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

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.

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.

The most typical clinic model involves litigation, however, and with litigation comes political pressure from university donors and politicians who may yank funding or change courtroom rules to curb the clinics. “At the end of the day, if you wind up suing someone, they are not going to be happy,” says Parenteau.

One of the most extreme examples of political pressure on an environmental law clinic came in the late 1990s when the Louisiana Supreme Court slapped the most restrictive student-practice rules in the country on the Tulane Environmental Clinic (TEC). The court ruled that TEC could only represent those with annual incomes less than $16,480 or national organizations or community groups with at least 51% of members at or below that income level. The decision followed TEC’s successful two-year battle to prevent the construction of a $700 million PVC plant in the small town of Convent, Louisiana.

The clinics persist in spite of the pressure because for law students, the real-world experience in litigation is something they won’t get from most summer internships. Mike Murphy, who graduated from Pace Law School in New York in 2005 and is now the community outreach director for TEC, says his time in the Pace clinic steered him away from a career as a litigator, but still guides his work today. It introduced him to the unexpected emotional demands of litigation. “It was a difficult but important experience,” he says.

And the law clinics are a last defense for environmental protection. Dan Rohlf, director of PEAC and associate professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, says, “Rivers and endangered species can’t afford to pay lawyers. Law clinics provide representation from a very competent and low-cost source.” And, he adds, “We are also training the next generation of environmental advocates.”

Nat Parker, regional manager for the Sierra Club in Oregon and Idaho, has worked with PEAC on a Clean Air Act challenge to a coal-fired energy plant in eastern Oregon. He says, “Here at the Sierra Club, we don’t just want to win lawsuits, we want to broaden the power of the environmental community. By working with PEAC we achieve on both fronts.”

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.