In a career spanning four decades, Bill Roberts '64 remains as comfortable at a county
fair as he is in the nation's corridors of power.
Story by Melissa Birks
So there was J. William (“Bill”) Roberts having cocktails with Bianca Jagger.
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar still laughs about the image: Roberts, a down-home,
aw-shucks type of guy who rose from humble origins to become a major player in Springfield,
and Jagger, the rock star’s glamorous ex-wife-turned-social activist.
Roberts was Edgar’s chief legal counsel at the time and Jagger was with Amnesty International,
campaigning for clemency for Guinevere Garcia, a 37-year-old Illinois woman sentenced
to death for the 1991 fatal shooting of her husband.
“She wanted to meet with me,” Edgar recalls. “I said, ‘I don’t want to meet with her.
I don’t meet with people about death penalty cases.’ Bill said, ‘Do you think I ought
“He had cocktails with her,” Edgar continues. “I think that was the highlight of his
term. I got a kick out of him getting a kick out of it. Bianca Jagger, who I considered
a sort of jetsetter, talking with Bill — he’s not as much of a country boy as me,
but he’s pretty close.”
Edgar’s “country boy” upbringing was in Charleston, Ill.; Roberts was raised 150 miles
due west in the farming town of Roodhouse. When Edgar says that Roberts is no “LaSalle
Street lawyer” (a reference to the Chicago street that is home to several big legal
firms), he means it as a compliment.
Technically, Roberts is a LaSalle Street lawyer — today, he’s managing partner at
Hinshaw & Culbertson, a 475-attorney national law firm headquartered in Chicago. But
he continues to be known throughout the state and the country by a host of power players
who consider him a good friend.
Roberts has cultivated those relationships during a career that has matched his keen
legal mind with his interest in politics.
“I’m over that, by the way,” he says of politics. It’s gotten too mean, too much about
how to destroy the other guy, for his taste.
But he’s not over being a lawyer.
“When I wake up in morning, I say, ‘This is going to be a great day.’ I enjoy my life.”
It wasn’t by plan, he says, but it seems that from his starting job as an assistant
U.S. attorney to his current role as partner of a major law firm, “I have been involved
not only as a lawyer but as a manager of lawyers, crafting plans as to where the organization
will go and how we get there. I like that.”
Keeping it real
One day in 1952, Roberts’ father, who was a doctor, took him to an “Eisenhower for
President” meeting in Roodhouse.
The meeting was “pretty big as I recall,” says Roberts. “I was 10 years old. It looked
big to me. I remember I got a button. I remember just being fascinated by the process.”
Three years later, Roberts’ father died of lung cancer. Among those in the tight-knit
Roodhouse community who helped look after the teen was the family’s attorney, W. O.
Harp, who graduated from Illinois Wesleyan’s Law School in 1926.
“He had an impact on my career,” Roberts says of Harp. “In a town of that size, people
know each other. We went to the Methodist church together; his wife and my mother
were pillars of the church. He was just one of several people who provided guidance.”
So politics and the law went to work shaping him.
In high school, Roberts was president of his senior class. He majored in political
science at Illinois Wesleyan, where he was Student Senate vice president and captain
of the track team (he now serves on IWU’s Board of Trustees). While earning his law
degree at Washington University, Roberts was elected president of the law school’s
student body and co-founded the school’s Legal Aid Society.
Roberts credits two people who “gave me some breaks” in launching his legal career.
Dick Eagleton hired him in 1968 as an assistant U.S. attorney, and four years later
Joe Cavanagh took him on as a first assistant U.S. attorney, a position he held for
seven years. Today, Eagleton is with Hinshaw & Culbertson’s Peoria office — so Roberts’
former boss works for him.
“I hope I treat everybody fairly and with dignity. Part of this is probably a philosophy
of life,” Roberts says. “You never know who’s going to be tomorrow’s friend, tomorrow’s
Roberts honed his political skills as Sangamon County state’s attorney. He was appointed
to the position in 1979, elected in 1980 and reelected in 1984. Knowing that politicians
must be where the people are, Roberts participated in the first of many chili cook-offs
— that grand tradition in which candidates’ concoctions of meat, beans, vegetables
and sometimes mysterious items are served in Styrofoam cups and judged by everyone
from the county fair queen to the village mayor.
“I shook hands with everybody,” Roberts says of that first cook-off. “Man of the people.
Cookin’ chili. Drinkin’ beer. It doesn’t get any better.”
But, in fact, it did get better. While Roberts loved being Sangamon County’s prosecutor,
he counts being appointed U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois as a
career highlight. Nominated by President Ronald Reagan and unanimously confirmed by
the U.S. Senate, Roberts served as chief federal prosecutor for the 46-county district
from 1986 to 1993.
He enjoyed the ability to throw his office into long-running projects aimed at curtailing
certain types of crimes. Illegal gun trafficking was high on his list. “We had some
pretty heavy-duty tools to take out people who were violent criminals. … I think we
made an impact, I do.”
Describing those who cheat welfare and other social programs as people who “steal
from our [country’s] generosity,” Roberts also worked to ensure that such funds went
to where they were intended.
Another highlight of his tenure as a U.S. attorney was building a strong team of assistants
— many of whom have gone on to their own high-profile careers.
He crafted a position for one assistant, Rodger Heaton, to oversee the office’s appellate
work. In 2006, Heaton became U.S. attorney for the Central District of Illinois, following
the footsteps of his old boss.
“I enjoyed working for him,” Heaton says of Roberts. “He had a personal interest in
the quality of the appellate work. It is the highest court that most people ever practice
in — pretty much the last stop on the judicial circuit. It’s important work.”
Heaton especially admired his boss’s ability to “relate to anyone,” from top government
attorneys to “any person he meets on the street.”
John Schmidt recalls joining Roberts’ team, just out of law school, “green as green
can be,” in 1990. Schmidt now holds another of Roberts’ former jobs: Sangamon County
state’s attorney. He describes Roberts as a “prosecutor’s prosecutor” who taught him
how to use discretion “for the most good and to ensure that justice is done.”
“I learned that there,” says Schmidt. “I kept it all my life. … You get Bill Roberts,
that’s who he is. A kid from Greene County, Illinois. Very bright, just a great lawyer.
I don’t think it’s an act. He’s sincere. That’s what makes him so good. He doesn’t
have to put on airs.”
That’s something Roberts learned from mentors who warned him to never try coming off
as fake in front of a jury.
“Somebody once described my closing-argument style as not unlike one giving directions
to a lost motorist,” Roberts says. He chuckles and lightly shrugs his shoulders. “That’s
the way I am. It’s worked.”
A law-and-order guy
Roberts’ personal style makes him a comfortable fit at the county fair, in the courtroom
— or even in the corridors of the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C. That’s
where Roberts could often be found from 1991 to 1993, when he chaired the attorney
general’s Advisory Committee of U.S. Attorneys. It was an especially busy time for
Roberts, who continued to serve as U.S. attorney for Illinois’ Central District. It
was also a vital time for the committee, as newly appointed U.S. Attorney General
William P. Barr relied on Roberts and his colleagues to advise him on several historic
Roberts was there in April 1992 when a Miami jury found Panamanian dictator Gen. Manuel
Antonio Noriega guilty of federal drug-trafficking, racketeering and money-laundering
He also led the advisory committee in its review of the Rodney King case, after three
white Los Angeles police officers were acquitted of excessive force in beating King,
a black motorist, in a traffic stop. The acquittal sparked riots; in its aftermath,
the Justice Department charged the officers with civil rights violations. A year later,
a federal jury found two of the officers guilty and acquitted two others.
Roberts had an additional hat to wear when, in October 1992, Barr appointed him to
lead a Justice Department task force investigating criminal conduct related to $5.5
billion in loans made by the Atlanta branch of an Italian bank to Iraq prior to the
1991 Persian Gulf War.
A typical day during his stint in Washington started with a meeting in the attorney
general’s conference room with senior staff. As in church, Roberts jokes, each participant
claimed the same seat every day. U.S. Solicitor General Ken Starr sat on his right
and Bob Mueller, chief of the criminal division (and later head of the FBI) was on
his left. But it was meeting a sitting president, George H.W. Bush, that really left
Roberts with stars in his eyes.
As Roberts told Illinois Wesleyan University Magazine in 1993, Bush showed up for one meeting in shirtsleeves, apologizing for being late.
“I’ve been on the phone with [Russian president] Boris Yeltsin,” Bush explained, “and
boy, is that guy a talker.”
At that point, Roberts said, “I had to pinch myself.”
When President Bill Clinton took office in 1993 and fired nearly all of his predecessor’s
U.S. attorneys, Roberts returned to Illinois and ventured into private practice. Then
By 1995, the governor and Roberts had known each other for about 10 years. Edgar says
he knew that Roberts could hold his own in Springfield and Roberts did just that,
respected by Republicans and Democrats alike, says Edgar, adding, “He’s down-to-earth.
We all have egos, ambition. I think he has that under control.”
Roberts found the position of chief legal counsel intriguing, filling a gap in his
government experience that included work at the county and federal levels, but not
the state level. And, he says, “I have the highest regard for Jim Edgar. He’s a friend.”
Roberts describes the state job as reminiscent of a drill called “bull in the ring”
that he endured while playing football in high school.
“One guy’s in the middle, there are six to eight guys on the side, and so the coach
says, ‘One! Seven! Four!’ and you had to fend off these guys as they’re coming,” Roberts
says, his arms waving to demonstrate. “It just seemed to me that situations and problems
were coming a lot faster.”
The Guinevere Garcia case was one such situation. Bianca Jagger was among death-penalty
opponents arguing that Garcia had a long history of abuse that included alcoholism
and sexual molestation, and that her execution would be inhumane in light of her harrowing
On Jan. 16, 1996 — just 14 hours before she would have become the second woman in
20 years to be executed in the U.S. — Edgar commuted Garcia’s sentence to life in
prison with no chance of parole.
“We spent a lot of time back and forth,” Edgar recalls. “I’d say, ‘This doesn’t seem
like a death penalty case.’ [Roberts] pretty much agreed. He’s a law-and-order guy.
That gave me comfort, working together, that my instinct was not off base.”
Roberts doesn’t mention the Garcia case while talking about working for Edgar, but
he does recall prosecuting death-penalty cases in Sangamon County and as a U.S. attorney.
“My agreement with voters was that if I think the case is sufficiently serious for
the death penalty, I would ask for it and let the trial decide.”
One high-profile case involved the so-called “Good Samaritan” slaying of Mimi Covert
in 1985. In a snowstorm, Covert stopped to help a stranded motorist on a highway north
of Springfield. The motorist turned out to be DeWayne Britz, a recently released prison
inmate. Britz was later tried for abducting, raping and murdering Covert after he
confessed to police and even led them to her body.
Roberts convinced the jury to give the death penalty.
“Death-penalty cases are no fun to try. It’s not enjoyable to stand in a courtroom
and explain to 12 people how they should condemn this guy 12 feet from you,” Roberts
says. “[I argued] if there is to be a death penalty, this is a guy who deserves it
and I was passionate in seeking it. Yet it’s not the kind of thing that with success
— and we were successful — you go home and go ‘Whoopee.’ You go home and get a drink.”
Britz’s death sentence, along with more than 100 others, was commuted to life in prison
when Gov. George Ryan — in one of his last acts as governor — emptied Illinois’ death
row in early 2003.
Roberts uses a deft touch when expressing his frustration about this outcome. He clearly
believes the death penalty was a just punishment for Britz and other defendants who
received the sentence during his tenure. He wrote his opposition to clemency in a
letter to Ryan — whom, Roberts says in the same breath, he considers a friend.
His phone is still ringing
During his time at the governor’s office, Roberts kept in touch with a colleague at
Hinshaw & Culbertson, firm chairman Donald Mrozek. They’d have breakfast, Mrozek filling
Roberts in on the goings-on at the firm and Roberts offering advice. Mrozek, Roberts
declared, was spread too thin. He needed something like a first assistant. “Little
did I know in our discussions that I was sort of designing my next job,” Roberts says.
In 1997, a year before Edgar’s term ended, Roberts returned to Hinshaw & Culbertson.
He now divides his time between Springfield and Chicago. A large portion of his time,
he says, is spent managing other lawyers and “being part of the process that steers
the ship,” such as helping coordinate the firm’s strategic plan for upcoming years.
The second part of his job involves white-collar defense, including defending many
of those caught up in the federal investigation of former Illinois Gov. George Ryan.
Ryan was convicted in 2006 of 18 felony charges stemming from his tenure as Secretary
of State and as governor. In all, 79 state workers, business leaders and others have
been charged in the sweeping federal corruption investigation.
“Part of, I guess, the craft of my kind of practice is trying to keep those who are
witnesses in the category of witness and not as subject or target of investigation.”
How does he do that? Roberts’ answer is characteristically low-key but to the point.
“Carefully,” he says.
These days, Roberts’ phone rings constantly with requests to tap into the wisdom that
comes from his vast and varied resume of experiences.
Edgar sought out Roberts when making one of his most difficult decisions: whether
or not to make another run for governor in 2005. “He was one of the people I got advice
from,” says Edgar, “which underscores the high esteem I have for him.” Edgar won’t
divulge any specific advice but does say that Roberts pointed out potential conflicts
that might arise because of Edgar’s service on various boards and his interests in
such things as race horses. “He didn’t say ‘Don’t run’ or ‘Run.’ It was, ‘If you run,
how are you going to respond to this?’”
In the end, Edgar announced that he would not run.
Roberts, meanwhile, remains busy in both his professional and private life. For instance,
he and his wife, Carole, are involved in the Animal Protective League in Springfield,
which operates a no-kill shelter and spay/neuter clinic. They are the proud humans
to adopted pets, Boo the dog and Max the cat.
In June 2006, Roberts received the Illinois State Bar Association’s Board of Governors
Award for significant service to the legal profession and the public. Last year he
was chosen as the best business lawyer in downstate Illinois by Leading Lawyers Network Magazine. He enjoys receiving such accolades, but is far from ready to rest on his laurels
— any more than he can resist trying to whip up a new variation of the chili recipes
he’s been perfecting for years.
“Like so many things,” he says, “the older we get, the better we get.”
This article was adapted from a story that originally appeared in Leading Lawyers Network Magazine—Business Edition, September 2007. Reprinted by permission. www.leadinglawyers.com