Growing Green Lawyers: Law Clinics Provide an Environmental Last Line of Defense

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These lawyers have challenged federal fuel efficiency standards for light trucks and SUVs, paved the way for wolf reintroduction in the Northeast, stopped a landfill from being built next to a national park, made killing fish in power plant water intakes illegal, and enforced the legal definition of "critical habitat" so it has real impact. And they haven't even graduated yet.

There are about 30 student environmental law clinics in the U.S., each affiliated with a law school, that provide environmental groups with low-cost legal services. In most cases, the law students act much like associates do in a law firm. They research arguments and help prepare briefs, but almost never argue a case in court. They are directed by clinic attorneys, at least one of whom is a professor at the law school. Their clients include national environmental organizations and grassroots groups. Most will only take cases in the public interest, and many will only take a case if the client can't get legal representation from a private firm.

Some clinics are privately funded entities, housed off campus, with staff attorneys who are not on the law school faculty. But even in-house clinics such as at Vermont Law School, says former clinic director Patrick Parenteau, still support their activities with "soft money" such as foundation grants, donations and the attorney fees awarded by the court when they win. This money funds necessities like expert testimony, which can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, even in a local pollution case.

The University of Detroit Mercy School of Law offers another option. This fall, the school will begin the second semester of its environmental law clinic program with the U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of Michigan. Students don't work on criminal cases for the office, says Stephen Murphy, an affiliated attorney, but they do work on civil cases involving fines and clean-ups. The program, which also has students working on cases for the Environmental Protection Agency and the main office of the Department of Justice, is unique in the country, says clinic director Lynn Dodge, but its success has led other law schools to consider similar programs.

"As environmental law grows from enforcing clean air and water laws to something more broad, the clinics are growing as well," says Dan Worth, executive director of the National Association of Environmental Law Societies. He is seeing more law schools with policy clinics, particularly those that blend environmental and energy policy to address climate change. …