The Original

In 1904, University of Denver kicked off the first clinical program in the nation. today, it’s still going strong

Published in 2013 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine

By Emily White on December 12, 2013


At University of Denver Sturm College of Law, its 110-year-old law school clinics are a pro bono hothouse. In 2004, Donald L. Sturm, who graduated in 1958, gave the school a $20 million gift to encourage it to keep the legal heat turned on and to fuel its clinical program. 

Founded in 1904, Denver’s law clinics were the first clinical program in the nation to offer students academic credit coupled with the chance to gain practical legal experience. Today students are still working hard for people who need help but can’t afford to lawyer up. “We work for un- or under-represented people,” says Professor Laura Rovner, the clinical director. 

Currently, the school has six clinics that focus on issues across the legal spectrum: civil litigation, environmental, civil rights, community economic development, criminal defense and mediation and arbitration. 

The students are in charge of making the case and presenting the stories to the judge. It’s the old idea of “learning by doing,” putting their law school classroom knowledge into practice. It is also a trial by fire; they are tested in front of a live judge or jury: no more mock trials, no more warm-ups. “We stand back,” Rovner says. 

There is something of a safety net though. At times, Rovner says, supervising professors will step in and counsel a student, or address the judge in conference, although it’s not the norm. “In court is when the stakes are most high,” she says. “We try to anticipate all the things that could possibly happen.” 

One of the clinical program’s recent cases involved Troy Anderson, a repeat offender who had been in and out of state prisons for most of his adult life. In 2000, he finally received an 83-year sentence for a combination of shootouts, drug use and robbery. 

Once inside the Colorado Department of Corrections system, Anderson was placed in administrative segregation, a polite term for solitary confinement. By 2012, Anderson had not been outdoors for 12 years.

Civil Rights Clinic students first took on Anderson’s case in 2008, requesting relief for him, specifically the relief of real air. Thanks to the students’ advocacy, the court ordered  “a plan that ensures that Troy Anderson has access for at least one hour, at least three times per week, to outdoor exercise in an area that is fully outside and that includes overhead access to the elements, e.g., to sunlight, rain, snow and wind.” 

The students and co-counsel from the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center also argued that Anderson suffered from mental illness but wasn’t receiving proper treatment and medication.

In August 2012, Judge R. Brooke Jackson ruled in Anderson’s favor, writing, “The Eighth Amendment does not mandate comfortable prisons, but it does forbid inhumane conditions.”

The clinics don’t just serve individuals; they also serve causes. Starting in 2009, the Environmental Law Clinic began representing WildEarth Guardians, an environmental nonprofit group, in an air pollution case against Xcel Energy Inc. WildEarth alleged that for 50 years, the company’s Cherokee coal-operated power plant blew black smoke over the North Denver neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea, and Xcel had failed to monitor and limit the plant’s coal emissions. 

In March 2013, the two sides reached a settlement committing Xcel to put $450,000 toward energy efficiency, rooftop solar and open-space development projects in North Denver. A WildEarth release dated after the settlement declared, “It’s not enough to just shut down coal-fired power plants—we need to create better paths forward.”

This is a significant issue in Colorado, where environmental activists are vocal and prevalent. The Sturm team saw this settlement as a victory, and after WildEarth filed suit, Xcel committed to halting all coal-burning at its Cherokee plant and convert to natural gas by the end of 2017. 

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