Q&A: Margene Timm ('83) Reflects on a Long Career in Public Service

by Bobby Larsen

Upon graduating from Nebraska Law in 1983, Margene Timm spent one year working at a small general practice firm in Bemidji, Minnesota before returning to Nebraska to work for Legal Aid. After five years, she was hired at the Lancaster County Public Defender’s office, where she worked for thirty years until her retirement in 2019. She spent the last twenty years in the Juvenile Division, much of it as the division supervisor. She recently sat down with me for a fascinating reflection on her 36-year legal career.

As my interview with Margene concluded, a member of the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners, who had been sitting two seats down from us, added that Margene was a “titan” of public defense and juvenile law in the state. He then proceeded to list, from the top of his head, examples of specific ways Margene had made an undeniable impact on Lancaster County and the law.

Q: What did you do in law school to prepare for your career?

I don’t know if I was approaching what courses I took with [my future career] in mind. In undergrad, I was very interested in women’s issues and did an internship with the Commission for the Status of Women, a state agency dedicated to women’s issues. I knew where my interest was, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was interested in the joint economics-law program, and when I started law school, I got involved with the Women’s Law Caucus and the Natural Resources Society, but I didn’t know if I was going to practice in those fields.

In my third year of law school, one of the counselors took a look at my resume and told me to take the Women’s Law Caucus and Natural Resources Society off my resume. She said no law firm would hire me if they thought that was what I was interested in, but I said I wouldn’t want to work anywhere that doesn’t respect my interests and beliefs.

I would tell students that if you know what you want to do, you can put yourself in a better position to get those positions by doing public interest work, meeting people, and doing internships or clerkships, but if you don’t know, there’s still value with that. You expose yourself to a variety of things and find out what you want to do.

Q: What led you to work at Legal Aid?

Working in Bemidji was kind of an adventure and I like the outdoors and I thought it would be a good way to learn the general practice of law. As valuable as it was, my time there helped inform my belief that that’s not what I wanted to spend my life doing. You’d have women who had been abused by their husband come in and you’d listen to their story and they’d be crying and you’d say, ‘Yes, I can help you...but I need $500 for a retainer.’ I had clerked at Legal Services (now Legal Aid) in law school and worked on divorces and protection for battered women, so [asking for a lot of money for a retainer] was hard for me to do.

After 14-15 months in Bemidji, Legal Aid had an opening so I moved back to Lincoln and became a staff attorney for five years. That was a wonderful opportunity for me; it was the kind of work I wanted to do. I was primarily in the family law unit; there had to be a custody dispute or domestic violence. One of the cases I worked on that was most enjoyable was a class action suit against the Corrections Department dealing with access to the courts. John Milligan, who was my mentor as an attorney, was the primary on that case and I was allowed to work on it, which was an awesome experience.

Could you speak about why you stayed at the Public Defender’s Office for thirty years?

I worked as a public defender from 1989 to 2019, and in the Juvenile Division from 1999 to 2019. I became supervisor for the Juvenile Division because we were getting to be a bigger office and the Public Defender thought we needed more supervision and needed to make sure people were being properly trained.

The reason I chose to stay is that I liked working with new attorneys. They come in very idealistic and enthusiastic and they want to learn and do the right thing. The second reason I stayed is that I found I liked working with juveniles because that area of work was the most hopeful. You’re working with kids who are young, and the chance that intervention might keep them out of the criminal justice system seems better. I also felt they were a very vulnerable population. I took pride in being able to talk to them in a way that kind of broke things down and I made sure new attorneys did the same thing. Our office was at the forefront of challenging the notion of competency. A kid who is twelve can understand the difference between right and wrong but that’s not what makes somebody competent. They don’t understand the intricacies of the legal system.

What is some of the work you’ve done outside of your job?

Before I retired, I didn’t do a lot of things. It was so important to stay on top of the law and on top of juvenile justice in particular that if I read at night, I was reading what was happening in other states or reading federal court opinions, since I was a supervisor and was training others.

I served on a statewide committee ten or twelve years ago that helped draft standards for attorneys who practice in juvenile court and served on the Nebraska Children’s Commission’s Juvenile Services Committee, which focused on juvenile defense.

I’ve also been involved with the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI) in Nebraska since nearly its inception. A lot of smaller committees I served on locally have been subsumed into JDAI since it expanded to Lancaster County a few years ago.

How would you say the Public Defender’s Office evolved over the thirty years you were there?

It’s grown and evolved. Technology has affected everything. In the office now, all your time entries, logs, and case management are on computers. In terms of courtrooms, there are video arraignments for those in adult court. To date, we’ve fought that off in juvenile court, because it’s important to have your juvenile next to you so you and the judge can see if he understands.

When I first started, Dennis Keefe (the elected Lancaster County Public Defender from 1979 to 2015) wanted our office to be the premier criminal defense law office and wanted every attorney to be the best attorney they could be. That meant knowing the law, having good attorney-client relationships, going to seminars and conferences, and more attorney development. Now, the office has shifted more to a holistic practice of law, which is probably a good thing. We now have a social worker who can help our clients. We look at clients in a broader sense.

One other thing that’s changed is that Joe Nigro (Keefe’s successor) is much more involved in the legislative process. He’s an advocate for bail reform and delayed sentencing. Of course, our primary focus remains criminal defense. That’s the constitutional right that we provide.

Bobby Larsen is a second-year student at the University of Nebraska College of Law and a contributing writer for JDs Advancing Justice. Bobby also serves as Vice President of the Equal Justice Society, Community Legal Education Project, and American Constitution Society and as a member of the Student-Faculty Honor Committee, Student Faculty Committee and Pro Bono Committee. He is the college's Equal Justice Works Student Representative and an ex officio member of the Nebraska State Bar Association's Legal Services Committee.