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KU Law students honored with national award for pro bono work with trans, nonbinary individuals

Sarah Motter
Friday, May 14, 2021

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Two students from the University of Kansas School of Law have been honored with a national award for their pro bono work.

The University of Kansas says two law students won first place in a national competition for providing pro bono legal representation to transgender and nonbinary individuals. It said third-year law students, Ellen Bertels, of Overland Park, and Delaney Hiegert, of Topeka, earned the 2021 national PSJD Pro Bono Publico Clinic at Green Hall, which provides pro bono legal representation for transgender and nonbinary residents that want to affirm their gender marker and name changes.

Under the supervision of clinical faculty, KU said Bertels and Hiegert developed accessible resources for gender marker and name changes, lead outreach through community education events and gave legal service and representation to those seeking gender marker and name changes. It said they also provided presentations and CLE training to attorneys across Kansas about gender marker and name changes in the state.

“It has been an honor and a joy to serve Kansas’ trans community for the last two years with my friend Delaney. I am so grateful to the community of advocates for trans and nonbinary people in Kansas,” Bertels said. “There is so much more work to do to make this state safe and welcoming for all, but I know I’m in good company.”

KU said the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award was presented by the National Association for Law Placement and recognizes law students with a commitment to law-related public services work and contribute to a culture of pro bono service within their law school and community. It said pro bono work is unpaid, law-related work that benefits the public.

According to the University, the students were nominated for the award by a team of clinical faculty from the school’s Career Services Office and Kyle Velte, associate professor of law.

“It’s wonderful to see Ellen and Delaney recognized on a national level for their outstanding pro bono service,” said Meredith Schnug, clinical associate professor of law. “Their work on behalf of transgender and nonbinary individuals has made such an impact in our state, and I’m excited to see all they accomplish in their legal careers.”

KU said Hiegert and Bertels are the first students from the university to win the national competition since its creation in 2003. It said they will each get a $1,000 prize and a plaque to commemorate the award.

“Looking back to the start of our 2L year, when the GMNC Project was just an idea in our heads, I certainly did not think we would be where we are now with it. The experiences and people it brought into my life and the lessons I learned along the way are truly invaluable,” Hiegert said. “I’m so thankful for the lawyers, activists and queer Kansans that made it possible.”

According to KU, at its Lavender Graduation and Pride Awards in April, Hiegert earned the Be You at KU Student of the Year Award, and the GMNC Project earned the Best Program or Initiative Pride Award.

KU said both students earned Pro Bono Distinction at graduation for completing over 50 hours of unpaid legal service during their KU Law careers.

After graduation, KU said Bertels will serve as a 2021 Skadden Fellow for two years. It said Skadden Fellowships are the most prestigious and competitive fellowships for public interest law students. Through the fellowship, the school said Bertels will work at Kansas Legal Services’ Wichita-based office and give statewide pro bono representation to transgender and nonbinary Kansans undergoing legal identity documentation corrections.

According to KU, Hiegert will clerk for Judge Jacy Hurst of the Kansas Court of Appeals after graduation. After their clerkship, Hiegert plans to pursue public interest fellowships or attorney positions focused on LGBTQ+ justice issues and social justice issues.

Faculty name: 
Kyle Velte