How San Rafael City Attorney Rob Epstein Ran Back to School


Kyan Baker, Contributor

I pulled into a moderately crowded parking lot of the office complex where Rob Epstein told me to meet him. I wandered around looking for the right room, and I eventually found the room number I was given in the email. Epstein greeted me warmly and led me into his office. Almost immediately, I noticed a photo of the 2020 Mock Trial team, and one of Epstein and his family. I sat down and began inquiring the lifelong San Rafael resident about his life.

Much like many current SRHS students, Epstein went all the way through the San Rafael public school system. He started at Coleman Elementary School, before advancing to Davidson Middle School, before finally ending up at San Rafael High School. Epstein described himself as curious and competitive, although he felt he lacked athletic talent. Despite this, he participated in both basketball and cross country. In addition, he participated in student journalism as a sports editor and announced sports games on the school radio system. 

However, Epstein’s favorite part of high school was the time he spent with his friends. “I’m an extrovert, and I was back then too; so it was really the social part that was big for me,” he said. Tina Schilling, the owner of Perry’s Deli in Fairfax and a childhood friend of Epstein’s older sister, had kind words to say about him back when she met him while visiting the Epstein family’s house. “That kid had a halo over his head,” Schilling said fondly. Karl Dannecker, who Epstein has been friends with since kindergarten, said, “He was one of those lanky, skinny guys with allergies and glasses, but he just fit in with any crowd.”

Epstein mentioned that he was always interested in learning about the law, and that he wishes that there was a Mock Trial team when he was at SR. However, he was not always clear on what career path he wanted to pursue, explaining that planning for college is now a much bigger worry than it once was. “I spent all of twenty seconds thinking about it,” Epstein said about his process of deciding on his college education. Prior to graduating with the class of 1980, he chose to go to the University of California in Berkeley to join his friends who graduated before him.

Epstein went on to talk about how he thrived at UC Berkeley. When asked about his favorite part of college, he responded, “It was more just being away from home, choosing what I wanted to do every day, and the incredibly rich environment.” Although he majored in rhetoric like many other pre-law students, Epstein briefly considered pursuing a career in film. Much like his hometown, he became very involved in the college community, participating in work-study programs on campus as a mail carrier, gas station employee, and librarian. 

After graduating from college in 1984, Epstein had a brief stint working for a company that published college textbooks, before making the final decision to apply to law school in San Francisco. Epstein never had the goal to become a judge. “There are two kinds of law students. Those who want to become judges and those who do not. I was one of the latter,” Epstein said. Instead, he focused his attention on practicing civil litigation in a courtroom setting. It was also at this law school where Epstein met the woman he would go on to marry. 

Epstein began his practice working in San Francisco and Davis for a brief period of time. He described civil litigation as an intellectual challenge, but said fondly that “working with the clients and helping them is a real privilege.” Not long after he started practicing law, Epstein met now retired judge and SRHS alumni Lynn Duryee. “He is exactly what a judge wants. He comes to court prepared and on time, and he is respectful,” Judge Duryee said.

After some time, Epstein returned to his roots as a San Rafael man, and began working for the city government. It was twenty seven years ago when Epstein met Gary Ragghianti, an SRHS parent and former City Attorney. “Rob was never unprepared to address a question, and was always dedicated to protecting his clients,” Ragghianti said. In the 1990s, Epstein developed the aspiration to succeed Ragghianti as City Attorney once he was ready to step down. In 2007, this goal was realized, when Epstein was elected City Attorney for the first time. 

Although stating that he enjoys both, Epstein said that one perk of working for the city is that the people at City Hall are used to working with lawyers. “I like being where the action is,” he said. One person Epstein works closely with is current Mayor Kate Colin. Colin makes clear that Epstein is an extremely dedicated employee of the city. She drives home this fact by explaining Epstein’s role in ensuring the Brown Act, which requires transparency of local government affairs, as well as being extremely helpful in answering legal questions. “He understands that at the end of the day, the city is composed of people, and we are making decisions that affect people’s lives,” Colin said.

Rob Epstein’s story came full circle when he returned to San Rafael High School to coach Mock Trial. Epstein began coaching Mock Trial about eleven years ago. He has now seen many classes of students come and go, but he said that the 2020 Mock Trial team stood out to him in particular. 

Epstein mentioned that his favorite part of coaching Mock Trial is helping the students develop their public speaking skills, and that he still has a lot to learn about being the best coach he can be. He largely credits the success of the team to math teacher and Mock Trial coach, Mark Baker. “The best way to ensure that students get better is to do what Mark Baker says,” Epstein said. Mr. Baker made his appreciation for Epstein very clear, describing him as “a great communicator, always having good ideas, and always positive.” 

Criminal defense attorney, and fellow Mock Trial coach Peter Arian praises Epstein for always appreciating new ideas and knowing that “part of the fun is the road to get there.” Current Mock Trial student and SRHS senior Olivia Bokaie recounts how Epstein helped her step outside her comfort zone and go from being a witness to an attorney. “Rob is very enthusiastic and always encourages me to do my best,” Olivia said. 

As I reached the end of my interview, I asked Epstein what he saw as his biggest accomplishment. His answer was: “Being a husband and a parent of three children and a son and a brother and a friend.” Despite many achievements to brag about, Rob Epstein’s first priority was always being a family man.

He also stated his belief that no matter what you’ve done in your life, “You got to keep yourself active and have new goals.” Epstein said he hopes to do that by learning how to play the guitar, and continuing with his passion for running that he’s held onto since he ran cross country in high school. 

Robert Epstein is a great attorney, who has made an impact with his complete devotion to his friends, family, and city. Despite making strides in the messy world of law, Epstein has always stuck to what mattered most to him. As Dannecker said, “Rob’s personality hasn’t changed one bit.”