One-Man Law & Order

Mark Tilkens went from Top Cop to Top Lawyer

Published in 2007 Wisconsin Super Lawyers Magazine — December 2007

Afew years before Mark Tilkens became an attorney, he was a cop responding to a 911 call from a boy who said his stepfather was trying to kill his mom with a knife. Tilkens and his partner arrived, raced upstairs and hoped their radios wouldn’t startle the suspect.

“We get in the room,” Tilkens remembers, “and what we find is a man holding a woman by the neck with a pistol in her stomach.”

Tilkens and his partner aimed their guns and screamed at the suspect to put his weapon on the floor. “He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him with a gun. He was intoxicated and into street drugs too. What they say on TV about tunnel vision? It’s absolutely true. I remember the room closing down and all I saw was his chest and pistol. To our benefit, he let go of her and put the gun to his side.”

Deadly force would have been justified, a case review later found, but its lack earned Tilkens Wisconsin’s Top Cop award (nominated by supervisors, approved by the district attorney) for 1995.

Now a labor law associate at Foley & Lardner in Madison, Tilkens says his police training—in SWAT tactics, interview interrogation and crime scene investigation—helps him as an attorney.

“As a police officer, there was a lot of dealing with stressful situations you can’t get in any other job, and I spent hundreds of hours in the courtroom. The on-your-feet thinking, teamwork, leadership and interrogation skills were really transferable to developing as a lawyer.”

Even so, the decision to attend law school wasn’t easy; but with a wife and young son, he craved a safer job. “On my last [police] shift, to see tough guys and gals teary-eyed, to walk away from those people, that was hard,” Tilkens says.

As an officer, Tilkens was an active member on the executive board of the local labor union. As a lawyer, he’s on the other side: representing corporations in collective bargaining, arbitration and union organization issues. “My former law enforcement partners got a lot of mileage out of it,” he says, smiling.

Tilkens says he really felt comfortable as an attorney for the first time two years ago when he prevailed with Rugby Manufacturing, a manufacturer based in North Dakota, over employees who petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to unionize. 

Since then, his mentor, Michael Auen, retired, and Tilkens’ workload increased. Yet he still finds time to take his boys fishing, go to the shooting range and stay in touch with his police buddies. “Going to law school was never about turning my back on law enforcement,” he says.

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