Professor of Law Emeritus Keith S. Rosenn (photo by Jenny Abreu)
For decades, Professor of Law Emeritus Keith S. Rosenn has been one of the nation’s leading scholars on Latin American law. An expert on Brazil’s constitution, he helped establish a graduate legal education program in Rio de Janeiro and has amassed a large collection of Brazilian law books.
Since joining Miami Law in 1979, Rosenn has enjoyed teaching U.S. and Latin American students about the legal systems of the Americas and the legal problems of doing business in Latin America. “Knowledge of comparative law is an important element of serving clients with international interests,” said Rosenn, who was chair of the LL.M. programs in International Law and in Inter-American Law until retiring in 2016.
In his long and distinguished career, Rosenn has written six books and numerous law review articles in the fields of comparative law, Latin American law, and constitutional law. He has also guided many Miami Law students to successful careers in international law.
"I remember Keith Rosenn as a teacher who cares for his students, said Spyridon V. Bazinas, LL.M. '84, an independent trade law consultant in Vienna, Austria. "His comparative law class helped me understand different legal cultures and confirm the conclusion that we are all related to each other.
This was perhaps the most important lesson for me in my career in the Office of Legal Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat and as a staff member of the Secretariat of the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law.”
From a Family of Lawyers
Rosenn was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to a distinguished family of lawyers. His uncle Harold was a longtime attorney, and his father Max was appointed by President Richard Nixon to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit at age 60. “When he was confirmed, the Senate was concerned about his longevity, but my father was hearing cases until he was 96 and outlived everyone on the hearing committee,” Rosenn said.
After earning his bachelor’s degree at Amherst College, Rosenn went on to obtain an LL.B. in 1963 from Yale Law School. “While I never took a class on Latin American law at Yale, I benefited greatly from a course on communication and the law,” Rosenn said. “One of my first clients in private practice was the owner of a radio and television station, and he was delighted with my training. It turned out to be one of the most practical courses for my career.”
After law school, Rosenn clerked for Judge J. Joseph Smith on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and practiced briefly with his father and uncle’s firm before getting an offer to teach at the Ohio State University School of Law. With his three-year-old daughter, he moved to Columbus to teach constitutional law and criminal law. Because he had published an article in the Yale Law Journal on Puerto Rican land reform, he was also assigned a course on Latin American law, a topic about which he actually knew very little.
To gain a firsthand understanding of Latin American law, Rosenn joined Professor Henry Steiner of Harvard Law School on a joint Ford Foundation-U.S. Agency for International Development legal education reform project in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, while learning Portuguese and serving as a single dad.
“My daughter Eva came home one day and strongly suggested that I meet her teacher Silvia, who became my second wife,” Rosenn said. Now married 53 years, the Rosenns’ family includes Jonathan Rosenn, J.D. ‘96, a partner at Lapin & Leichtling LLP in Miami; Marcia Rosenn, a former New Hampshire prosecutor, now practicing law in New Hampshire and Massachusetts with Sheehan, Schiavoni, Jutras & Magliocchetti; and Eva Rosenn, who holds a doctorate from Columbia University and is now a fundraiser for Northeastern University.
After returning from Brazil, Rosenn resumed his teaching career. He became a full professor at 31 and taught at OSU for 14 years before joining Miami Law in 1979.
“For me there is no better place than Miami to teach, consult and learn about Latin American law,” he said.
“Teaching has given me the opportunity to build lasting friendships and professional relationships with U.S. students interested in the region, as well as Latin American students seeking to broaden their knowledge.”
The Civil Law System
Rosenn has taught generations of Miami Law students about Latin America’s civil law systems, which are largely modeled on the Napoleonic Code and differ from the common law system of the United States and United Kingdom. “It is very important for Miami Law students to know something about the civil law, especially if they plan to work with clients with business or investment interests in Latin America,” said Rosenn, adding that the U.S. Constitution has influenced constitutional law in a great many countries, but especially in Latin America.
“Knowledge of civil law can help U.S. attorneys interact intelligently with lawyers from a Latin American country where business is transacted,” Rosenn added.
“I tell our students, ‘Don’t try to guide clients yourself.’ Instead, work with an attorney familiar with the legal system. Understand the vocabulary and the answers they provide. However, some of the concepts are hard to translate if you don’t have a basic understanding of civil law.”
Translating the Brazilian Constitution
One of Rosenn’s ongoing projects is translating the Brazilian Constitution, which has been frequently updated since its adoption in 1988. “After the 109th amendment was passed in March, I translated those 30-plus pages and worked the meaning of those changes back into the body of the constitution,” he said. “Through the years, I have added nearly 500 footnotes as well to make things clearer for U.S. students and practitioners.”
One example of the need for explanatory footnotes in translation is consórcio, which appears in Art. 22 of the Brazilian Constitution as a legal institution over which the Federal Congress has exclusive power to regulate. “Brazil had substantial inflation in the 1970s and ’80s, and the astronomical interest rates made it difficult for consumers to obtain financing for expensive items like cars or major home appliances. The Brazilians invented the consórcio as a solution.”
Rosenn said these privately sponsored groups would bring together a group of people who wanted to buy the same item, such as a new Volkswagen Beetle. If there were 12 in the group, each participant would agree to pay 1/12th of the cost of a new Volkswagen Beetle for the next 12 months, with a lottery determining who would actually receive a car that month. Each month the number of lottery participants would be reduced by one. The owner of the consórcio would hold the titles to the vehicles until the participants completed their 12 payments, and everyone who made their payments would eventually wind up with a new car. “This was a clever way to do consumer financing in an inflationary economy,” Rosenn said. “It is also a good example of a concept in Brazilian law that doesn’t have a counterpart in the U.S.”
Influence on His Students
One of Rosenn’s former students is John H. Friedhoff, J.D. ’85, a shareholder at Fowler White Burnett in Miami who credits Rosenn for jump-starting a successful career in international law focused on Latin America.
“When I was interviewing law schools in 1981, my choice was between UM and Washington University,” Friedhoff said. “My undergraduate professors recommended UM as Rosenn was the most renowned professor of Latin American law in the U.S.,” said Friedhoff. “Not a week has gone by when one of his lessons hasn’t popped into my head.”
Now, Friedhoff, who represents foreign investors in his practice, continues to benefit from Rosenn’s expertise on a wide range of topics, including jeitinho, the Brazilian way of handling problems informally.
“If I have a client or associate with a question about Brazilian law, I can pull out one of his books from my shelf. Keith is a friend as well as a mentor, and I am always delighted to bring back books for his collection whenever I travel to Brazil.”
Advice for Students
When not consulting or writing on Latin American legal topics, Rosenn enjoys swimming laps in his pool, continuing his lifelong involvement in recreational sports. “I continue to work hard and advise Miami Law students to do the same,” he said. “Good grades in law school open all kinds of doors for you.”
He also recommends taking basic courses in corporate law, tax law, and procedure as the foundation for a successful practice. “These are the kinds of subjects that pay the rent when you become a lawyer,” he said. “Every law firm needs attorneys who understand business and tax law. It is great to pursue your personal interests but be sure the basics are on your resume.”