We hoped to begin this term of law school enjoying the clear skies and clean air of Northern California. The climate crisis had other ideas.
Smoke from the fires that swept across California crept into our lungs and dyed the sky orange. We logged on to our virtual classes anyway. And we’ve continued to, even as fire season drags into December, breaking records for most acres burned in a single year.
Here in California, up to 3,000 of our neighbors died from 40 days of smoke in the beginning of the 2020 fire season. In a better world, top law firms would help these victims seek justice and hold bad actors accountable. Instead, they’re making the crisis worse.
That’s why, in October 2020, a small group of students at Yale Law School published the 2020 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard, which assigned a data-driven Climate Score to the top 100 law firms. The report’s findings galvanized law students across the country, transforming individual discomfort with firm behavior into a mass movement. Hundreds of students from 47 law schools in the United States and abroad have signed the Law Student Climate Pledge, questioned firms’s behavior at recruitment events, and had meaningful discussions with classmates pursuing careers at these firms.
The legal profession facilitates every aspect of the fossil fuel industry’s success. Lawyers lobby against environmental regulation, conduct the transactional work behind new fossil fuel infrastructure, quash lawsuits from cities seeking climate damages, and much more.
The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) illustrates the relationship between law firms and the fossil fuel industry. As the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes organized protests against the pipeline, an army of lawyers worked late into the night and long into their weekends to threaten indigenous heritage and water supply. Lawyers had a hand in nearly every aspect of the project, from securing financing to lobbying against the environmental regulations that would halt the pipeline. At least eight of the top 100 law firms fought for DAPL.
Unfortunately, DAPL is not an outlier. The Scorecard takes a magnifying glass to law firms, evaluating whether their lawsuits mitigate or exacerbate the effects of climate change; their financial holdings in fossil fuels; and their lobbying clients. The findings are alarming. Between 2015 and 2019, the top 100 law firms worked on 10 times more cases exacerbating climate change than addressing it. The top firms facilitated $1.3 trillion in transactions for the fossil fuel industry and earned five times more lobbying for fossil fuel companies than for those producing renewable energy.
For too long, the idea of universal access to representation has quashed criticism of law firm clients. But we believe that there is a world of difference between ensuring access to counsel for vulnerable members of our community and mobilizing legions of firm lawyers to further tip the scales in favor of massive corporations with their own legal departments.
Lawyers have an essential role to play in climate change mitigation. Many law firms already work on behalf of the renewable energy companies charting a path out of the climate crisis. When these companies seek to expand their clean energy efforts or lobby for government action, they call their lawyers, too.
But the trend is clear. Eighty-two of the top 100 firms did more to contribute to the climate crisis than to mitigate it. Only four refused to work on behalf of fossil fuel companies.
By signing the Law Firm Climate Responsibility Pledge, firms can commit to rejecting new fossil fuel industry clients, phasing out current fossil fuel clients, and continuing to engage in renewable energy work and litigation to fight climate change. American Bar Association model rules allow lawyers to stop representing a client for any “good cause,” including the client’s insistence on “taking action that the lawyer considers repugnant or with which the lawyer has a fundamental disagreement.” We should all disagree with a business model that condemns future generations to endless disaster and displacement.
Law firm clients who take climate change seriously should sever relationships with law firms whose values don’t match their own. Finally, law students have a role to play. If young lawyers refuse to work for firms that represent the fossil fuel industry, the culture of complicity will change.
California’s wildfire season and other climate catastrophes will only get worse. We’ll again be confined indoors. Smoke will seep into our homes and workplaces. Farmworkers will labor through searing heat and hazardous air quality. Blackouts will endanger those whose medical devices rely on power.
Lives will be lost, homes will be destroyed, and we’ll be left picking up the pieces.
Enough is enough.
As law students and Californians, we are acutely aware of the damage that the fossil fuel industry and its lawyers are causing.
Law firms and lawyers have an opportunity to be on the right side of history. Will they take it?