LAWRENCE — Third-year University of Kansas law student Ellen Bertels will serve as a 2021 Skadden Fellow. Considered the most prestigious and competitive award for public interest law students, Skadden Fellowships provide two years of funding for lawyers pursuing public-interest law projects of their own design.
Bertels is the first KU Law student to receive the highly competitive fellowship. Bertels’ project will also be the first Kansas-based Skadden Fellowship project. Bertels is one of 29 graduating law students and judicial clerks from across the country to receive the fellowship.
“The Career Services Office is so proud of Ellen for being selected for this highly competitive fellowship,” said Heather Spielmaker, assistant dean for career services at KU Law. “After the tremendous hard work and commitment to a wonderful cause that Ellen has shown, we think the selection committee made a great choice.”
Through the fellowship, Bertels will work at Kansas Legal Services’ Wichita office and provide pro bono representation to transgender and nonbinary Kansans undergoing legal identity document corrections. The work will affirm gender marker and name changes on legal documents, such as an individual’s birth certificate, passport and driver’s license. Bertels will also be providing community education on legal issues facing transgender communities in Kansas.
“I want to make it possible for low-income trans people to navigate this complicated system with more ease, and I want to make their lives easier in the process,” Bertels said. “It’s going to take effort and education to make Kansas an accepting place for all trans and nonbinary people. We have to commit ourselves to that effort and education. I want trans Kansans to know that there are attorneys in their home state who respect them and will advocate diligently for them.”
Bertels co-founded the Gender Marker and Name Change Project at KU with fellow third-year law student Delaney Hiegert in October 2019. The GMNC Project, operating within the KU Legal Aid Clinic at Green Hall, provides pro bono legal representation for transgender and nonbinary individuals as they seek affirming gender marker and name changes in Kansas.
“The project was an incredible chance to meet our clients and see just how prevalent the need is for this type of work in Kansas,” Bertels said. “Having pro bono legal support that is focused on equitable and ethical representation of trans people is so important, both to break down these barriers and to make sure our clients feel respected by their attorney and community.”
Under the supervision of clinical faculty, Bertels has helped draft legal documents used for name changes, marketed new services through community education events, educated local judges about using the correct pronouns for petitioners in hearings and published a how-to guide on Kansas’ new gender marker change process.
“I now know how to build a program like this, how to work with community partners to solve new and evolving needs from our clientele and how to do the actual day-in-and-day-out of legal representation,” Bertels said.
“It is a real, true honor to get this fellowship, and to do this work in Kansas. I am particularly thankful to Professors Meredith Schnug, Melanie DeRousse, Kyle Velte and Sharon Brett, and to Director of Career Services Stacey Blakeman for all their guidance and kindness. This absolutely would not have happened without their mentorship,” Bertels said.
In addition to working with the clinic, Bertels was a finalist in two national writing competitions this year for scholarship about topics affecting the LGBTQ community. Bertels finished second in the 2020 Michael Greenberg Student Writing Competition and was selected as a finalist in the Constance Baker Motley National Student Writing Competition.
At KU Law, Bertels is the president of the Public Interest Law Society, the vice president of KU’s chapter of the American Constitution Society, comments editor for the Kansas Law Review, a student ambassador and a member of the Moot Court Council.
This summer, Bertels worked remotely for the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice on voting rights and election security.