Lawyers-to-be give free help to environmental groups

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

One student negotiated a $40,000 settlement. Another faced off against a roomful of Exxon-Mobil's high-powered lawyers. A third got snapped at by a judge for failing to stand while addressing the court.

Relaxing around a broad conference table, the students of Pace University Law School's environmental law clinic share the triumphs and crises of the past year, when they received their first taste of professional practice. Even before they took the bar exam, many already had legal victories on their résumés.

Founded in 1987, the clinic at the White Plains, N.Y., school offers experience in the application of environmental law. The second- and third-year students negotiate settlements, write briefs, and appear in court.

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"On the first day of class, you become a lawyer," says Pete Putignano. "Ready or not."

The budding lawyers are beneficiaries of "student practice rules" common to many states, which allow them to represent clients and argue cases under the supervision of an instructor. But clinic codirectors Karl Coplan and Robert Kennedy Jr. take a back seat, insisting that students act as lead attorneys.

Mr. Putignano was well aware that the work he did for the clinic had weightier repercussions than other coursework. His primary client - a Long Island environmental group fighting the use of a pesticide - couldn't afford the expert witness and per-hour professional fees that environmental litigation normally includes. The pro-bono services from the clinic gave the group its one shot at a day in court.

"It can be a bit scary the first few weeks," Putignano says. "It's not about getting a grade; it's about winning a case."

Pace's program is one of the most prestigious environmental law clinics, but it's far from alone. About 30 such clinics operate in law schools around the United States, almost half of them founded in the past decade.

Their proliferation points to a larger trend: the addition of real-world cases to law school classrooms, says Catherine Carpenter, who completed a survey of law school curricula for the American Bar Association earlier this year. The survey found that 85 percent of American law schools now offer at least one clinic where students work with real cases and clients.

Clinics exist in just about every legal field, from family law to securities arbitration, in keeping with the move toward specialization in legal training.

But environmental clinics grapple with conflicts that don't often arise in other fields, says Jeremy Clemans, a student at Vermont Law School and former chairman of a student committee of the National Association of Environmental Law Societies. Environmental clinics often make powerful enemies, because of "the kind of cases they take on, who they're likely to be representing, and who they're likely to be going after," Mr. Clemans says. When challenging a large corporation or a government-funded project, an environmental clinic needs "the right level of support from the administration to make it work."

Several environmental clinics have run afoul of state governments. The one at the University of Pittsburgh, founded in 2000, was nearly done in by one of the first cases it accepted, representing a citizens' group that opposed the construction of a $2 billion turnpike between Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

State legislators, angered by the opposition, passed a bill forbidding the university from using state funds on the law clinic. University faculty took up the clinic's cause in the name of academic freedom, and the school eventually agreed to fund the clinic with private money.

Pace University's clinic hasn't gotten embroiled in a controversy of that magnitude, but Mr. Coplan says the possibility of turmoil comes with the clinic's watchdog role. "We usually take the cases that government agencies aren't willing to step in and take the lead on," he says.

The Pace clinic's main client is Riverkeeper, an environmental organization that Mr. Kennedy helped found to protect the Hudson River from pollution. Inside the modest brick building that houses the clinic, its riverine focus is evident: A freshwater aquarium greets visitors in the foyer, and the conference room is decorated with detailed maps of the Hudson, from source to harbor.

According to Alex Matthiessen, Riverkeeper's executive director, the Pace clinic donates about $1 million worth of pro bono services to Riverkeeper each year.

Coplan says the clinic's work is an attempt to level the legal playing field. "We make these legal resources available to ... environmental groups, which allows them to go head-to-head with corporations that have the best staff, unlimited budgets, and armies of lawyers.... We don't quite have an army, but we have a good contingent of students, and they've got a lot of energy."

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