What’s in a Name?

Everything, to those helped during the law school’s Name Change Clinic

By Mike Weatherford

Say or write your name several times a day, and it becomes easy to take for granted a thing that’s so central to our identity.

But what if you need to change it? Greer Sullivan realized the process can be daunting, and can even feel invasive when a legal notice has to be published in the newspaper.

Sullivan’s experience with name changes as a student at the William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV put her at the helm of a three-day Name Change Clinic at the law school in April. About 20 people took advantage of the free sessions in which student volunteers and supervising attorneys guided them through a form created by the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

“Being able to help people with something as important as your name is really rewarding,” says Sullivan, a 2022 graduate of the law school.

During her first year in law school, Sullivan was part of a team tasked with automating a name-change form. She was drawn into the process even more while she was clerking for the Family Law Self-Help Center at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

The reasons for a name change range from the mundane to the intensely personal.

“A lot of people, older folk, had been going by names that weren’t their technical legal names for, like, 60 years without knowing,” Sullivan says. Social Security or Department of Motor Vehicles transactions often present the first indications that a change is needed.

Some people were first enrolled in school with a different name than their birth certificate, and they kept using it. Others may never have noticed the name misspelled on their birth certificate.

“A lot of folks can carry on with their lives without changing it for a long while,” Sullivan says. It gets more personal for those who need to sort the multiple legal names that come from more than one marriage or divorce. And it’s a big, meaningful action for those changing their names to match a new gender identity.

“That’s an even bigger self-comfort for them, to be able to legally go by a name that matches something you feel inside,” Sullivan says. Although subject to judicial oversight, gender ID-related changes don’t require the published legal notice that’s meant to foil creditor dodgers, but the paperwork can be “difficult to understand when it’s something so personal to them,” Sullivan says.

The three-day clinic on campus exposed law students to the name-change process. Three supervising attorneys—Stephanie McDonald and Giovanni Andrade (from the Family Law Self-Help Center) and Cliff Marcek (the Boyd School of Law’s coordinator of community service—helped navigate the more challenging cases. Christine Smith, then-associate dean for public service, compliance, and administration, was very helpful and involved in the planning and advertising process, Sullivan says.

The clinic was free of charge, so those who attended paid just the $295 filing fee. Perhaps filled with uncertainty when they arrived, they left with the warm assurance that they filled out the form correctly and the priceless confidence that the process was going to be completed.

“Every person who comes in, you can just see how much of a relief it is for them to be getting something that is just so intimate and important,” Sullivan says.