Public defender excited by work

URBANA – Growing up, Randy Rosenbaum didn't envision himself as a champion of the legal rights of criminal defendants. But he definitely was instilled with a sense of service at a young age.

In high school, he did volunteer work with refugees, and during all four years of college, he served as a hospice worker, tending to dying patients and their families.

So, it's not surprising that as a lawyer, he is more interested in representing those less fortunate than in making a fortune.

Rosenbaum, 38, of Champaign is the Champaign County public defender, having been appointed to that post in November 1998 by the circuit judges in Champaign County. He oversees a staff of 10 full-time attorneys, one administrative assistant and two legal secretaries.

Jenna Brown, the office administrative assistant, said Rosenbaum is the fourth boss she has had in 13 years. And while she said all have been great, she can't help but put Rosenbaum at the "top of the list."

"He is a first-class administrator and attorney. He is fair, approachable and, most of all, passionate about his work. He's a motivator, an encourager. I just admire the genuine concern he displays for his clients and his employees. He's wonderful," she said.

He also makes an "awesome" cheesecake, Brown said.

A fraternal twin, Rosenbaum was born to Robert and Delores Rosenbaum in the fall of 1964 in Kansas City and grew up in Overland Park, a suburb on the Kansas side. His dad was the controller for the Jewish Federation of Kansas City. He and twin brother Rick have one older sister, Becky Braverman.

Rosenbaum jokes his twin got the artistic ability while he got the rugged good looks, but in reality, he said, they look more like distant cousins than twins.

As children, he said he and Rick did a lot of things together, "but our parents were fantastic in letting us have our own identities. In fact, we have very different interests and talents."

"He's really big into art and a phenomenal artist, and I can't draw a straight line. He's really big into sports, both playing and watching. I would go to the ball games to eat the hot dogs," Rosenbaum said.

Randy loves to cook and bake and eat what he produces, and admits he has the waistline to demonstrate it, while he described his brother as very fit, trim and serious.

In the spring of the boys' senior year in high school, their mom went to the doctor for what she thought was a pinched nerve that caused her back pain. A routine blood test revealed she had leukemia.

"Within a month or so, she was in the hospital, was there a week and she died," said Rosenbaum, adding there was no time to prepare for her death.

"My brother and I were going to college, and our sister married and moved out, so we went from a family of five to just Dad. When I went off to college, I was left with a lot of those issues," he said.

To help himself and others, he trained to be a hospice volunteer and did that for nearly the whole time he attended Northwestern University in Evanston, the same school Rick attended.

"I had six or seven (patients) in four years," he said, adding that hospice volunteers do as much or more for the families of dying people as for the dying themselves.

The hospice experience, he said, "changed my whole outlook on life and death and the importance of talking to the people important to you so you don't lose the opportunity to tell them what you think and feel."

For his hospice work, he was given an award by Northwestern that's given every year to a male and fe-male senior for outstanding philanthropy. It's one of the awards he is most proud of, he said.

After he graduated in 1987 with a degree in communications studies, Rosenbaum went to work for a Chi-cago real es-tate developer doing "stuff, nothing exciting" and using "absolutely none" of his communications skills. He applied for law school at the University of Illinois. Accepted, he deferred attending for a year to save money.

He graduated in 1991 and decided to move to New York, "because I was young and single, and I thought if there's any time in my life I wanted the big city experience, that was it. But I knew that was not a place I wanted to live forever."

His first job was with the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan, which is the public defender's office for New York City.

There, he met Bruce Rafalson, now a practicing attorney in Chicago, who started at the same time he did and got assigned to the same criminal division in Manhattan, working together for about three years.

Rafalson said Rosenbaum, even as a rookie, was not afraid of the courtroom.

"He was very active and did a number of jury trials. He impressed us all with his ease in public speaking. As young attorneys, a lot of us (have difficulty) trying to persuade people. His demeanor in the courtroom – he was very comfortable from the beginning," said Rafalson.

And it was trial by fire, Rafalson said, noting that a few courts ran 24 hours a day to keep up with demand, and there were days when they would be in court for 16 straight hours for first appearances with clients.

"He does a great job for his clients. He's zealous in his representation," he said.

Rick Rosenbaum said Randy had an experience upon his arrival in New York that gave him a different kind of respect for his twin.

Randy ar-rived in Brooklyn with a rent- al van filled with every possession he had accumulated in life. He pulled up in front of the building where he planned to live and went in to sign the lease. When he came back out with the keys in hand, the van was gone.

"A lot of people would have turned tail and run home," said Rick. "He stuck it out and joked he might have to defend the person who stole his stuff. It was a good challenge, and he grew from it."

After the few years in Manhattan, both Rosenbaum and Rafalson returned to Illinois to take the bar exam, toying with the idea of starting their own public defender group in Chicago. With a baby on the way, Ra-falson changed his mind about starting his own firm, so Rosenbaum launched out on his own.

He came to Champaign to visit a friend, who was a lawyer in the Champaign County public defender's office. She suggested he apply for one of the new contract positions for felony attorneys intended to take some of the load off the public defender's office.

Rosenbaum did and was in the first group hired in December 1994. He held the contract until August 1996 when former Champaign County Public Defender Kirk Schoenbein hired him as his first assistant.

When Schoenbein left two years later, Rosenbaum applied for and was selected to be public defender.

In 1995, he met his wife, Jill Hashbarger, now Rosenbaum, through a mutual friend. Their first date was to hear "some left-wing, environmentalist guitar-playing priest on campus."

"I think she said she was going, and I said, 'Oh, yeah. I was going to go, too. That sounds interesting.' Of course, it wasn't," he said.

He thought the date would be his first and last when, while waiting in line for coffee at an espresso joint, a panhandler Rosenbaum recognized as one of his clients approached them. With a trial imminent and not having been able to reach the client, Rosenbaum excused himself from Jill and talked with the man instead.

The experience didn't turn off Hashbarger, who said Rosenbaum's sense of humor, intelligence and "being a sweet guy" appealed to her. His work, she said, "makes for very fascinating stories when he comes home."

Married seven years with two children, ages 5 and 2, the Rosenbaums said their interests in reading and foreign movies have taken a back seat to "crayons, doing puzzles and changing diapers."

"He is a terrific father and a wonderful husband," said Jill, who does computer consulting part time. "He's a very good cook and an excellent baker."

Rosenbaum said that like most parents, having children has forced him to allocate his time at work better. On the occasions when he takes work home, he tackles it after the children are asleep, he said.

"I try to be a hands-on dad," he said.

As for his work, his attitude is about the same.

"I love what I do. Every case is different. There's an excitement and vibrancy you don't get with a lot of other kinds of legal work," Rosenbaum said. "As for actual lawyering, I can't think of a better kind of law."

You can reach Mary Schenk at (217) 351-5313 or via e-mail at mschenk@news-gazette.com.

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