In fall 2009, KARE-TV reporter Trisha Volpe had a front-row seat to the best legal drama in town — the criminal trial of Tom Petters for the giant Ponzi scheme run through one of his companies.
It was more than a story assignment. It also was a slice of on-the-job training for Volpe, who by then had her eyes set on becoming a litigator.
“I’d do my live shots from the courthouse in St. Paul at 5 and then head to school” at William Mitchell College of Law, she recalled. “On the night of the [guilty] verdict, I didn’t make it to class, but my professor understood.”
Today, Volpe is an associate lawyer in the Minneapolis office of Barnes & Thornburg, an Indianapolis-based firm with a national presence. Her practice includes criminal investigations and mass tort litigation. Volpe also has a niche providing media counseling and advice to clients in the news.
“Journalists and lawyers are similar. Storytelling is at the heart of both professions,” Volpe said in an interview. “They gather facts to understand what happened; they take complicated issues and make them understandable and meaningful, and they tell the story in a way that resonates with their audience.”
Law school wasn’t easy for Volpe, with her full-time day job at KARE, Channel 11, taking priority. More often than not, husband Bob McNaney, a reporter at KSTP-TV, Channel 5, would make dinner while Volpe studied.
Around the same time, McNaney also decided to make a career change and moved to the other side of the camera as vice president for crisis and critical issues at the public relations and communications agency PadillaCRT. There, he advises clients on how to respond to corporate mayhem when they might be in front of the camera.
“This is like the news business. You never know what is going to be the situation you are responding to,” McNaney said. “It’s like going from being a referee to being a player.”
The same could be said for Volpe.
But her trek to a law career was a long way from her upbringing in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she spoke the language of her Italian immigrant parents as a toddler and worked in the family-owned restaurant, Armando’s, as a teenager.
Her first paying journalism job was at age 19 at a newspaper in Thunder Bay. After earning a degree in journalism and political science from Carleton University in Ottawa, Volpe’s TV career followed with stops in Duluth and Grand Rapids, Mich. She landed at KARE in 2005. During her TV career, Volpe’s coverage included high-profile stories such as the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone and the collapse of the I-35W bridge before the headline-grabbing Petters saga.
Yet law became Volpe’s other passion.
“She clearly recognized she had a passion for the law combined with her skill in journalism,” said Peter Ekberg, the managing partner for the Minneapolis office of Barnes & Thornburg who hired Volpe. “She is incredibly poised, which is really important for a lawyer, and not all have that.”
The path to her current job, though, was a bit circuitous.
After graduating summa cum laude from law school and passing the bar exam in early 2012, she landed a job with the Minneapolis powerhouse firm Dorsey & Whitney, where most of the other new associates were younger than Volpe, who by then had worked more than a decade in the news business.
“I was not your traditional first-year associate,” Volpe said.
After a year, Volpe was lured back into journalism with what she called “a unique opportunity” to do long-form, investigative-type stories as a shared reporter for both KARE and Minnesota Public Radio.
“I don’t think it was easy for her to leave journalism,” McNaney said. “When you spend so much time as a reporter, there are elements that pull you back.”
In her hybrid role, Volpe did award-winning work, including a series of reports on high school football concussions and helmet safety issues.
After two years, the Barnes & Thornburg opportunity arose, giving Volpe at shot to return to law in a smaller setting where she was one of 29 attorneys as opposed to one of several hundred.
“She loves a challenge,” said Jane Helmke, Volpe’s news director at KARE.
As a professional, Volpe is hard-wired. She was one of the first multimedia reporters at KARE. At Dorsey, she always had an iPhone in hand. At Barnes & Thornburg, Volpe’s days start with client meetings at 7:30 and end at the kitchen counter of her east metro home doing more work.
But she and McNaney still watch the evening news.
“It was always my goal to bring my two professional worlds together,” she said.