Learning to Practice Law in the Environmental Law Clinic: Two Students Relate Their Experiences

Denver Law student lawyers in the Environmental Law Clinic (ELC) take on tough cases. And alongside important legal victories, they come away with skills gained and confidence inspired by the valuable experience clinic participation offers.

Sarah Barth and Jenni Barnes, both recent graduates, spent the 2012-13 academic year practicing law under the tutelage and mentorship of ELC professors Mike Harris, Kevin Lynch and Kelly Davis and in the company of fourteen other student lawyer colleagues. Sarah learned she loves the challenges presented by litigation, a part of the lawyering world she had not intended to enter. Jenni saw how the practice of law can advance environmental justice.

“The greatest thing for me was the chance to argue in federal court,” says Sarah (at right). She was excited to work onsarah barth pix the case brought by the ELC on behalf of WildEarth Guardians against Xcel Energy, for violations of the Clean Air Act at the company’s coal-fired Cherokee Station plant, because she knew it offered that opportunity. “I wanted to challenge myself,” she says. “In the hearing I argued very tough issues. The Clean Air Act is incredibly technical and complicated.” Sarah credits her understanding of the substantive law to five weeks of intense preparatory work done with her clinic colleagues and supervising attorneys. She also learned crucial on-the-ground elements associated with practicing law. “I learned how to talk to the judge and to the court reporter. I learned where to sit and where to stand, and how to use the courtroom’s a/v equipment.”

Was she nervous arguing in federal court? “Yes, at first,” reports Sarah. “But once you are standing in the courtroom and speaking, there really isn’t a chance to be nervous.” Clinic students won an important victory in the case in March of 2013, a settlement in which Xcel Energy agreed to provide nearly $450,000 to clean energy sources and green space projects to benefit North Denver neighborhoods most impacted by air pollution. And Sarah Barth gained confidence in her lawyering skills. “Coming out of law school, I’m not daunted by the kind of law I now know I want to practice,” she says.

Like Sarah, Jenni Barnes (at left) worked on several cases during her year in the ELC. Right off the bat, in September, Jenni foundjenni barnes pix herself arguing before the Federal Appeals Court for the Tenth Circuit. The suit, brought by WildEarth Guardians against the National Park Service, challenged an elk-control plan in Rocky Mountain National Park that uses sharpshooters to manage the elk herd. Jenni stresses the importance of preparing for her court appearance. “In the clinic I practiced a lot—with my supervising attorney and with my fellow students, too. I was prepared, and I felt confident that I knew what was coming.” At oral arguments, says ELC Director Mike Harris, “Jenni did a wonderful job, garnering high praise from her client.”

“Experiential learning is what I wanted when I applied for the clinic,” says Jenni. In this case and others she worked on, she got exactly that. She wrote briefs and other court filings in collaboration with fellow student lawyers. In a case involving mobile home residents evicted because of unclean water, she learned the importance of interacting with clients. “We went to community meetings, where we listened and we spoke,” she recalls. “The clients were looking to us for any help we could provide. In these environmental matters, lawyers and experts have to reach out to the community.”

For Jenni Barnes, practicing environmental law is a vehicle to influence the way law and policy affect people and how we live. She says, “We need to make sure that certain communities do not bear the brunt of environmental problems disproportionately.” Her year in the ELC, says Jenni, “is without a doubt the best experience I had in law school.” Sarah Barth agrees. “I know so much more now than I did before,” she reports. “I know I still don’t know everything about lawyering. But I leave law school knowing how to figure out how to do this.” -rw

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