A Long Road to the Law
As Robin Wolpert steps up to lead the Minnesota State Bar Association this summer, she won’t be the first woman to have done so. Nor will she be the first bar president who has worked in government or as corporate counsel. Certainly she won’t be the first president from the ranks of Minneapolis law firms, nor the first who has taught law. And yet… might she be the first MSBA president who has done all those things? Or, at least, the first to have held those positions after first excelling in a different career entirely?
Wolpert has not only held several professional roles, she’s also amassed three post-graduate degrees: a Masters and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago, and her J.D. from Cornell. Wolpert’s goal was to achieve mastery in the law to empower her clients and she has created a cohesive whole from the disparate parts. One constant has been her love for the law and passion for public service. Although law wasn’t her first career, legal scholarship deeply informed her work as a Ph.D. political science professor, first at Georgetown and then at the University of South Carolina. When she left her tenure-track position to study law at Cornell, she was better prepared than most to tackle both the labors of law school and the application of the material to real-world situations.
There’s an element of the Renaissance scholar in Wolpert’s career journey, which is something her sister, Candace Correa, says could be rooted in the upbringing they shared with their brother, Jeffrey Bye, in rural Longmeadow, Massachusetts. Situated near the Berkshires in the western part of the state, the town was simultaneously bucolic and urbane, offering the three Bye children access to art museums and theaters along with the small town advantage of playing outside until the dinner bell was rung. Wolpert is somewhat sheepish when describing an early lifestyle so classically Americana that her town was included in an edition of the Preppy Handbook. But whatever privilege she might have experienced as the daughter of a successful physician and stay-at-home mom, it was overlaid by the discipline and hard work expected of the grandchildren of industrious immigrants and entrepreneurs. Growing up, she joined her siblings in helping at the various businesses owned by their maternal grandparents, including a golf driving range, an archery center, a liquor store, a sandwich shop, and a video store. While this early entrepreneurial exposure may have influenced Candace and Jeffrey’s careers (she’s now an independent business consultant in Los Angeles, he’s an artist in Pennsylvania), Robin used her entrepreneurial spirit for a different purpose—public service. As Correa says, “Robin is someone who can get very focused, and she’s not motivated by monetary gains. She feels like the best jobs are the ones that don’t pay, like this one with the bar association. That’s part of her makeup.”
When it was time for college, Wolpert chose Colby College in Waterville, Maine, with the intention of following her father into medicine. It seemed like a good fit for a studious person with a growing social conscience. Robin started college as a biology and government major, but soon found that she loved political science and the law more than science. And then? She joined the fledgling campus radio station, became a deejay and program director, and met her future husband. Seth, another pre-med student, was the station’s chief engineer and then the station manager, giving him ample opportunity to get to know his future wife. “We just hit it off,” he says of working with Robin. “She was a fun deejay—outgoing and excited on the air, a lot of energy, always happy. She’s verbal and colorful and spontaneous. I think people really liked hearing from someone who is all-in and enthusiastic.”
It wasn’t long before the two decided to join forces. Seth stayed with medicine and it was his acceptance to medical school that brought the couple to the University of Chicago, where Robin pursued her Masters and Ph.D. in political science. Over the next 10 years, they moved numerous times as Seth advanced through his residency and surgical internship and Robin pursued her career as a university professor and legal studies at Cornell Law School in upstate New York. In the end, it was Seth’s opportunity to practice at Regions hospital in St. Paul, coupled with his family ties to Minnesota, that brought the two of them to the place they have called home for almost 20 years. They now live in Stillwater with their daughter Isabelle, 13 and a ski racer like her mom, and their “boys,” Samoyeds named Ivan and Igor.
Although Robin says Seth “was born knowing he’d be a doctor,” her own career has been a more evolutionary proposition. As a graduate student and professor, she discovered a love of teaching and an intensifying interest in constitutional law. Her dissertation on school desegregation and the conflict inherent in a system of constitutional democracy deepened her understanding of the roles played by each branch of government, while teaching subjects such as judicial politics and constitutional law provided an opportunity to explore the issues with students. According to George Krause, now a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, and one of the people who hired Wolpert at the University of South Carolina, she proved to be a gifted instructor. “Robin was never trying to get her students to see things the way she did. She always worked to see things their way and help them to make a better argument,” he recalls. “That, I think, is the pinnacle of constructive criticism in academia, and a lot of people can’t do it.”
As much as he admired Wolpert’s scholarship and teaching style, Krause says he was also taken with her ability to fit into a setting that must have seemed foreign to her. “I’m sure Columbia had to be culture shock,” he says, “but to her credit I never once heard her moan about being in South Carolina. Just the opposite. I’d frequently hear her say, ‘Well, you won’t find this in Washington, D.C.’ She would just find the best of everything wherever she was. She even picked up an interest in country music.” Actually, Wolpert says, laughing, following country music wasn’t incidental, but intentional on her part. “It’s not really my style, but when I went to South Carolina, I was like, ‘I am going to embrace this culture.’ So that meant listening to Garth Brooks.”
As it turned out, Wolpert’s dial was tuned to country for only a couple of years. Although she was doing well and had secured a coveted tenure-track role, she had always planned to go to law school and felt a growing need to do something to make a difference in people’s lives. After completing her classroom work at Cornell, she was ready to move to Minnesota with Seth and finish her J.D. at the University of Minnesota by pursuing clinics and internships here. It’s a move she recommends to students trying to determine where to study law. “I always ask, ‘Where do you want to practice?’ Because if you want to practice here, it’s great to be trained here.” Wolpert saw the advantage of this strategy first-hand as the connections she made in this last year of law school turned into colleagues and networking contacts when she officially entered the profession.
Life as a Lawyer
One of Wolpert’s first roles in her law career was clerking for Minnesota Supreme Court Justices James Gilbert and Paul Anderson. Justice Anderson, now retired, enjoyed Wolpert’s combination of enthusiasm and passion for the law, calling her “an idealist who sees things not as they are but as they should be. And that’s a good thing,” he says. “It’s one of the reasons we have heroes and mentors who give us vision and hope that things can be better.” Initially, he recalls, Wolpert’s challenge was translating her enthusiasm into pragmatic tools. The first dissent she drafted for him ran to 44 pages—more than twice as long as he needed. “But it was intellectually honest and she had understood the direction I wanted to take,” he says, “so I was able to revise it and get the fourth vote that I needed. On my court, you only need four.”
Wolpert didn’t take long to learn the ropes; her next position as an attorney brought her to Dorsey & Whitney, a firm she had served as a summer clerk. Here she honed her skills in representing clients while also mastering the balance between billable hours and in-depth briefs. She also began logging an impressive number of pro bono hours—up to 400 in some years. It was during this time that she was adverse counsel on a case opposite Cliff Greene, cofounder and partner at Greene Espel in Minneapolis. He was impressed with “her dedication to her client’s interests, her ethics, and her willingness to develop a creative resolution instead of insisting on litigation,” he recalls. In this case, the resolution Wolpert crafted included having the defendant conduct seminars on the First Amendment. Greene remembered the encounter and later offered Wolpert a position at his firm. She rose to partner and stayed seven years.
The next stop on Wolpert’s career path took her away from billable hours and into corporate law. She accepted an offer to join 3M as senior counsel in its new Compliance & Business Conduct Department, a position she says exposed her to work processes and entire areas of law she hadn’t encountered before. It was the perfect transition from the complex civil litigation Wolpert had been immersing herself in. Now she was learning leadership and management practices from one of the world’s top companies while developing policy and internal training modules and interacting with some of the best minds in the field. Wolpert found herself fascinated by the parallels between mega-corporations and the practice of law. “For example,” she says, “how do you lead in a huge matrix that extends across the world—how do you drive innovation? You can see the parallel with being a lawyer: How do you drive social change across American democracy? It’s really all about leadership and finding out who the stakeholders are. And it’s never one person’s effort. Leadership at 3M is all about bringing together people from across the globe with overlapping areas of expertise to collaborate and create the best approach.”
If Wolpert sounds a bit smitten, that’s because she was. She calls the 3M experience a gift and would not have left if it weren’t for a tragedy that touched her family. When a friend of the family was brutally murdered, Wolpert found herself drawn into the world of criminal prosecution almost overnight. After receiving clearance from 3M, she volunteered to assist the Washington County Attorney in the prosecution of this case and any appeal. By the time the appeal was heard (and the conviction affirmed) by the Minnesota Supreme Court, Robin was working at the Washington County Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor and appellate lawyer. Just as she’d quickly gained her footing in private practice and then as a corporate counsel, Wolpert now learned a new area of the law and how to make the most of scarce resources in a public sector role. She loved her job as a “minister of justice.” Her friend Jean Burdorf, a senior assistant Hennepin County attorney, had frequent conversations with Wolpert as they shared their experiences. She says, “Robin was always so aware of how high the stakes are in public sector law. If you can sustain a conviction, that’s a goal. But you have to pay attention to procedural fairness. It wasn’t only ‘Can you win the case?’ but also ‘Should you win the case?’ These are peoples’ lives, or a person’s liberty. That’s a pressure that’s different in the public sector that Robin was always very aware of.”
Although Wolpert stayed only two years with the county attorney’s office, she says she feels a deep impact from her experience there. Everything from the fast-paced courtrooms to the victims’ tragedies to the social costs of criminal behavior was etched into her psyche. Eventually she realized that she couldn’t maintain her workload and meet her obligations as an officer of the Minnesota State Bar Association as well. For the first time in her career, Wolpert left a job without another one waiting for her, vowing to take a few months before choosing the next position.
Bar Leadership and Pro Bono Work
Wolpert kept her promise to herself, waiting almost seven months before accepting a new role as an attorney with Sapentia Law Group in Minneapolis. In the meantime, she filled her calendar with a mix of relaxation and intensive pro bono work, including hundreds of hours meeting with attorneys across the state in preparation for leading the MSBA. She’d been active for years in any number of organizations, from the Minnesota Supreme Court Historical Society to the Commission on Judicial Selection to the Minnesota Citizens Commission for the Preservation of an Impartial Jury (known less formally as The Quie Commission). Now she had the chance to dive in even more deeply, as she will when leading the bar association as president.
Chuck Webber believes he’s seen enough of Wolpert’s leadership style to predict a good outcome for the year. A partner at Faegre Baker Daniels, Webber led the MSBA Appellate Section when Wolpert was the vice chair. From that vantage point, he experienced her enthusiasm for the profession, as well as her “creative and interesting ideas for bar education.” But just as memorable for him was the disagreement they had over an official position related to the Quie Commission. Although neither changed the other’s mind, Webber was especially impressed that she didn’t take their differences personally. “I don’t think she could do the job well [as bar president] if she was going to take things personally,” Webber notes. “The bar is not a monolith. If there’s any organization that you could say doesn’t speak with one voice, it’s a bunch of lawyers. I think she’s in a good position to take that in stride and hopefully even harness it.”
Indeed, the motto Wolpert has chosen for her presidency echoes Webber on that point: “Making MSBA work for everyone, with no one left out.” As she explains it, this means following the bar association’s strategic plan while paying close attention to all constituencies, including new lawyers who need a strong foundation for success, law students who need support to ensure a good launch into the field, members of minority and affinity bars whose interests are sometimes underrepresented, and attorneys outside the Twin Cities, whose concerns are Wolpert’s special responsibility as the bar’s representative to Greater Minnesota. She’s also planning initiatives or special focus into current topics, such as chemical dependency issues for attorneys and juvenile justice concerns.
Among others with confidence in Wolpert’s ability to reach these goals is her current colleague, Sonia Miller-Van Oort, a founding member of Sapentia Law Group. Besides having hired Wolpert to work on behalf of business clients at Sapentia, Miller-Van Oort has also worked with her as a fellow officer of the MSBA, witnessing her leadership style on a frequent basis. “I would describe her as a collaborative leader,” Miller-Van Oort says. “Her style of leadership allows people to participate in an engaging way. I know people very much appreciate that.”
Jean Burdorf agrees, adding that “She’s an unbelievable resource to have because of the varied history she brings with her. If you have a problem, you can turn to her and she’ll think of five different ways to solve it. I’m excited about her new role because whatever she decides to do with her term, she can make an impact.”
If everyone seems to agree on Wolpert’s strengths for the bar presidency, they’re equally unanimous on another point: They can’t anticipate what more she’ll accomplish in her career. As her friend Robin Ann Williams, COO for Bassford Remele, P.A., says, “You can never tell what Robin’s going to do next. She’s not predictable in that way.” Husband Seth adds, “I don’t think Robin has ever done anything she didn’t want to do, so it will be something she enjoys.” And Candace, who has known Wolpert the longest, provides this perspective on her sister: “It’s not about the destination with Robin, it’s about the journey. But whatever it is, it will be about helping the broader population or a bigger cause.”
Most Memorable Cases
If you ask a litigator to chronicle her life, you might get a biographical listing of events in reply. But if you ask what has impacted her and her career, you’ll instead receive a list of key cases and how she made a difference in someone’s life or moved the law. In Robin Wolpert’s case, a chronology of jobs, awards and community leadership would be almost too lengthy to list, so we refer you to her LinkedIn profile for those details (www.linkedin.com/in/robin-wolpert-28b4941). Here instead is a short grouping of standout cases, from among the hundreds she has argued or been part of.
- State v. Hess, et al (Minnesota Supreme Court 2004), which concerned a challenge by individual property owners along the Paul Bunyan trail to the state’s ownership of the trail. Wolpert and B. Andrew Brown of Dorsey & Whitney wrote the amicus brief based on the 1898 property deed to the railroad, providing the key legal argument and evidence for the Supreme Court to validate the state’s ownership of the trail and affirm past and future conversion of railroad beds into public recreational trails statewide. Wolpert: “This case represents the best of Dorsey’s pro bono commitment and leveraging the expertise of lawyers across the firm to get a terrific result.”
- Barbara Dunn v. UCare Minnesota, Department of Employment and Economic Development (2009), arguing that the employee had good cause to quit (and was due unemployment compensation). Wolpert: “This victory made a big impact on Dunn’s life; it was rewarding personally and professionally to see how it made a difference.”
- Roman Nose v. State (2014), a post-conviction case in which Roman Nose challenged his sentence of life without the possibility of release based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama. Arguing that Miller was not retroactive, Wolpert won affirmation of the original sentence and the interests of the crime victim’s family.
- State v. Fox (2015), affirming the defendant’s conviction for first degree premeditated murder of Wolpert’s family friend.
- Washington County v. Walker Properties of Woodbury (2015), involving a developer’s challenge to a district court decision that the state acquired absolute title to property through tax forfeiture The developer’s arguments, if adopted by the court of appeals, would have called into question the marketability of title of tax-forfeited property across the state. Wolpert: “The result here truly showcased the best of government lawyers who specialize in this field coming together from offices across the state to identify the best arguments and ways to clearly explain the complicated tax forfeiture process to the appellate courts.”
What would Robin do if she had more time, and what does she intend to do, regardless of time’s constraints?
- add more girl trips with daughter Isabelle;
- finish (start?) the six-volume set of Proust she purchased after learning how influential it was on Justice Breyer’s understanding of American democracy;
- do more hands-on work on poverty issues by getting more involved in the nonprofit Urban Venture;
- see as much of the world as possible, including Jordan and the Seychelle Islands off the coast of Africa;
- return to an early love of cooking and break away from takeout dinners;
- continue firearms practice with her trainer, to attain some degree of proficiency in something that used to scare her;
- continue to enjoy ski trips with Seth and Isabelle to Whistler, British Columbia;
- eat more candy and sweets, including her beloved Bit O’Honeys, mango ginger chews and fireballs, as well as the British-based HobNob biscuits she discovered on a visit to the Falkland Islands;
- stock up on Diet Mountain Dew, because she’ll need that caffeine rush for the year ahead.