LAWRENCE — Two University of Kansas law students won first place in a national competition for their work providing pro bono legal representation to transgender and nonbinary individuals.
Third-year law students Ellen Bertels, of Overland Park, and Delaney Hiegert, of Topeka, received the 2021 national PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award for their work launching the Gender Marker and Name Change Project at KU in 2019. The GMNC Project, operating within the KU Legal Aid Clinic at Green Hall, provides pro bono legal representation for transgender and nonbinary individuals seeking affirming gender marker and name changes.
Under the supervision of clinical faculty, Bertels and Hiegert developed accessible resources for gender marker and name changes, conducted outreach through community education events and provided legal advice and representation to individuals seeking gender marker and name changes. They also held presentations and CLE trainings to attorneys across the state about gender marker and name changes in Kansas.
“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.”
Presented by the National Association for Law Placement, the PSJD Pro Bono Publico Award recognizes law students whose commitment to law-related public service work contributes to a culture of pro bono service within their law school and their community. Pro bono work is defined as uncompensated, law-related work that benefits the public, such as through a nonprofit organization or government agency.
The students were nominated for the award by a team of clinical faculty, staff 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.”
Hiegert and Bertels are the first KU Law students to win the national competition since the creation of the award in 2003. They will each receive a $1,000 prize and a plaque commemorating 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.”
At KU’s Lavender Graduation & Pride Awards in April, Hiegert received the Be You at KU Student of the Year Award, and the GMNC Project earned the Best Program or Initiative Pride Award.
Both students earned Pro Bono Distinction at graduation for completing more than 50 hours of unpaid legal service during their KU Law careers.
After graduation, Bertels will serve as a 2021 Skadden Fellow for two years. Skadden Fellowships are considered the most prestigious and competitive fellowships for public interest law students. Through the fellowship, Bertels will work at Kansas Legal Services’ Wichita office and provide statewide pro bono representation to transgender and nonbinary Kansans undergoing legal identity document corrections.
Hiegert will clerk for Judge Jacy Hurst, L’07, of the Kansas Court of Appeals after graduation. After their clerkship, Hiegert plans to pursue public interest fellowships or attorney positions focusing on LGBTQ+ justice issues and social justice issues.