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It’s Time to Hold Law Firms Accountable for Their Role in Climate Change

Students are boycotting Gibson Dunn for representing the corporation behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, undermining the Indian Child Welfare Act, and more.

Leehi Yona and David Cremins

January 12, 2022

A camp for Dakota Access Pipeline water protectors on the day it was slated to be raided. (Michael Nigro / Getty)

For too long, law firms have been given carte blanche for their contributions to the climate crisis: They lobby on behalf of the fossil fuel industry, file the paperwork necessary for carbon-emitting projects, and litigate cases against indigenous and frontline communities. With over 1,500 lawyers in offices around the world, Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher LLP is regarded as one of the top law firms in the United States. Like many of its peers, Gibson Dunn profits from squashing class action lawsuits and labor organizing drives, keeping shareholders from reforming corporate practices and debtors from getting their day in court, and shielding US companies from accountability for their actions overseas and from regulation at home. Even by the standards of the legal industry, however, Gibson Dunn’s behavior is notorious. In 2007, the Montana Supreme Court rebuked the firm for engaging in “actual malice” and “legal thuggery,” and a Delaware judge recently described its pretrial practices as constituting “fraud.”

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But Gibson Dunn’s behavior goes even further. It spent more than a decade defending Chevron in a lawsuit brought by indigenous communities whose homeland was poisoned by an oil spill in Ecuador. When Ecuadorian courts awarded those indigenous communities a $9.5 billion judgment, Gibson Dunn was involved in overturning that ruling in a corporate-friendly US court, leading to the prosecution of Steven Donziger, a human rights attorney who represented the Ecuadorian plaintiffs. Gibson Dunn’s involvement in the Chevron case is a chilling example of the lengths the firm is willing to go to represent the fossil fuel industry and silence anyone in the way.

And Gibson Dunn’s record on climate change is unapologetically awful. Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA), an organization that scores law firms based on their environmental activities, gave the firm an F this year, the lowest score possible. In addition to its involvement in dozens of climate change cases, Gibson Dunn has lobbied for Koch Industries and represented the corporation behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that would violate indigenous rights. (In another affront to native sovereignty, Gibson Dunn has also represented those seeking to overturn the Indian Child Welfare Act). Over the last decade, the firm has brought in nearly $27 billion in fossil fuel and energy revenue, with no sign of slowing down even as the need to halt and reverse carbon emissions becomes all the more urgent.

In April 2021, dozens of law student organizations signed a letter from LSCA calling on Gibson Dunn to change its contracting standards. Following Gibson Dunn’s refusal to engage with this petition, in December 2021, LSCA announced a boycott so that individual students too can announce that they are #DoneWithDunn. Meanwhile, Gibson Dunn strives to maintain a liberal, even progressive image: One of the firm’s star litigators is vocally anti-Trump, even as he heartily defends oil and gas companies. Indebted law students are enticed by high pay, diversity initiatives and pro bono opportunities, but may not be aware that their first work assignments may include overturning Covid eviction moratoriums or defeating suits for toxic exposure. In increasing numbers, however, young workers are demanding that their would-be employers disentangle from work furthering environmental and social catastrophe.

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When it comes to the climate crisis, business as usual won’t cut it, and nowhere is that more true than in the legal profession. Gibson Dunn is but one of many law firms with a terrible track record on climate, yet this boycott from LSCA is a crucial step in forcing Big Law to take responsibility for how it normalizes, entrenches, and exacerbates Big Carbon work that imperils our planet and its people. By doing so, we join a movement already changing norms at ad agencies, financial institutions, and tech companies, all of which are the sites for organizing to end profiteering from carbon extraction.

Reshaping the economic and social incentives for individual workers, their companies, and indeed entire industries is no small order. But this is exactly what is asked of our generation. Law firms are not leading the way on a just transition toward renewable energy; the only way they will is if we hold their feet to the very fires they are fanning.

Leehi YonaLeehi Yona is a PhD student in environment and resources and a Knight-Hennessy Scholar at Stanford University. Her research is on climate change science, policy, and justice.

David CreminsDavid Cremins is a JD candidate at Stanford Law School.

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