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Raj Marphatia, Harvard Law Review president known for his brilliance and kindness, dies at 60

Mr. Marphatia with his daughters Maya (left) and Leena.
Mr. Marphatia with his daughters Maya (left) and Leena.

Raj Marphatia made history in 1987 as the first non-white student elected to be president of the Harvard Law Review, but that wasn’t an accomplishment he dwelled on.

“He had such humility,” said his companion, Carolyn Hayes, who also is a lawyer. “He was very, very humble.”

During his 32-year legal career after law school, if colleagues learned of his groundbreaking moment at Harvard Law School, it wasn’t from him. “He would never tell you that because he was incredibly modest,” said Loretta Richard, a partner at the Boston firm Ropes & Gray.

Mr. Marphatia, a Ropes & Gray partner whose life and work took him from Bombay to Cambridge and Silicon Valley, died of cancer on May 8.

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He was 60 and, after living in Greater Boston for more than 30 years, had moved to his law firm’s offices in East Palo Alto, Calif., when his late wife joined the Stanford University faculty in 2011.

Known at work and home for his brilliance and congeniality, Mr. Marphatia “had a talent that not a lot of people have, which was the ability to disagree with you and challenge your beliefs in a way that you stayed friendly throughout,” said Brett Robbins, another Ropes & Gray partner.

“I think he had a gentle strength,” Hayes said. “His voice was always kind. It sounded like he was always smiling.”

In 1987, while being considered among the second-year candidates who had been nominated to be the Harvard Law Review’s next president, Mr. Marphatia stressed a plan of “de-emphasizing the hierarchy, and making the review a more egalitarian place,” according to an interview then with The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper.

To decentralize the publication, he wanted to “share the power between the masthead and the offices” — referring to the Law Review’s departments, which are known as offices, and the executive editors and officers, who are listed on the masthead.

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Collaboration also became a hallmark of his career as a Ropes & Gray partner.

“We work across offices, and with people in other groups,” said Richard who, like Robbins, was a longtime friend as well as a colleague.

Mr. Marphatia, she said, “didn’t have sharp elbows. He was the kind of guy who cared about his colleagues and cared about his clients.”

Within a Boston legal community not lacking for talented lawyers, she added, it was surprising “that somebody who was so well-educated, so accomplished, and so smart could be so nice.”

Raj Marphatia was born in India on June 17, 1959, in the city then known as Bombay. He was the older of two children and the only son of Ravi Marphatia, a chemical engineer, and Chandrakala Mehta Marphatia, who had trained as a librarian and was involved with volunteer work and charity, along with raising the children.

Mr. Marphatia grew up in what is now Mumbai and first arrived in the United States on a Rotary scholarship — a venture he supported the rest of his life.

He was an exchange high school student in Jefferson, Iowa, a city of fewer than 5,000 northwest of Des Moines — an experience that changed his life in ways immediate and lasting.

Though he was a vegetarian upon arrival, his host family served him pork chops his first night. “Just to be polite he ate them and he loved them,” said his daughter Leena Ambady of Palo Alto.

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In Iowa, he formed bonds that lasted a lifetime — his host father spoke via Zoom at a private family gathering after Mr. Marphatia died — and he developed a love of baseball that he put to use in a law firm fantasy league, winning the season title on more than one occasion.

He attended Harvard on a full scholarship, graduating in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in economics, though he later told his family he wished had studied art history.

Before going to law school, he worked at the accounting firm then known as Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co.

During the family’s memorial gathering, his host father from Iowa recalled via Zoom that Mr. Marphatia had finished in the top 100 among the tens of thousands who took the certified public accountant exam his year.

That was yet another accomplishment Mr. Marphatia had been reticent to share with relatives and colleagues, though the example of his intellectual range and accomplishment was unsurprising.

“Dad was intense about knowing everything about a subject,” said his other daughter, Maya Ambady of Philadelphia. “Every time he picked up a new hobby, he would get 10 books about it and read them thoroughly.”

Maya and Leena are Mr. Marphatia’s daughters from his marriage to Nalini Ambady, whom he met when she was a Harvard graduate student.

Dr. Ambady died of leukemia in 2013. A renowned social psychologist, she conducted research on intuition and the remarkable accuracy of first impressions. Her work was featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “Blink.”

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Maya said her father “was in awe of how she was this award-winning scientist, and she also handled most of the child-care duties.”

Mr. Marphatia and Dr. Ambady would tell their daughters the story of how he had hesitated at the prospect of having children because he considered himself too selfish.

“Which is funny, because he wasn’t selfish at all — he was really unselfish,” Leena said. “He taught us so many things: how to swim, drive, ride a bike — really to do anything.”

He also taught Maya to play bridge, a passion he pursued to his final night, playing online with friends.

Mr. Marphatia joined Ropes & Gray in 1989 and remained there the rest of his life. In a statement posted online, Julie Jones, who chairs the firm, called him a “treasure — a shining light as a colleague, friend, and counselor.”

First focusing on tax law, he switched to private investment funds. Mr. Marphatia had been the leader of the Ropes & Gray investment funds practice and helped establish the firm’s West Coast presence.

He was also part of the firm’s diversity committee and was devoted to pro bono work, including in recent years working with immigrants who were seeking citizenship, veterans trying to obtain health benefits, and a transgender rights project.

Beyond his intellectual inquisitiveness, Mr. Marphatia was a colleague’s colleague, his friends said.

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“He collected people in terms of his friendships,” Richard said. “He maintained long-term relationships with many, many different people from different parts of his life.”

And that included colleagues he was delighted to encounter during visits back to Boston from California.

“The people he was happy to see, and the people who were happy to see him, ranged in age from people in their mid-20s to people who were retired,” Robbins said. “He had this look of happiness and glee when his eye caught somebody he hadn’t seen in a while.”

A public memorial gathering will be announced for Mr. Marphatia, who in addition to his daughters, Maya and Leena, and his companion, Carolyn, leaves his mother, who lives in Mumbai, and his sister, Mona Khandwala of England.

Mr. Marphatia with Carolyn Hayes in Saratoga, Calif., before attending a concert by the Temptations and the Four Tops.
Mr. Marphatia with Carolyn Hayes in Saratoga, Calif., before attending a concert by the Temptations and the Four Tops.

Carolyn recalled that two nights before Mr. Marphatia died, he told her: “ ‘No moping. We don’t know how much time we have left. We need to make the most of our time together and enjoy it.’ He passed on Friday morning. I will try to live by those words in Raj’s honor.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.