Meet Marsha Fangmeyer 11/15/12 11/15/12 10:22:23 AM
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The Kearney attorney assumed the reins of the 9,000-strong Nebraska State Bar Association last month.
By Lorraine Boyd
Meet the State Bar’s Newest President
The Daily Record
Marsha Fangmeyer, the Nebraska State Bar’s new president, grew up in Buffalo County, Neb., amid “a passel of kids.”
“My father worked hard all his life, had an 8th-grade education, worked hard, didn’t like to accept charity, probably if he hadn’t had Social Security he would have … well, I don’t know what he would have done.”
He was eligible for the Green Thumb program, and commodities, she said, but he didn’t want to accept any of it.
“I told him, ‘Daddy, you have worked hard all your life. You have raised a whole passel of kids. We are all employed.’ I probably paid more in taxes the first few years out of law school than he ever earned in his life, so I said, ‘You deserve it.’”
From that upbringing, she developed a keen awareness of the need to help those less fortunate.
“I think it’s our ethical obligation and a responsibility of the bar association to do this kind of [legal aid] work. I feel very strongly about this,” she said.
She told her story because of the “complete and utter misconception about poverty in our country.”
“I heard a report about a gentleman who said, [those people] ‘can’t buy health insurance, but they’ve got a big screen TV, etc.’ No they don’t. They struggle to pay the utility bills or to buy clothes for the kids. They say they should have put money away – but you can’t [always do that] when you have a family.”
The petite and energetic woman not only developed a sense of empathy growing up, but also a sense of humor. It makes working with her very pleasant. The day we visited, in the middle of the annual meeting, her thoughts were on the coming year.
“One of my big things is access to justice issues. I’m looking forward to working with people like Judge Frankie Moore – she’s on the Supreme Court’s pro se committee. I hope to work with them on some issues,” Fangmeyer said.
“I started my career as a legal aid attorney and my law firm – Knapp, Fangmeyer, Aschwege, Besse & Marsh, P.C. – has always participated in the volunteer lawyers programs, so that’s a very important issue to me.
“Robert Spire* was one who really pushed the volunteer lawyer programs and also was a big advocate of diversity in our profession. He’s one of my heroes. I think he’d be pretty proud of where we are today, with the exception that he’d be disappointed in the lack of funding for legal aid.
“I also think he’d be very disappointed that there are some people who think we should not be doing so much of that. I think there are some people who think it’s mission creep or something. I think that would be very disappointing to him.”
*Robert Spire, Nebraska’s attorney general from 1985 to 1991, founded the NSBA’s Volunteer Lawyers Project in 1982. He served as president of the state bar in 1983.
Funding a Problem
Funding today for volunteer lawyer programs is a challenge. Fangmeyer pointed out that the federal government has cut back on its support for legal aid. “We lobbied on that issue with our national reps, just trying to hold the line.”
She said one of the other funding mechanisms in Nebraska is the Interest On Lawyers Trust Accounts. “When that program went into effect, the [Nebraska] Supreme Court said that all of the funds from the interest should go to legal aid. Absolutely all is supposed to go to legal aid. When the interest rates were high, that program could generate $500,000, a nice thing for legal aid.”
However, she said, with the interest rates where they are today, that program is down to “maybe $150,000.”
So, she said, “we try to raise money through the Barristers Ball and One Hour of Sharing (in which lawyers contribute time or money or both) to take the more difficult cases – the cases it is difficult to get volunteers for. So we pay them a little bit to handle those.”
She noted that there are five Self Help desks in Nebraska now. Besides those in Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island, we are “just opening one in Madison County where Norfolk is, and in Buffalo County where Kearney is. [Instead of bar representatives overseeing the sites] we’re hoping to have support for the volunteers through Skype or other electronic means.
“But in Buffalo County where I am, we had no trouble getting lawyers booked for a whole year. Lawyers are very willing to do this [helping pro se clients], giving them some direction. We’ll see how that goes. I know it’s going strong in Douglas County, where there’s always a line. And the need just keeps growing and growing.”
She acknowledged that the most important and challenging issue on her plate this year is “dealing with the issue of the petition to deunify the bar that’s sitting at the Supreme Court – that’s a rule change, and then the lawsuit that’s been filed.”
(Founded as a voluntary bar in 1899, the NSBA was integrated by order of the Nebraska Supreme Court in 1937. It is one of approximately 40 unified, or mandatory, bar associations in America.)
“Depending on how that goes and how long it takes to resolve those issues, Jane Schoenike has announced her retirement, so we’re starting the process of succession planning.
“And then some of the other issues would be that the chief justice is setting up a permanent committee to look at the guardianship/conservatorship statutes, which have been an issue this year among practitioners – because of some changes in the law and changes in the rules, so we’ll be looking at that.”
And of course, the justice issues she is so committed to are on her list.
“So that’s just a short list I can think of right now. And then, whatever happens, you know. Stuff happens.”
About Marsha E. Fangmeyer
She is a 1979 graduate of the University of Nebraska College of Law and received her B.A. in 1976 from the University of Nebraska. She began her practice in Beatrice with Legal Services of Southeast Nebraska. After six years she moved to Kearney and is now a partner in the law firm of Knapp, Fangmeyer, Aschwege, Besse & Marsh, P.C.
She was honored as the Outstanding Contributor to Women in the Law award during this year’s 2012 annual meeting.
She has served on the Nebraska State Bar Association Executive Council and is a Fellow of the Nebraska State Bar Foundation. She has served on numerous committees and Commissions including the Nebraska Supreme Court Commission on Children in the Courts, the Nebraska Supreme Court Committee on Practice and Procedure, the Nebraska State Bar Legislation Committee, and the Volunteer Lawyers Committee. She has also served in leadership positions for the Family Law Section and the Women and the Law Section. She has previously served on the Nebraska State Association Council for Discipline, District 6 Committee of Inquiry.
She’s been president of the board of directors for Kearney’s S.A.F.E. Center and the board for Buffalo County Citizens Advocacy. Currently a member of the YWCA Hastings Chapter, she serves on the advisory committee for the Social Work Program at the University of Nebraska Kearney. She has served as the president of the American Civil Liberties Union and Nebraskans for Peace.
She is married to Dr. James Wiest. She has two stepchild-ren, Jonathan and Amber Wiest.