Jake Bielenberg is quietly unassuming, according to his school. He’s as smart as any student in the building, and he’s a skillful writer and editor. However, the true appreciation of Bielenberg’s commitment to and success in law school requires insight into his background and the path that led him to where he is now.
Bielenberg’s story is one that for many would end in despair and disaster. He grew up in a family of meager means. When Bielenberg was in middle school, his father became quite ill, moved to a long-term care facility and died. Through high school, he rebelled by engaging in minor disobedience and pranks at school, selling drugs and skipping school. Then he dropped out. He worked as an enforcer for a cocaine dealer, collecting unpaid debts and fighting on the streets. As might be expected, this choice showed Bielenberg a side of the law few law students see first hand. He racked up legal trouble.
At the time of Bielenberg’s first arrest for driving with a revoked license, he was homeless and sleeping in the back of his car. He actually requested that his sentence be served in the county jail, rather than on the originally planned house arrest, so that he would have a place to sleep and eat.
His second charge of driving with a revoked license saved his life. While serving his 90-day jail sentence, he met a former Los Angeles gang member. Bielenberg recalls that this gang member “introduced me to different ways of thinking and helped me realize that it was cool to be smart and successful.” He began attending Bible studies and started the process of obtaining his G.E.D.
After getting back on his feet, Bielenberg decided to try his hand at formal schooling again. In two-and-a-half years, he earned an associate’s degree and his bachelor’s degree, both with academic accolades. Graduating debt free, Bielenberg opted to pursue law school and landed at Washburn University School of Law.
Bielenberg is a leader and an integral part of the life of the law school in ways that emphasize both his desire to help others and his excellent academic credentials. He has served as a study group leader and a teaching assistant for first-year legal writing classes. He worked with the Family Law Quarterly and won a student-chosen award for best article edit.
Bielenberg serves as technical editor of the Washburn Law Journal and is also helping to overhaul the Journal’s bylaws.
Several faculty members have had Bielenberg to serve as research editors for their scholarly work. Professor Rory Bahadur, for whom Bielenberg did research work, said, “Working with Jake was an incredible experience. His ability to be self-directed and outcome-driven is almost scary. After a few weeks I realized that no matter the complexity or the difficulty of the task the combination of his Herculean work ethic, intelligence and responsibility meant it would get done.”
Bielenberg has done all of this while balancing the needs of his family. His wife teaches in one of the lowest performing schools in the area. Their 10-month-old daughter Adelayde was born missing fingers on one hand. Her needs almost broke the couple, but also reminded them of how much they have both accomplished and how blessed they truly are.
Finally, and arguable most importantly from Bielenberg’s perspective, he continues to help disadvantaged communities. He has logged nearly 200 hours of pro bono work with Kansas Legal Services. That effort makes sense when you consider Jake’s background and the bumpy road he had to get to this place as an outstanding law student: “As far as second chances are concerned,” Bielenberg says, “I am just trying to enjoy the ride.”
Bielenberg is one of 25 future lawyers honored in the National Jurist’s 2017 “Law Student of the Year” feature. Find more honorees here.