As William Cummins prepared to go to trial last month on murder charges, one of his key allies was a law student who juggles classes, a work-study job and a volunteer gig.

John Barragry, a William Mitchell College of Law student, helped represent Cummins through a volunteer position at the Neighborhood Justice Center (NJC) in St. Paul. He's part of a growing force of Minnesota law students who are wielding more influence in courtrooms as funding for legal aid services declines and economic forces reduce paid clerkships.

"It's definitely an awakening," said Barragry, who worked under a licensed attorney at NJC. "Now I'm in the real world. Now people's lives are at stake."

The number of law students who graduated from Minnesota Justice Foundation (MJF) has grown exponentially, from 43 in 2000 to 287 in 2010. Many, like Barragry, are placed with nonprofits that serve low-income clients. About 19 currently work in public defenders' offices, eight of them in Ramsey County District Court.

"There's been a squeeze in all directions that's resulted in a bigger need for legal services from people who can't afford it," said Janine Laird, executive director at the justice foundation. "And law students are an excellent resource that can fill that gap."

State aid for legal service programs has dropped about 16 percent in the past two years, said Cathy Haukedahl, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance, where more than 20 staff positions have been cut through layoffs and attrition. About a third of them are attorneys. The nonprofit has about 20 student volunteers at any time.

"The help that law students can provide to legal aid organizations is more important than ever," Haukedahl said. "The law clerks ... allow us to talk to more clients, take more cases."

NJC's largest grant decreased about 10 percent in recent years, said executive director Carolina Lamas. The organization, which represents about 600 low-income clients a year, has had to reduce full-time staff. It employs three staff attorneys and about five student volunteers.

Many students represent clients in lower-stakes hearings, such as first appearances, and some go toe-to-toe with seasoned prosecutors in criminal trials. (Student attorneys work under the supervision of licensed attorneys.)

Laura Prahl represented an NJC client last month in Ramsey County District Court in a felony assault case, questioning witnesses and cross-examining police officers and an emergency room doctor.

"It was very, very nerve-wracking, being that it was my first trial and the prosecutor had been doing that work for years," said Prahl, a third-year student at William Mitchell.

Volunteers are drawn from Twin Cities law schools and are placed in the metro area. About 35 times a year, students travel outstate on Fridays or during school breaks to provide legal aid to low-income Minnesotans on minor drug, family and housing law matters.

MJF, a nonprofit founded in 1982, has also reached out to disadvantaged communities, including veterans and Indians living on reservations.

Laird, whom Haukedahl praises for bumping up the program's reach and volunteer numbers, also encourages private attorneys to take on pro bono cases, pairing them up with student volunteers.

The volunteer clerkships are a chance to do well while still in school, learn through first-hand experience and build a résumé in a tight job market, students said. Laird also hopes students learn a sense of charity.

Barragry had a chance to second-chair the Cummins trial, but Cummins decided to plead guilty just before trial.

"You need to support yourself and eat at some point," Barragry said. "Right now, it's not a top priority."

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib