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?