Law Students Take On A Goliath

Halfway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in Convent, Louisiana, fields of sugar cane are ringed by chemical plants. A debate raging between local residents and big industries is, are the plants nourishing the area or eating it away? CBS News Correspondent Richard Schlesinger reports.

"We got a plant here, a plant there...We're surrounded by plants," says Mary Green.

A large group of Convent residents, mostly poor blacks, have been complaining about the plants for years. They have wondered about the smells and are worried about the air.

"It makes you nauseated and makes your throat scratchy," Gloria Braxton says.

When a Japanese chemical company announced plans to build a new plant on almost 4,000 acres here, Gloria Braxton and hundreds of her neighbors went out and retained the highest-powered attorneys they could afford.

Mary Green

"It's kind of an ego boost to us," says Richard Exnicios. "It's kind of like we are their last hope."

Actually, they're not quite lawyers. Exnicios, Orelia Merchant, and Jennifer Lewis are law students. They work at a Tulane University legal clinic giving free help to clients too poor to pay. The three were presented with the Convent case and decided to take on big industry and its big-time lawyers.

While the plants have the power and the money to back them, the only resource available to the law students is their own time and effort.

They may be young and green, but they were good enough to turn the corporate lawyers grey. The students successfully challenged key permits for the plant and delayed the $700 million project for two years. In the process, they made enemies of business leaders and of the governor, who called them vigilantes and outlaws.

"They're the big guys that have got the courts figured out to stop the development. They've got the stroke -- they are winning. They are gonna run the industry off. They're the bullies," says Gov. M.J. "Mike" Foster.

But the students say they are supposed to "zealously advocate" for their clients. They have taken the governor's reproach to be a sign that they are doing their job right.

"I love them because they are helping us," says Braxton of the law students.

The Governor has tried to enlist Tulane alumni to help him rein in the clinic. And he's threatened the university's tax exemptions if they don't.

After the governor and industry leaders objected to the law clinic's work, the Louisiana Supreme Court issued new restrictions that are unprecedented and could prevent the clinics from ever taking a case like this againBoth sides seem to agree on one thing: tying the hands of the lawyers will make life easier for the chemical industry.

Gov. Foster

"Why is it that the governor don't want the lawyer to help us?" Green says. "He's rich and he don't care about the poor people."

But Gov. Foster believes the law clinic is working on behalf of people here, who don't deserve the free help.

"My suspicion is that -- I don't know this either -- that a whole bunch of the people that are involved here aren't indigent," he says.

Braxton condemns the governor's view.

"Hell, if we weren't poor, would we be here?" she asks. "Don't you think if we could pack up like some of these people doing and get away from here, Mister, I would be gone."

The law clinic is still in business and still representing people in Convent.

Now the student lawyers have a new case to argue -- their own. They're fighting the tough new restrictions on their activities, learning in the classroom and the courtroom what happens when you take on big business in a place like Convent.

Reported By Richard Schlesinger