Discover more from ExxonKnews
Top law firms are reaping the benefits of Big Oil’s climate destruction
A new report by Law Students for Climate Accountability draws attention to an unsung accomplice.
Good morning — it’s Friday again. Friendly reminder that if you haven’t yet signed up for weekly updates on the fight to hold Big Oil accountable for the climate crisis, you can do so below.
The hits really do keep on coming. Does this look like a company committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to you?
Thankfully, the fossil fuel industry’s plans to pluck every last dollar from a burning planet (and put lipstick on a pig while they’re at it) are not going unnoticed — and neither are the extended web of institutions that are giving their all to keep them afloat.
Earlier this year, we covered a wave of protests at top law schools targeting the law firm Paul, Weiss for representing Exxon in numerous lawsuits brought by states and localities for the company’s campaigns of deception on climate change. Since then, the #DropExxon movement has grown into a new group, Law Students for Climate Accountability, that’s working to pull back the curtain on how some of the wealthiest, best-resourced firms in the country are enabling the fossil fuel industry’s destruction.
Last week, this coalition of law students released a bombshell report (and scorecard!) detailing the many ways in which these firms unevenly prop up and defend the fossil fuel industry as communities are plunged further into climate chaos. The results were pretty mind-boggling: according to the report, Vault 100 top law firms “worked on ten times as many cases exacerbating climate change as cases addressing climate change; were the legal advisors on five times more transactional work for the fossil fuel industry than the renewable energy industry;” and “lobbied five times more for fossil fuel companies than renewable energy companies.”
I asked Alisa White, co-author of the report and a second-year law student at Yale, to break it down for us. Our interview, edited for length and clarity, is below.
Credit: Alisa White
Why are these top 100 law firms so important in determining the future of our planet? What did you find to that end?
I would say that in many ways, law firms are the glue that keeps the fossil fuel industry together, and that’s something we explore throughout this report. We looked at litigation that helps [the industry] avoid accountability. Law firms are also lobbyists, so they’re lobbying for Koch industries, for Exxon, for Chevron.
To me there’s a clear narrative from this: law firms have escaped scrutiny for this for so long. In law school they always say “oh, they’re just neutral actors,” but it’s hardly neutral to make millions of dollars off of fossil fuel projects when law firms get to choose their clients. These are fossil fuel companies that already have in-house counsel. ExxonMobil already has its own lawyers, and they also hire top law firms to do additional work.
The reason we picked the Vault 100 firms is because they’re seen as some of the most prestigious firms in the U.S. — and many of these firms also have international practices and do transactional work for the fossil fuel industry worldwide. But what does it mean to be prestigious? Can they still be called prestigious when many of them are doing this work that undermines our chance at having a livable future on this planet? These firms aren’t going to be bearing the costs, and their partners aren’t going to be. It’s low income communities, Indigenous communities, communities of color that bear the costs of the climate crisis. And right now, many law firms are just profiting from it.
What was the most surprising thing you learned in this report? Are there any particular examples that stuck out to you?
We talk a lot about litigation in law school, but transactional work is actually a huge part of what law firms do — that includes mergers and acquisitions, and financing assets like pipelines. Throughout the whole development of a fossil fuel project the law firm is there. So for example, we did a whole case study on the Dakota Access Pipeline. There were several firms involved in lobbying, transactional work, and litigation for this project. There’s a firm Allen and Overy, and we found that they did the most transactional work for the fossil fuel industry from 2015-2019: in just those 5 years, they were the legal advisor on $150 billion worth of fossil fuel transactions. And that’s just one firm. When you take all the Vault 100 firms together, these firms did over 1.3 trillion dollars worth of transactional work over 5 years.
It blew my mind, so I can only imagine for people who aren’t as keyed into the environmental world what it’s like to see this.
Have you seen any reaction from the law firms being called out in the report?
In a lot of news coverage they’ve kind of declined to comment, which is not surprising. During the Paul, Weiss protests, the comment that we got is “oh, we represent our clients vigorously, and we are committed to upholding the rule of law.” But that doesn’t address the fact that they choose their clients. Part of what we’re aiming to do is to increase pressure on firms to address this. One firm, Baker & McKenzie [who received an F on LSCA’s scorecard], responded with a quote in Bloomberg about how they’re reducing their own emissions… which, to be honest, completely misses the point.
What about from law students?
The #DropExxon protests really tapped into how many law students want to have their careers align with a livable future for our planet. We’ve had a very positive outpouring from law students. I’ve had multiple people reach out and say “I’m interested in maybe spending some time at a law firm but I’m really concerned about climate change, and I don’t want to work for a firm that’s doing the most to support fossil fuel transactions or the like.” The Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard is a long overdue resource and insight into the role of law firms in the climate crisis that they needed. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from practicing lawyers as well.
How does this compare to the trajectory of representation of the tobacco industry when the public and local governments started holding them accountable?
What we’re doing is very much part of a long line of activism by the legal industry and law students to expose the role of law firms in getting these industries off the hook. For example, during Apartheid — there were boycotts of law firms that were continuing to support South Africa and various industries there despite global efforts to hold them accountable. And as we saw with tobacco, law firms were fighting tooth and nail to ensure that tobacco companies evaded accountability. It’s very similar to what’s happening with climate change. Numerous states and localities are seeing the real life impacts of climate change and having to front the bill, and these law firms are supporting the fossil fuel industry against the public.
There’s been a lot of momentum in the world of climate accountability lately. How would you characterize this moment?
This is a critical juncture.
We’re trying with Law Students for Climate Accountability to draw upon other excellent work that’s been done before us — looking at the role of banks in the climate crisis, looking at the role of institutions and tying into divestment. We see ourselves as another key piece in a movement, and the idea is that once there’s enough pressure, we’ll hit a critical point where we start to see a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels. We’re the next generation of lawyers. What kind of legal industry do we want to see and what kind of planet do we want to inhabit?
ICYMI News Roundup
Until next week!