It was an honor getting to know Bill Tilton a little recently. We had not met before and knew little of him, but someone recommended him for a profile. He seems legendary and inspiring.
Bill Tilton describes himself like this: “I grew up in the middle of a middle-sized clan in a middle of a mid-size city, in the middle of the mid-west and here I am in the middle of all sorts of fun stuff. I’m a privileged guy. I’m a white guy. Robert Street’s named after my great-grandfather, so my family didn’t have money, but had expectations that you could do things and you should do things.”
And Bill has an inspiring watchword, a mission statement, if you will: “[T]o whom much is given, much is expected.”
ML: So you’ve been practicing now for over 40 years?
Bill Tilton: I’m on year 40 now, or 41. Yes, I graduated in ’77.
ML: Where did you learn your lawyering, not that you’re not learning it every day to this day, but who taught you early on in your career?
Bill Tilton: I was privileged to share offices with a man named Ken Tilsen, who I’m often been confused with, which I love. Ken was a legendary old lefty lawyer. He and Solly Robins, the two of them started the St. Paul office of what was then Robins, Davis and Lyon, which is now the Robins Kaplan firm. Ken is one the many excellent lawyers that came out of that firm and went off on his own.
I met him about the same time my father died, 1969. My father died and I met Ken and we were politically sympathetic, I’m an old lefty political guy, as was he. We met working in the civil rights movement. He actually represented me, I got in my own trouble with anti-war activities. When I then started practicing law, it was just natural that I went to Ken. I rented office space from him. He threw me a few cases now and then, but taught me so much.
He was just an all-around good guy and an all-around lawyer. He got to be well known because he took on civil rights cases and anti-war and anti-draft cases, but he was a master of real estate litigation. He did wills, he did trusts and estates. He did personal injury. At a time when there were generalists around and he was among the best. I learned at the elbow of Ken Tilsen.
ML: You never worked for a large firm or even so-called medium size firm?
Bill Tilton: Never.
ML: The practice of law has changed a whole lot over your 40 years and you just mentioned how there used to be generalists and there are fewer now, if any. You wouldn’t describe yourself as a generalist?
Bill Tilton: Not anymore. When I was a pup lawyer, I did write wills, I did do title opinions, I did a grand variety of things that I wouldn’t touch today.
ML: And now judging from your website, you hold yourself out as a plaintiff’s lawyer in torts, medical malpractice, professional malpractice, personal injury, what else?
Bill Tilton: I do a lot of representation of healthcare professionals before licensing boards. It’s an interesting mix since I made most of my money doing medical malpractice work, but, indeed, I certainly represented more doctors than I’ve ever sued and I’m proud to do it.
Most doctors render excellent care and if they get in trouble for licensing it’s usually an explainable situation. I hold myself out as a torts lawyer, I don’t do a lot of stuff even in torts, so I don’t want to do a slip and fall, I don’t do most auto accidents, I leave that up to the people who advertise. God speed. I don’t want to do it.
We do mostly medical/legal related stuff and on the tort side it’s mostly medical malpractice, sometimes it’s been products liability.
My first big trial was a products liability trial. It was a Dalkon shield case, a defective product made by the A. H. Robins Company.
ML: Was that before the famous liberal judge, Judge Miles Lord?
Bill Tilton: No, it was before Robert Renner. This is an interesting side bar, because Robert Renner had been my prosecutor. It would be dishonest for me to say, to not mention that I was the first felon admitted to the practice in the state of Minnesota and it was because I got involved in an anti-draft board raid back in 1970. A guy named Robert Renner had was the U.S. Attorney at the time. So he indicted us. He personally tried the case against me and, of course, he won. We were guilty as sin.
By the time these Dalkon Shield trials came along and before Miles Lord got involved, every other judge in the district was deeply involved in them. Alsop sort of had a mini MDL [Ed. note: “multidistrict litigation”], he was handling them. All the judges got together and just decided, “We’re going to start trying a bunch of these cases.”
So at the time I tried my case, there were three trials going on simultaneously in adjacent courtrooms. So Bob Renner was my judge, next door was Alsop with Mike Ciresi trying a case and on the other side of me were plaintiffs’ lawyers, Eckman, Strandness & Egan, and maybe Jim Hovstad he might have been part of that. Jim Hovstad is now mayor of Edina. It was very funny, simultaneous trials going on.
ML: How did that trial go for you?
Bill Tilton: I won, I won. I got many multiples of what they offered. Again, they sort of thought you’re a little no nothing, do nothing law firm and we’re going to pound sand and it didn’t work.
ML: When was your last trial?
Bill Tilton: March of this year. Med mal case, which I lost.
ML: Where was that?
Bill Tilton: Red Wing.
ML: Has trial changed between your first trial and your most recent?
Bill Tilton: On a personal level, no, I’m still terrified. I still feel that no matter how much prep I’ve done, I haven’t prepared enough and I still go in worried about what I’m going to forget.
In comparing my Dalkon Shield trial, for example, with this trial, one of my very distinct memories of both cases is that I was privileged to have defense counsel that were people of integrity and polite. Doesn’t mean that they gave much quarter, but in the Dalkon Shield trial there were three law firms on the other side. I’m blanking … the Faegre firm, a Richmond, Virginia firm, and I forget who the third firm was. But they were polite at all times, I never felt that they were dishonest.
At my trial at Red Wing I was against Dave Hutchinson from the Geraghty, O’Loughlin & Kenney firm, who I’ve knocked heads with for forty years. I think we were both pup lawyers at about the same time, but he’s a man of integrity and he’s a polite person so they were civil cases in both senses of the word.
In the middle of my practice years, there were times when things were very uncivil. I had a criminal case in Stillwater once where the prosecutor, who will remain unnamed because we sort of made peace with each other, but he hated me and he hated me because I’d been an anti-war felon. It was an assault case that I should’ve lost but I won. I only went to trial because the prosecutor had insisted that this Native American who was accused of assault or threatening somebody with a weapon, insisted that he go to prison. And this man had been the first Native American guard in Stillwater prison.
This was the first felony trial that Judge (and later Justice) Esther Tomljanovich presided over. In my view, she thought, “There has to be a way to prevent this guy from going to prison….” But the prosecutor insisted on it. There are eight sidebars to this story, but the prosecutor went to the complaining teenager and tried to get the teenager’s family — to convince her not to talk to me ahead of trial by telling them what a bad person I was personally because I’d been to prison because of this anti-war thing.
Well, to their credit, this family didn’t do that and even though I got the guy acquitted who they accused of threatening her, they later hired me.
The prosecutor, at the end of the trial, when they came out with a not guilty verdict, instead of the normal at least pretense at civility and congratulations, he stormed out of the courtroom. He hit the rear door of the courtroom so hard that for years afterwards the bailiffs teased me about whether I was going to get somebody else to knock a door off its hinges.
That’s a long way of saying there have been years and times when people were uncivil. I’ve been lucky that most of the time it’s not been true.
ML: Do you have a single best or most frequently told trial story from the 40 year career?
Bill Tilton: Well, that one, I guess. I don’t know if it’s frequently told. I remember once I was representing a Vietnamese guy, we sued the city of St. Paul. He had been the Director of the Department of Human Rights and he was forced out under sort of scurrilous circumstances. I believe that the black community thought it was a job that somebody from their community should be in.
So the white powers-that-be in the city of St. Paul wrote a scurrilous report that forced him out of the office and we sued them for defamation. And it was an uphill battle all the way. Judge Lynch hated me, hated my client, hated my case. The judge excluded evidence that wasn’t even objected to by the defense. It was a painful case all the way along.
The main accuser against my client was a white woman. I had a jury of six white women and in my final argument I flipped off the jury. I held up three fingers and for some reason held up the three smaller fingers of my hand. Little finger, ring finger and middle finger. And as I’m counting down — why did I start folding down the first finger, the pinkie, the second finger, just without thinking? All of a sudden. I’m flipping the bird at my jury. All I could do was laugh at myself and they laughed.
And in a case I totally expected to lose, not only won, but they gave us four times the amount of money I asked for. I asked for half a million dollars; the jruy gave us almost two million dollars. Unfortunately, Saddam Hussein invaded Iraq that night and so that kicked my publicity off the paper, my good verdict. That was amusing.
What else? One of those jurors hired me.
ML: Did you actually collect on, did you get the two million dollars?
Bill Tilton: No. Judge Lynch, as I said, hated me, hated my client, hated my case, he took it away and it was upheld on appeal. My client was a public figure so the legal standard is really difficult to meet. Judge Lynch would have done us all a big favor if he dismissed us out pre-trial and just said, “This doesn’t rise to the level of a viable defamation claim.” A part of me wished he would throw the case out, even at the time, I wished he would.
Because I knew he hated me, he hated my client, etc., hated my case and he ruled against me every opportunity. I had a six-week headache. It was a six-week trial. I had a headache every day, every night. And, in that sort of a case, by the end of the trial you’re not necessarily getting on with your own client.
My client was screwed. The jury was convinced that he was screwed, but the legal standard is pretty stiff for a public figure.
ML: As we both know, you don’t go to trial every day, civil litigators just don’t. Describe for me a great day in the practice of Bill Tilton.
Bill Tilton: We don’t go to trial every day. If I never go to trial again in my life, it would be just fine. I’ve tried murder, prison riot, window peeping, drunk driving, medical malpractice, product liability, sexual harassment.
I don’t care if I try another case; I’ve got nothing to prove.
So I suppose the best day is when we mediate a case successfully. We’ve had a couple of mediations recently. I just had a wrongful death case, where a doctor had multiple opportunities to take a biopsy of a suspicious lesion that my client’s mother had shown the doctor. The medical records actually say, “She calls to my attention to a lesion on her thigh.” He didn’t attend to it, it became a melanoma, and killed her at age 55.
The settlement was the culmination of hundreds of hours of work, but then after a grueling day of settlement discussions, we settled the case. And so that’s the best kind of day because a lot of what we do is plodding. In your average medical malpractice case you spend hundreds of hours and sometimes or often times tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars, getting things ready, lining things up, parrying defenses, studying esoteric areas of medicine. It can be grueling.
I love the esoterica, the minutia of the electronic medical record. You might ask yourself, “Why am I interested in this?” But once you’re interested, once you’re in it, then it’s fun, then it’s a new system. It’s a new calculus problem to solve. Sometimes the most satisfying days are just doing esoteric research on a new medical issue.
ML: Any mediators whom you like particularly?
Bill Tilton: But some of my go-to favorite mediators have included Steve Kirsch. Steve negotiated a multi-million dollar case for us earlier this year. A woman who went in for some adhesions and some problems and the doctor just incompetently treated her and ended up causing massive infection. One to two dozen operations, I forget exactly how many. In the process she lost about half of her abdominal muscle wall.
This is an attractive woman in her 50s and so all of sudden her belly is distended, her self-image is ruined, her ability to walk around. You don’t realize how much you use your abdominal muscles just for sitting and shifting in a chair much less exercise and walking, sex, whatever. And Steve Kirsch was able to get that settled very nicely. He did a great job.
My biggest case ever was mediated by Phil Pfaffly who did an excellent job, which I still think is the biggest settlement ever in Minnesota.
ML Are there are certain mediators that you think are particularly well suited for medical malpractice claims or personal injury claims?
Bill Tilton: Yes. And most of them are former members of the defense bar. Not exclusively, I mean Mark Hallberg’s good, but former members of the defense bar go into a mediation with credibility to the insurance company that’s paying that I wouldn’t have. I don’t do mediations, but I’ve just found that a former defense attorney can be a tougher audience, but I like to think I pick my clients well and work my cases up well.
If I can convince them that the case is righteous, then that goes a long way to their ability to represent my client’s interests in the other room.
ML: You’ve made a lot of money over a successful career of 40 years.
Bill Tilton: Yes.
ML: And you also mentioned that you’ve been active in politics over that same period of time (and then some). Two questions. one, our current political climate, of course, is pretty extraordinary and I’d be curious about your thoughts on where we are, how we got here, and where we’re headed? And two, are you active politically, do you support particular causes or organizations or politicians?
Bill Tilton: I support politicians all the time and proudly. I told more than one politician that I thank them for what they’re doing because I don’t think they get paid enough to do what they do. They have to have an opinion on everything. More than once I’ve said to them, “There but for a felony conviction go I.”
I mean look at me. I’m talkative, I was politically active at the university. I was vice president of the student body, I was used to giving speeches and stuff. So it would have been natural for me to get into electoral politics, except that I got arrested, and I decided I wasn’t going to spend my life explaining my felony.
ML: Does that mean you can’t vote?
Bill Tilton: Oh, no, I can vote. Minnesota, voting rights are a matter of state law and in Minnesota, once you’ve done your time and are off paper, off parole, then you can vote, so I vote. And I’m still a lefty, I was a Bernie Sanders supporter. I think that Trump is the result of any number of factors. One is the same sort of populism and disgust with this system that people have.
So a lot of friends of mine who were Bernie supporters, wouldn’t vote for Hillary, they voted for Trump. I think racism has a whole lot to do with it that he played on that and some of the worst inclinations of a democracy can be vicious. This is why we need a Bill of Rights. Democracy is not a be all and end all, democracy can create a Germany and pogroms of Jews.
I’m hopeful that things are going to come around. Sometimes you’ve got to bounce off the bottom of the gutter in order to come back up. I like to think that Trump’s insanity is going to bring a whole lot of people around to the realization that climate change is not a Chinese hoax, that these DACA people are not our enemies. They’re part of our strength.
I’m hopeful that single payer healthcare will someday come along. So I’m supporting Chris Coleman for governor because he’s an old friend. He officed with me. In fact, he sublet. Chris Coleman, back when he practiced law, was my tenant and I think he’s been an excellent Mayor of St. Paul. He’ll be an excellent governor. Doesn’t mean other people in the mix won’t be excellent governors, but you’ve got to pick and he’s my first choice.
I’m supporting Melvin Carter, III for mayor of St. Paul. His father’s an old friend of mine. I’m Chairman of the Board of his father’s nonprofit Save our Sons, St. Paul. He goes into the juvenile detention center, to Totem Town, every week. He’s done more private social work on his own than many formal organizations when they’re well paid to.
I’m on the board of the Hmong American Education Fund so I like to think I’m contributing to that new immigrant community’s ascendance and I’ve been so impressed with what that community has done coming out of virtually a stone age situation three or four generations ago, and all of a sudden taking our universities by storm.
I’ve always had that belief that to whom much is given, much is expected. I believe you have to be active in the events of your time.
ML: Did you say, “Totem Town”?
Bill Tilton: Yes. Boys Totem Town is where Ramsey County sends juvenile delinquents. BTT is its abbreviation, so, yeah, Boys Totem Town.
ML: Do you have kids?
ML: Any lawyers?
Bill Tilton: No.
ML: Does that make you happy or sad or neither?
Bill Tilton: I want my girls to be happy. It would make me as pleased as punch if one of them could join my law practice, but they all live in New York. One’s in finance, one’s at the Fashion Institute of Technology and one’s a college graduate sort of looking for herself. But they’re all healthy, happy. They all went down the Salmon River for a week with me in July in Idaho, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. It’s a week long trip. This is the fifth time my daughters and I have done the week long trip in Idaho. And two of them are not even bad kayakers, like me. It’s a wonderful, wonderful trip.
ML: I ask about the next generation because I am curious: would you suggest law school for a young person today or would you suggest, “See what else you can do unless you really feel motivated to go to law school?”
Bill Tilton: Absolutely go to law, there’s so many different things you can do with it. I mean in my career path I never would have predicted that I would have become somebody specializing in medical malpractice and doing medical/legal stuff. I never considered myself smart enough to go to medical school, but I do realize I am smart enough to learn this stuff. With every case you’ve got to learn new stuff.
But it permitted me to drop everything and go to North Dakota last fall to work with the water protectors that were protesting against the Dakota Access pipeline. It permits me … now I’m working with members of the disabled community in St. Paul, we’re fighting proposals to change the hours for the Skyways.
It gives you the opportunity to be nimble and it’s not just me on my own. I’ve got friends in the big firms, in Dorsey and Faegre who are able to spend time doing good stuff. I’m on the fundraising board for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, we’ve got our big fundraiser coming up on the 23rd or 22nd, it’s coming up this month.
I’m a believer that the law permits the individual to do all sorts of good things and we need good people in the law, we need accurate people in the law because this is where decisions are made. Yeah, we need people who are pounding judges who might be more conservative than we are to help bring them around.
I mean we’re continually educating judges on things and now we’re going to face a whole lot of people who are very conservative being appointed to the bench by this troglodyte in the White House. It’s all the more reason that we need lawyers with progressive views.
ML: What advice would you give someone just leaving law school right now?
Bill Tilton: I haven’t a clue because, remember, I hung out my own shingle. For the first five years of my practice, my secretary made more money than I did and I made more money in radio. I worked for years at Minnesota Public Radio, first as an engineer and then doing legal documentaries for them. I also had a listener call-in talk show on KQRS.
So for those years, my first year of practice, what did I do? I don’t remember. I tried one motorcycle case, this guy got clothes-lined by a cable, so we sued the company that put the cable up. It was sort of little bitty cases here and there.
What would I recommend they do? Either find a Ken Tilsen and have a side gig that will pay your bills, or find a job. Easy for me to say because I never did it, never got a legal job. Now I get an application a week, from somebody who would like me to help them pay their bills but I always kept my office small.
What do I advise them to do? Go to law school. I think sooner or later you can make it work. And have fun with it.
ML: How many lawyers are there at your firm?
Bill Tilton: I have one partner and two associates and that’s as big as we’ve ever been.
ML: And how long have you been a four-lawyer firm?
Bill Tilton: Four years. And we were a three-lawyer firm for 20 years.
ML: Do you feel like you keep up with the technological changes in the field of civil litigation?
Bill Tilton: I can’t tell you how many times we’ve bought an updated TrialDirector. In a case against Johnson & Johnson we had 50,000 documents. Fortunately, we’ve never had to use it. In this medical malpractice case, it was a three-week trial down in Red Wing, but we were able to do it with traditional things. Blow-ups, an Elmo with projection and we didn’t need the higher tech stuff.
So I don’t think it’s that hard to keep up with the technology.
ML: Winding up, I always ask people climb on the soap box. What, if anything, do you have to say to the rag tag bunch of Minnesota Litigator readers, primarily Minnesota lawyers and judges?
Bill Tilton: I wish I had something particularly profound to say and I don’t. We are the ones that enforce the Bill of Rights. I’m more and more a believer that the Bill of Rights is as important as democracy, as majority rule, in fact, sometimes it is more important.
And the judiciary has got to be attentive to the fact that the just resolution of cases is not always the same as the rapid resolution of cases. It’s not always the same as meeting the deadline for discovery. These judges are often times so enamored of whatever statistical items are gathered that discovery deadlines become a battering ram up against which plaintiffs’ cases are beaten by defense firms.
Defense firms delay and delay and delay in answering this and extension on that and then they understandably need some time to get this deposition together and then all of a sudden the discovery deadline is coming along and I’m sorry my client doesn’t agree to an extension of the discovery deadline. Judges are just more attentive to their statistics than to the rights of litigants.
So I would just urge all lawyers to keep in mind that we have an obligation to the public. Everybody should be doing 50 hours if not 100 hours, of pro bono work every year. If they’re looking for pro bono work to do, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal services will bring them into the Tuesday night program, anybody who wants to come along. I’m sure Legal Aide of Minnesota from the Hennepin County side of the river has the same sort of thing. I think every lawyer should be involved in the delivery of legal services to the disadvantaged.
And the judiciary needs to keep in mind that they’re there for justice, not just to enforce the law.
ML: You from around here?
Bill Tilton: St. Paul, Born and raised. I’m like fifth generation St. Paul.
ML: How many kids in your family?
Bill Tilton: I’m one of five siblings.
ML: What did mom and dad do?
Bill Tilton: Dad was middle management at the Great Northern. He sort of bounced around in his early life, I think. Worked in the mines in Montana, played pro hockey for a minute and then became a middle manager and never graduated from college. So he always expected his children to and mom was a housewife.[Previous Minnesota Litigator Profiles: Kristine Kubes, advisor and litigator for construction professionals, Rachhana Srey, plaintiff’s side wage-and-hour litigator, Eric Nilsson, banking/lending litigation, Roshan Rajkumar, products liability defense, Liz Kramer, Arbitration Maven/Author of Arbitration Nation, Bob Lear, Residential Real Estate Appraiser/Expert Witness, Tim Nolan, Lawyer/poet, Laurie Vasicheck, 25 year veteran of the Minneapolis office of the EEOC, Jake Holdreith, an IP litigator for “drug dealers” (better known as pharmaceutical companies), Pam VanderWiel, lawyer for Minnesota municipalities, Bill Dossett, Executive Director of Minnesota’s Nice Ride bike-sharing program, Christina Snow, lender/servicer real estate and foreclosure lawyer, Clayton Halunen, plaintiffs’ employment lawyer, consumer rights lawyer, Stephen L. Smith, straddling a civil and a criminal litigation practice (and later appointed to the Ramsey County District Court bench), Kevin Dunlevy, Minnesota real property authority, Vildan Teske, consumer rights class action litigation and service members class actions, Jim Behrenbrinker, civil rights/excessive force cases, Eric Cooperstein, “ethics maven“, Mike Flom, Gray Plant’s General Counsel, Phil Gainsley, veteran solo civil litigator, John Halpern, collections, Elliot Olsen, foodborne illness litigation, Dave Potter, railroad industry litigator, Katherine Mackinnon, ERISA plaintiff’s lawyer, Kristine Boylan, international IP/Complex Litigation lawyer,Karin Ciano, free-lance “federal sherpa,” Jerry Alcazar, products liability defense.]