The world’s largest business law firms have made millions of dollars representing fossil fuel companies, but as the climate crisis escalates, this work is coming under close scrutiny.
Over the past five years, the 100 top-ranked law firms in the United States have facilitated $ 1.36 billion in fossil fuel transactions, represented fossil fuel clients in 358 legal cases, and received 35 million dollars in compensation for their work in helping lobby the fossil fuel industry, according to a “Climate scorecard” released in August.
The scope of work for law firms for the fossil fuel industry is enormous, said Tim Herschel-Burns, third-year student at Yale Law School and co-founder of Law Students for Climate Accountability, which developed the dashboard. “As we started to dig, we realized how holistic it is. Whatever fossil fuel companies want to do, they need lawyers to do it.
Fossil fuel companies rely heavily on armies of lawyers to advise on projects, lobby, negotiate contracts, obtain permits and handle a growing number of climate lawsuits. The work of law firms in the fossil fuel industry has increased from the previous year’s scorecard, even as climate warnings become more severe and the International Energy Agency has warned that the development of new fossil fuels was incompatible with the goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
The Climate Scorecard assigned ratings to companies based on their involvement in ‘climate change exacerbation’ lawsuits, support for fossil fuel deals, and fees collected for lobbying on behalf of the fuel industry. fossils.
Paul Weiss, one of the top 10 American firms according to the Vault Law ranking, was one of 37 to receive the lowest F score. The company, which has its own sustainability practice, has acted for fossil fuel companies in 30 cases over the past five years, according to the dashboard. Among the most publicized was the work of the company representing ExxonMobil in a landmark lawsuit where the company was accused of misleading investors about the risks of climate change to its business. The court ruled in favor of Exxon in 2019. Paul Weiss did not respond to a request for comment.
Only 12 law firms were rated A or B in the scorecard, meaning they did not do work for fossil fuel clients. Three companies – Cooley; Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; and Schulte Roth & Zabel – have actively addressed the climate crisis through renewable energy deals, lobbying or pro-climate litigation, according to the scorecard report.
“We totally agree that the law can be that force for good,” Herschel-Burns said. “But one thing we found really striking is that an overwhelming majority of the best law firms are [representing] the wrong side.
There is a tangible human cost, said Alyssa Johl, legal director of the Center for Climate Integrity. “Elite law firms represent oil and gas companies and provide them with a full panel of high-priced lawyers,” she said. “For communities across the country seeking justice, the end result is that their cases have been delayed and bogged down by procedural hurdles put forward by some of the country’s largest law firms. “
Law students for climate responsibility call on law firms to commit to stop undertaking new work in the fossil fuel industry, phase out their current work by 2025, and step up work to the renewable energy industry and to support litigation to combat the climate crisis.
This is a potentially controversial position given the principle that everyone should have access to legal representation. But Herschel-Burns said the principle is often used in “really sloppy ways that end up justifying that law firms can represent whoever pays the most.”
Some companies have recognized a choice. Speaking at a conference last year on the link between law and climate change, Clifford Chance Global Senior Associate Jeroen Ouwehand said businesses “can choose what we support and what we don’t. not support. We don’t have to be neutral professional service providers ”.
Law firms are starting to step up their own climate action, while continuing to work on fossil fuels. A number of firms that have achieved an F rating on the climate scorecard, including Shearman & Sterling and Hogan Lovells, have joined the Net Zero Lawyers Alliance, which was launched in July. Members pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and work with clients to mainstream climate goals and help drive ‘systemic change’. Neither company responded to the Guardian’s request for comment.
Another alliance member, DLA Piper, has set its own science-based goal of halving all emissions by 2030, including indirect emissions from the company’s supply chain. The firm was recently appointed as the official provider of legal services for the upcoming COP26 climate negotiations. But he only got a D on the climate scoreboard and has represented clients such as Shell, ExxonMobil and BP. The firm declined to comment.
Thom Wetzer, professor of law and director of the Oxford Sustainable Law Program, one of the organizations backing the alliance, said the firms may be serious about taking steps in the right direction but they aren’t did not necessarily have best practices yet. “We have to get the whole industry moving, and for many of the companies involved, this is the start of a journey. “
Some law firms ranked lower on the climate scorecard were keen to promote their green energy work. Allen & Overy, who the Dashboard says has worked on $ 125 billion worth of fossil fuel deals over the past five years, said in a statement it was working “more on energies. renewable than any other law firm in the world based on most key metrics ”. Clifford Chance, whom the Scoreboard calculated, worked on fossil fuel deals worth $ 123 billion, said he was “permanently at the top or near the top” for his advice on the financing of renewable energies.
But neither of the two companies, who both earned an F, answered questions about how they balance that job with their representation of fossil fuel companies.
Lawyers have a responsibility to reflect on their own role and consider whether their clients’ values match theirs, Wetzer said. “Companies that constructively engage in the net zero transition will be rewarded; clients will value their judgment and expertise, the best talent will be more easily attracted and retained, and these companies will strengthen their social license to operate.
Law firms’ best resource are their employees, said Sam Sankar, of the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice, which makes the climate scorecard a powerful tool. “In the future, no one will think twice about making career decisions about whether it fits their climate ethics. “
There is now a conversation about legal ethics and the climate that is long overdue, Sankar said. ” The [fossil fuel] the industry is paying law firms tons of money in an attempt to sidestep their responsibilities and block regulatory reforms that could help avert this crisis. “