First-Ever Analysis Reveals How America’s Top 100 Law Firms Are ‘Accelerating the Climate Crisis’

“Law firms write the contracts for fossil fuel projects, lobby to weaken environmental regulations, and help fossil fuel companies evade accountability in court.”

By Jessica Corbett, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 10-1-2020

Harvard Law School students demonstrated against a recruitment dinner hosted by Paul Weiss, a law firm representing ExxonMobil, in January 2020. (Photo: Aaron Regunberg/Twitter)

The top 100 legal firms in the United States “are accelerating the climate crisis” through their litigation, transactions, and lobbying on behalf of polluters, according to a first-ever report of its kind released Thursday by a newly launched law student organization.

Members of Law Students for Climate Accountability analyzed of tens of thousands of recent legal actions by the Vault Law 100 firms for the 2020 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard, which grades firms A to F based on their work for fossil fuel clients from 2015 to 2019.

“Law firms write the contracts for fossil fuel projects, lobby to weaken environmental regulations, and help fossil fuel companies evade accountability in court,” Alisa White, a Yale Law School student and lead author of the report, said in a statement. “Our research is the first to expose the broad extent of firms’ role in driving the climate crisis.”

As the student group’s statement detailed, over the four years analyzed, the law firms:

  • Worked on 10 times as many cases exacerbating climate change as addressing climate change: 286 cases compared to 27 cases.
  • Were legal advisers on five times more transactional work for the fossil fuel industry than the renewable energy industry: $1.3 trillion of transactions compared to $271 billion of transactions.
  • Lobbied five times more for fossil fuel companies than renewable energy companies: for $36.5 million in compensation compared to $6.8 million in compensation.

“We found that many of the prestigious law firms that recruit at law schools across the country are not the socially responsible actors they present themselves to be. Instead, they are helping destroy our generation’s chance at a livable future,” declared Yale law student Camila Bustos, co-founder of Law Students for Climate Accountability.

Lily Cohen, a Harvard Law School student who helped organize the #DropExxon protests, said: “My classmates and I came to law school to learn skills to work towards a future that is safer and more just… I hope that this scorecard emboldens firms to make decisions about people, not just profits.”

In addition to recognizing that “unless we rapidly change course, climate change will continue to produce catastrophic warming, extreme weather events, and hundreds of millions of deaths from 2020 to 2100,” and the role of fossil fuel companies in creating the planetary emergency, the student group’s report (pdf) includes recommendations for the firms and commitments that both firms and students came make “to address the role of the legal industry in the climate crisis.”

Only four of the 100 law firms received a Climate Score of A, while 14 got a B, 15 got a C, 41 got a D, and 26 got an F. The scorecard calls out by name the top five worst firms for litigation, transactional work, lobbying, and coal transactions, and pressures all firms to phase out their work for the fossil fuel industry.

The firms that got an F are: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Allen & Overy; Baker & Hostetler; Baker Botts; Baker McKenzie; Clifford Chance; Cravath, Swaine, & Moore; Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer; Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher; Hogan Lovells; King & Spalding; Kirkland & Ellis; Latham & Watkins; Linklaters; McGuire Woods; Milbank; Munger, Tolles & Olson; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Shearman & Sterling; Sidley Austin; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, & Flom; Squire Patton Boggs; Sullivan & Cromwell; Vinson & Elkins; and White & Case.

“With this report, elite law firms are called upon to consider whether their professional services are supporting the climate catastrophe,” said Yale Law School professor Douglas Kysar. “To be on the right side of history, it is no longer enough for law firms to green their offices. They must green their work.”

Harold Koh, former dean of Yale Law School and legal adviser of the State Department, suggested that the report could put pressure on more than just the named firms.

“This impressive Climate Change Scorecard forces each and every lawyer, law student, and firm to ask themselves whether they are truly devoting their life’s energies toward a more livable future, or toward an increasingly uninhabitable planet,” Koh said. “Those receiving low grades should search their souls, and those asked to make pledges should consult their consciences, to decide where they really stand in an existential struggle that has no bystanders.”

The scorecard comes as fossil fuel giants continue to be called out for their inadequate climate pledges and hit with climate liability lawsuits. Last month alone, the state attorneys general of Connecticut and Delaware as well as local leaders representing the cities of Charleston, South Carolina and Hoboken, New Jersey filed lawsuits against major oil and gas companies.

“The fossil fuel industry does everything it can to avoid responsibility for the massive damage it’s done to our planet. One of the strongest weapons in that fight is litigation carried out by some of the most established law firms in the legal world,” said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, who represents Rhode Island, which was the first state to file such a suit in July 2018.

“It’s past time these firms reconsidered how they represent one of the most destructive industries in history, and there’s no reason law students should not consider this representation in deciding how to direct their careers,” added Whitehouse. “I applaud this important effort.”

The scorecard also won praise from climate campaigners including Dr. Sandra Steingraber, who thanked the new student organization “for shining a light on the role played by top law firms in the fossil fuel story.”

Author and activist Bill McKibben also highlighted the group and its first report on Twitter Thursday:

“This is incredibly powerful organizing,” McKibben said in a public message to the group. “So many thanks for your leadership!”

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