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Supreme Court is some students' law lab

AUSTIN, Texas --Some law students may daydream about taking a case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Benjamin Wallfisch doesn't have time to let his imagination wander.

The University of Texas law student already is busy preparing part of a brief for a case the nation's highest court will consider next month.

Wallfisch is a member of the university's new Supreme Court clinic, a program that lets students act as junior attorneys preparing cases they hope the justices will accept for argument.

Growing numbers of universities are establishing Supreme Court clinics in an effort to improve their top students' writing and research skills while exposing them to the highest level of litigation.

Stanford Law School opened the first such clinic in 2004. Texas, Northwestern, Virginia and Yale established similar programs this year. Harvard recently announced plans to open a clinic in the fall.

To William Adams, a Stanford graduate who participated in the school's first clinic, watching the justices debate the merits of his case was the best part of the experience.

"We always joked when we were in the clinic we sort of thought we had reached the pinnacle of our careers before even getting out of law school," said Adams, now an attorney in New York City.

While only licensed attorneys may appear before the Supreme Court, the Texas students are participating in nearly every other aspect of preparing arguments for presentation to the court.

"I wanted the opportunity to work on a real case with real clients and real stakes," said Wallfisch, 28, of Galveston. "It's rare in law school to get the chance to do that."

The Texas clinic, directed by professor Michael Sturley and attorney David C. Frederick of Washington, is functioning like a law firm, representing a Florida company in a case involving federal transportation law. Six federal appellate courts have considered the legal question, with four ruling one way and two ruling the other, Sturley said.

Once their petition was granted -- a major victory in itself because the court agrees to hear just 1 percent of the thousands of cases filed -- the students began writing a brief laying out their arguments. Next month, they will help prepare Frederick for oral arguments and go to Washington to watch the justices consider the case.

Sturley recently added another team of students for another case and hopes to have as much luck persuading the court to hear that one.

The justices have agreed to hear six of the 12 or 15 cases brought to them by the Stanford clinic since its inception, according to its co-director, Pamela Karlan.

Karlan said she spends up to 60 hours a week working with students in addition to teaching one or two other courses.

"It's not necessarily helping anybody other than the law students if the petitions aren't extremely well written and if the briefs aren't making the best legal arguments possible," said Stephen Wermiel, a Supreme Court expert at American University.