Pro Bono Spotlight: Ropes & Gray

A name means a lot.

Generally, a name is the first piece of information we give another person when we meet them. An untold number of records and documents are attached to our names, in addition to less tangible things like our identity and our sense of self.

So when a transgender person wishes to legally change their name, and the corresponding gender marker on all of their legal documents, getting it done means a lot. That’s why attorneys at Ropes & Gray have partnered with GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) to start a clinic to help transgender clients navigate the process of transitioning on paper.

Over 300 transgender individuals and parents of transgender children have been served by the clinic since its founding in November. Attorneys help these clients fill out the appropriate paperwork to change names and gender markers on documents like a driver’s license, passport, Social Security card, birth certificate, mortgage title, insurance records, voter registration and more.

This change is significant for many reasons, both symbolic and practical. Emily Oldshue, an associate in Ropes & Gray’s capital markets group, has been involved with the clinic since its inception, and was recently named one of the National LGBT Bar Association’s Best LGBT Lawyers Under 40. She said many clients, or parents on behalf of their children, are looking for a name and gender marker change on paper to facilitate other processes. An application to summer camp, a school, or a job could be held up pending the applicant’s documentation updates.

“The way I think of it is, ‘What it would be like to go out and have to present an ID that’s totally out of step with who you are, fundamentally?” Oldshue said. “Being out of step with one’s identity affects your life in various ways. Every day, you open up your mailbox, and it’s like getting mail for a totally different person. That creates a lot of dissonance for people.”

Oldshue said Ropes & Gray attorneys have worked with many minors and their parents, and many students who are transitioning during college. But the overall group who has come to the clinic is extremely socioeconomically diverse.

“My clients have ranged from 60-year-old veterans, to children, to artists, to programmers, and to people born in many different states and different countries. It has been eye-opening to see how people from such disparate backgrounds still face many of the same problems in their experience as transgender people, and it has been rewarding to be of service to them,” Gabriel Gillmeyer, a corporate associate at Ropes, said.

Oldshue said the firm was “inundated” with referrals from GLAD when the program started up in the fall, but now the attorneys who work at the clinic have developed a good workflow and are looking at ways to expand the initiative beyond New England.

“The great thing about it from a staffing perspective is that it’s just walking people through a process, which is very quick, especially compared to a lot of the other things that attorneys are doing. It’s something you can help a lot of people within four to six hours on average,” she said.

But even in that sort of time, the difference an attorney can make lasts a lifetime. Kristi Jobson, a  business & securities litigation associate, shared the following story:

“A minor client born in Oklahoma and adopted at birth by a New England couple sought to change her birth certificate. Oklahoma does not have a set process for amending the gender marker on an individual’s birth certificate. Initially, the client’s mother and I were each told that Oklahoma would not change a birth certificate gender marker for a minor (and typically declined applications from adults seeking amended birth certificates). After many, many calls to the Division of Vital Records, the client’s mom finally got a sympathetic administrator on the phone. We secured a court order recognizing a change in gender, and directing the Oklahoma Division of Vital Records from the child’s state of residence. We presented that court order and the child’s change of name order to the Division and received an amended birth certificate. The Division informed us that the client is the first minor to receive an amended Oklahoma birth certificate of this type.”

Oldshue said attorneys across various offices at the firm have set up a network for sharing resources pertaining to best practices in handling these types of cases. She said she and other volunteers who have been with the program from the beginning are grateful for the institutional support they have received from every corner of Ropes & Gray.

“I spend a lot of time on (the Transgender ID Project), but there’s no way I can respond to the 200 emails a day that we get. The organic leadership from the associates and the response and support we’ve gotten from the firm as a whole has been really incredible to see. It’s a neat moment to be at Ropes,” Oldshue said.