to work with the many affordable housing community advocates in the room and thanked them for “trusting your projects to us.”

“I deeply appreciate all the BLS alums who have paid it forward in so many different ways, advising students hosting externships, giving guest lectures, participating on panels, we prize these contributions,” Bechtel adding that she will be an emerita professor, and will retain her school email address.

“Going forward please keep in touch with me. I also should have more time to go out to dinner and have drinks,” she said to cheers from the crowd.

Other speakers including faculty members: David Reiss, the founding director of the Community Development Clinic who teaches property-related courses and is the research director for the Center for Urban Business Entrepreneurship (CUBE); and Associate Dean for Academic and Student Success Karen Porter, who is also associate professor of clinical law; former students: Niki Tsismenakis ’11, partner at Goldstein Hall; Jon Popin ’21, Duane Morris special counsel; Tim Oberweger ’05, Commonwealth Land Title Insurance Co., vice president; and Melissa Rivero ’08, book author. Additional speakers included Earline King and Kianah Danine, who were 2178 Atlantic Avenue clients of the clinic.

Among those who shared written congratulations and well wishes with Bechtel was Chris Allred, assistant commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development, who thanked her for the many years in which she guided and helped the organization as it worked to improve the oversight of affordable cooperatives in the city.

“Many people know of the tremendous support you provided affordable cooperatives through your work at Brooklyn Law, and the knowledge and guidance you gave to generations of affordable housing attorneys,” Allred wrote. “I doubt as many know how much the city relied on you for your knowledge and insights. You were an invaluable resource and partner to the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. In addition to the behind the scenes help you gave us, you testified before City Council, you advised the Attorney General’s office, and you guided elected officials…The residents of affordable cooperatives have never had a better champion and many thousands of families have better lives thanks to your efforts.”

Indeed, Bechtel has garnered praise for her decades of work to help create and preserve affordable housing in New York City, including being honored by the Urban Homesteading Assistance Board as a “Housing Hero” in 2017 and in November 2020, winning the Sondra Roach Community Partnership Award by Habitat for Humanity New York City for her work on helping save 16 families who lived at 2178 Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn from a foreclosure and bankruptcy that also preserved the affordability of their building.

In 2020, she was the author of the paper, New York City Low-Income Cooperatives: A Guide, which was published in the N.Y. Real Property Law Journal, a New York State Bar Association title. In 2022, Brooklyn Law School presented Bechtel with the Faculty Award for Excellence in Public Service.

To see photos of the event on Flickr, click here.