For many transgender people, having a legal identity that aligns with their lived experience is not only important psychologically, but it ensures that they will face fewer barriers when seeking out employment, education and public benefits. To support low-income members of the transgender, gender non-conforming and non-binary community, lawyers from Davis Polk and client Con Edison have joined together to volunteer with the Name Change Project, administered by the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund (TLDEF).

To discuss this pro bono work, we sat down with Jillian Berman, Davis Polk Pro Bono Counsel for Corporate & Transactional Matters, and Mary Krayeske, Con Edison Assistant General Counsel.

Mary and Jillian, can you describe your roles at Con Edison and Davis Polk, respectively?

Mary: I have been at Con Ed for over 30 years. Currently, I do cyber, privacy and regulatory work, including dealing with energy efficiency, electric vehicles and other clean energy future proceedings.

Jillian: In my role, I work with lawyers across the firm representing nonprofits, small businesses and entrepreneurs on a wide range of matters. I also lead several projects that don’t fit squarely into the corporate or transactional banner. These include senior law matters, election protection efforts and our transgender name change practice.

How did you each come to be involved in the TLDEF Name Change Project?

Jillian: When I rejoined Davis Polk as a pro bono lawyer two years ago, I was eager to get involved in this space. I’ve seen through the experiences of my own friends and family the weight a name can carry, and the corresponding importance of having a name that matches your lived experience.

Mary: A friend of mine at another law firm suggested that I try the name change petitions, so I did one or two and realized how helpful and easy they were to work on. I subsequently joined Con Edison’s pro bono committee and shared with them the opportunity to get more lawyers involved in working on these petitions.

Jillian, can you tell us more about the barriers clients face before they secure a legal name change? What are the ramifications of one’s identity not lining up with what’s on paper?

Jillian: People whose documents reflect a name or picture inconsistent with their identity risk being questioned or outed when seeking, among other things, jobs, housing, health care services and public health benefits. At best, this may lead those individuals to avoid those settings and services to their own detriment, leading to or increasing economic and physical marginalization and poor health outcomes. At worst, they may be opening themselves up to harassment, discrimination and violence. The dissonance between someone’s documentation and their gender identity can also, of course, have a profound emotional and psychological impact that can’t be underestimated.

What was your experience participating in the Name Change Project?

Mary: My experience has been very positive. The name change petitions are not terribly complicated to work on – they were streamlined a few years back – but they make a real difference in our transgender clients’ lives. Many of the Project’s clients have a hard time because of their minority status; it can be very helpful for them to get documentation that reflects who they truly are.

Jillian: In the last two years I’ve worked with over two dozen name change clients, and with each there is something unique about either the work or the client that stands out. Our clients are at all different places in their own lives, both with respect to their gender but also more broadly, and I’m constantly learning from them through the process. However, one thing that is consistent is the palpable joy and relief clients exude when they receive their name change orders. It is truly life-changing.

Mary, what makes pro bono work meaningful to you?

Mary: Pro bono work is meaningful to me because it is both an opportunity to give back and an opportunity to learn something new. As a lawyer, I have a unique skill set  – I was very fortunate to have the ability  to go to law school – and I want to use that training to give back. I also always try to do something different for pro bono work so that I learn about new areas or develop new skills.

What, if any, other types of pro bono work do you have experience with?

Mary: Maintaining a diverse pro bono practice is important to me, so I have done a number of different types of pro bono work over the years. In addition to the transgender name change petitions, I’ve done bankruptcy matters and worked on a petition concerning violence against women; I’m currently working on an excessive sentencing petition. A few years ago, I represented a worker in a workers’ compensation case related to the September 11th attacks.

Mary, what advice would you offer to other in-house lawyers considering taking on pro bono work?

Mary: There’s a good feeling in being able to give back, and I find that there are always ways to make time for pro bono work if you are committed to doing it. Sometimes that means doing the work on a Saturday or on a long plane ride, but, if it is important to you, you will find a way to make time for it.

Jillian, from your perspective, what are the benefits of partnering with corporate clients on pro bono projects?

Jillian: Partnering on pro bono projects with a corporate client allows firm lawyers to see different sides of the in-house lawyers they work with day-to-day, which in turn can deepen these relationships and have a positive spillover effect into their billable work. Corporate in-house lawyers also bring a fresh perspective to these pro bono matters, for example with issue-spotting, since they approach things through a slightly different lens then we are used to. The collaboration with Con Ed has been particularly rewarding, as the Con Ed lawyers are consistently enthusiastic, smart and as committed to the work as we are.

Learn more about Davis Polk’s Pro Bono program.