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Lawyers-to-be give free help to environmental groups

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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.

"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.

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