Law students help eco-groups for free and get educated in the process

When a nonprofit environmental group with a shoestring budget seeks to confront big government or corporate foes in court, where can it turn? Increasingly, the answer is: law students. Some 30 law schools around the country now host environmental law clinics (nearly half founded in the past decade), where students get real-world experience working on behalf of clients that frequently can’t afford to hire professional lawyers and expert witnesses. Such experience can sometimes include riling up powerful adversaries: When lawyers-to-be at the University of Pittsburgh represented a citizens’ group opposing a $2 billion highway construction plan, irked state lawmakers retaliated by cutting the clinic’s state funds. Faculty rallied about the clinic in the name of academic freedom and it survived — with private funding. One student summarized the clinic experience this way: “It’s not about getting a grade; it’s about winning a case.”