Metro-East News

He’s sorry. Now Tom Hildebrand is back to lawyering after 10-year suspension.

He’s back. Bruised, broken and humbled, but he’s back.

After years of being barred from the courtroom, the Illinois Supreme Court has reinstated former well-known criminal defense attorney Tom Hildebrand’s law license.

For Hildebrand, the third time was a charm. But it was a realization that helped Hildebrand return to the courtroom.

“The first two times, I didn’t accept responsibility,” said Hildebrand, who also is a former judge. “Well, that’s the key to the whole damn thing.”

He was driving home from his job as a teacher at a home for children with behavioral difficulties, listening to the radio. A program came on discussing effective apologies. The speaker said there were three parts to an apology. The offending party must say he or she is sorry, must admit liability and then must ask what can be done to fix it. Hildebrand said it was as if a light went on.

“You realize that there is no point in trying to excuse what you did. You did what you did. I screwed up. I had to face that,” Hildebrand said.

Hildebrand’s troubles with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission began in 2003 when he was suspended for a conflict of interest — for representing defendants in a criminal case while representing witnesses against the defendant. While on probation for that offense, the ARDC received another complaint that Hildebrand represented parties with conflicting interests. This time, the ARDC recommended suspension — until further order of the court.

And that was part of the problem, said Alton lawyer Harry Anderson, who has been appointed by the ARDC to serve as Hildebrand’s mentor.

“Tom is a good guy, but he realized that he did wrong and he needed to do it differently,” Anderson said. “I am going to help him do that.”

At the time of his suspension in 2006, Hildebrand had worked 30 years as a lawyer, receiving his law degree in 1976. He became an associate judge in Madison County in 1980, serving until 1985 when he left to go into private practice in Granite City.

The law office was just a couple of blocks from the Kirkpatrick Homes, the public housing complex where Hildebrand grew up with his mother and six siblings.

“I was a skinny kid,” said Hildebrand, who worked delivering papers and flipping burgers.

Hildebrand graduated from Granite City High School, then went to Southern Illinois University. He attended the law school at the University of Illinois as a Danforth Foundation fellow. At 29, he became the youngest judge in Illinois.

“It was fun. You had a front seat to watch the politics of it,” Hildebrand said. “It was a great thing to be a judge.”

As part of his duties, he was sent to Chicago to preside over a backlogged traffic docket. One day, he got a call from a national television reporter who told him that he set the record for giving traffic fines in Cook County Court. It came right in the middle of Operation Greylord, a federal investigation into corruption in the Cook County judges and lawyers.

“They thought I was part of Greylord,” Hildebrand said, chuckling.

Hildebrand wasn’t.

But he loves to tell the story. And a 30-year legal career comes with some stories.

Like the time when a jury aquitted a client accused of murder.

“He looked over at me and asked, ‘What do I do now?’ I told him, ‘Go home,’” Hildebrand said.

He’s been threatened with death, but he said he wasn’t too concerned.

“They would have to get in line behind a couple of ex-wives and the IRS,” Hildebrand said.

Hildebrand was a prolific lawyer, keeping 60 or 70 appointments a week at times. At one time, it was reported that Hildebrand represented more criminal clients than the Madison County public defender’s office. His phone was always ringing, he said. When he lost his license, he said, things changed.

“When you don’t have that chip in your pocket, the people who stand by you goes from the size of an area code to the size of a half-dollar,” he said.

So with his law career on indefinite hold, Hildebrand tried his hand at other jobs. He became part-owner of the Luna Café in Mitchell. When that didn’t work out, he went to work as a substitute teacher in Cahokia’s District 187 and Belleville’s Special School District. He went back to school and got his teaching certificate in social studies and special education.

He went to work at Hoyleton Children’s Home.

“We had some pretty tough customers there,” he said.

Hildebrand said a student there threw hot grease on the floor of a kitchen then broke drinking glasses on top of it, so when counselors came in to get the student they would slip on the grease then get cut on the broken glass.

In his time working with children, he suffered two torn rotator cuffs, a back injury and torn ligaments in his thumb. It was tough work for the former criminal defense lawyer, but he advised the kids to find their vocation and work hard. Hildebrand said he thought he found his vocation in the law, but his efforts to return were frustrated. He tried two times to get his license reinstated, he said, but with hubris and failed. The third time, he tried humility and succeeded.

He got the news he would return to the courtroom as he was waking from anesthesia on Sept. 22. One of his students fractured his thumb during a fight and Hildebrand needed surgery to repair it. When he heard the news, Hildebrand said, “I’m back in Kansas.”

There were conditions. Hildebrand must cooperate with the ARDC’s investigation into his misconduct, must complete legal education requirements, must be mentored by Anderson, must meet with that mentor every two weeks, must meet with ARDC administrator to work out a mentoring plan, complete a professionalism seminar and pay the $384 reinstatement fee.

“Part of the problem was the number of cases he had, and I am going to help him manage that and look for conflicts,” Anderson said.

Hildebrand is back in his office at 2709 Madison Ave. in Granite City. The sign in front that said “Hildebrand Law Office” once had electrical tape over the word law.

“It took a lot of ‘Goo Be Gone’ to get that off,” he said.

Old clients are beginning to call. Hildebrand expects to be in a courtroom soon.

“I’ve passed out a bunch of cards. I want to go back to trying to help people,” Hildebrand said. “People know me. They know that I work hard and if I didn’t win a case it wasn’t for lack of trying.”

And for all those people who left him when he lost his chip?

“I will give them the due deference to which they are entitled,” Hildebrand said.

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer