By Karen Savage
Top law firms, led by the two major firms that represent Exxon and Chevron, are worsening the climate crisis, according to new research into the role the legal industry plays in climate change.
The report, 2020 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard, was released Thursday by Law Students for Climate Accountability (LS4CA), an organization of law school students from across the country who are committed to holding the legal industry accountable for its role in climate change.
LS4CA researchers examined the work of the top 100 firms as ranked by Vault.com, which compiles an annual ranking of the most prestigious firms in the United States. Researchers analyzed litigation, transactional work, and lobbying work done by each firm between 2015 and 2019.
“Law firms write the contracts for fossil fuel projects, lobby to weaken environmental regulations, and help fossil fuel companies evade accountability in court. Our research is the first to expose the broad extent of firms’ role in driving the climate crisis,” Alisa White, a student at Yale Law School and a lead author on the report said.
LS4CA researchers found the nation’s top firms worked on 286 cases that exacerbate climate change, compared with 27 that address or curb climate change.
Two firms were highlighted for their work on behalf of fossil fuel companies: Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, whose attorneys are defending Exxon in litigation filed by dozens of municipalities seeking restitution for climate damages, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, which works on behalf of Chevron in those same suits, among others.
“Paul, Weiss worked on as many cases exacerbating climate change as 62 other Vault 100 firms combined,” the authors wrote.
Exxon employs Paul, Weiss attorneys to defend the company against allegations that the oil giant has conducted an ongoing, systematic campaign of lies and deception to obscure what the company knew for decades—that burning fossil fuels overwhelmingly drives climate change.
Attorneys with Gibson Dunn are defending Chevron, which is a co-defendant in many of the same cases. Ted Boutrous, a Gibson Dunn partner, has argued before several appellate courts on behalf of all the fossil fuel defendants.
At the same time, Boutrous has been honored for his pro-bono work defending media organizations in a wide variety of First Amendment cases and has said he will defend pro-bono anyone sued by President Trump for speaking freely.
“The firms included in this report often defend their reputations by pointing to their pro bono work and sustainability projects,” the report authors wrote. “While these efforts are valuable, firms’ work on behalf of paying clients holds much more significance in the fight against climate change.”
Paul, Weiss and Gibson, Dunn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Camila Bustos, a Yale Law School student and report co-author, likened it to Banking On Climate Change, an annual report examining fossil fuel financing compiled by the Rainforest Action Network.
“This project is about connecting the dots between all the industries that are upholding fossil fuels,” Bustos said.
“The fossil fuel industry relies on all of the service providers,” Bustos said, referring to banks, public relations agencies and law firms. “I think those types of firms want to hide behind this idea that they’re just providing a service, but in reality, they’re upholding the entire industry.”
In the report, Bustos and her co-authors took a deep dive into the role law firms have played in the construction of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which in 2016 drew massive protests against the project.
Gibson, Dunn also had a hand in litigation related to that project, most recently representing the pipeline company in its fight to keep oil flowing while its permits are being challenged. The companies have succeeded in keeping the pipeline active while the government conducts a belated study of the impacts the project will have on the nearby Standing Rock Sioux reservation and its water supply.
“Many Vault 100 firms claim to support racial justice, but at the same time they represent the
fossil fuel industry that pollutes communities of color and drives a climate crisis that disproportionately impacts communities of color,” the authors found.
In addition to litigation work, Vault 100 firms received more than $36 million in compensation for lobbying on behalf of fossil fuel companies between 2015 and 2019, compared with less than $7 million from similar work for renewable energy companies during the same period. The top firms were also legal advisors on five times more transactional work for the fossil fuel industry than the renewable energy industry, according to researchers.
“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.”
LS4CA is calling on the firms’ non-fossil fuel clients to demand the firms phase out their work on behalf of companies that have exacerbated climate change.
The group hopes the report will serve as a resource for young lawyers making employment decisions. The report warns that top firms “cannot maintain reputations as socially responsible actors if they continue to support the destructive fossil fuel industry.”
Paul, Weiss’ reputation was questioned earlier this year when students at some of the nation’s top law schools—including Yale, New York University, Harvard and Michigan —staged protests at the firm’s on-campus recruiting events and signed a pledge refusing to work for the firm until it dropped Exxon as a client. Students compared the firm’s representation of Exxon to its work on behalf of cigarette giant Phillip Morris during litigation to hold tobacco companies accountable for the harmful effects of smoking.
“My classmates and I came to law school to learn skills to work towards a future that is safer and more just,” Lily Cohen, a student at Harvard Law School and an organizer of the #DropExxon protests said. “I hope that this scorecard emboldens firms to make decisions about people, not just profits.”
The report authors maintain they are not trying to deny companies the right to counsel and say if fossil fuel executives were to be charged with fraud or other crimes in connection with climate change, they would defend their Sixth Amendment right to legal representation.
“But law firms representing fossil fuel clients in civil proceedings are not advancing access to legal representation. While millions of Americans are forced to navigate the courts without a lawyer, law firms are providing yet more legal firepower to multi-billion dollar corporations with their own legal departments,” the authors wrote. “In doing so, they further tip the playing field toward high-paying climate destroyers and away from a livable future.”
They also say law firms are not neutral actors and should be held accountable for their work.
“The Vault 100 firms have no shortage of clients to choose from, and too many have chosen the side of the actors destroying humanity’s chance to avert the climate crisis.”