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Home / Supplements and Special Sections / WJA 2018 / Public Service: Karen C. Nelson Warren

Public Service: Karen C. Nelson Warren

Associate Director of Administration, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri

When low-income people are entangled in the criminal justice system, they’re entitled to help from a public defender. The civil-justice system doesn’t come with that guarantee, but Karen Warren and Legal Services of Eastern Missouri are there to help.warren-karen

“Our clients don’t have a voice for the most part, and they find it hard to navigate the legal system,” Warren said. “If I’m able to do that and help people understand why the law is important, that’s so rewarding.”

Warren earned her law degree from Saint Louis University in 1994, and went to work for the Missouri Attorney General’s Office. She stayed in government practice for six years and primarily handled administrative regulatory-law issues, such as representing the state’s interest before the Public Service Commission. Her work for the state also included representing the corporations division of the Missouri Secretary of State, where she worked on dissolving corporations that had not kept up on their paperwork, and the Department of Social Services, where she handled employment law and EEOC complaints.

Later, she worked in law firms, including handling business litigation at Lathrop Gage, before she realized that her heart was in public-interest work.

A position opened at Legal Services as a supervising attorney for the public-benefits program, and she’s been there for 16 years. In April 2017, she moved to her current position as associate director of administration.

“I can remember clients from when I first started,” Warren said. “I can remember their names, legal issues and outcomes. That’s my proudest accomplishment, being able to serve people for the past 16 years.”

Warren supervises LSEM’s client-intake services, in which clients are screened by paralegals for eligibility and conflicts of interest. She also handles contract review and community engagement.

“What I really like is the sense of making a difference for people who often don’t know what is the right direction or where to go when it comes to the law,” Warren said. “That goes back to when [I was] working in state government, I always took great pride in my ability to be able to help people.”

Warren became interested in law while growing up in the tiny town of Tamms, Illinois. An attorney visited her high school, where he discussed life having a small practice and working with clients. That prompted her to start thinking about a law career, but she majored in political science at the Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. She had been planning to pursue a career as a political-science professor until a law professor suggested Warren observe her first-year torts class.

Networking with other women has served her well in her career.

“Search those women out for encouragement and support and advice because that’s what makes the difference,” Warren said.” That’s what I have done in my career. There are plenty of women who have done this before me, and they will often give you the best insight.”

In addition to professional networking, Warren credits her parents as her first mentors. Harold and Claudia Nelson, an Illinois state trooper and teacher, respectively, told her that hard work was the ticket to her dreams.

“They always inspired me to get as much education as possible, and they always said that if there’s something you want to do, you can do it,” Warren said.