Sometimes I try to imagine how history will remember the monsters most responsible for the climate crisis. As climate-related catastrophes — storms, fires, drought, deadly heat, ecological breakdown, food scarcity, increased pandemics, violent conflict, depression and suicide, and more — escalate and threaten to eventually overwhelm the basic underpinnings of our civilization, will we tell stories of the people who chose to sacrifice everything we love and cherish so they could lead momentary lives of opulence? The oil and gas executives who waged campaigns of deception to forestall our transition away from fossil fuels. The corrupt politicians who blocked lifesaving climate action in exchange for campaign cash. The bankers who continued to finance pipeline projects they knew were incompatible with a livable future — like the one my six-month-old son deserves.
If so, there is another group whose greed-induced culpability will, I believe, be the subject of profound condemnation in the coming decades: the lawyers who helped corporations wreck our climate, aiding and abetting their moral crimes against current and future generations.
A report released last month by Law Students for Climate Accountability (on whose board I sit), found that the nation’s 100 most elite law firms are overwhelmingly engaging in work that worsens climate change. In recent years, these firms facilitated an almost inconceivable $1.36 trillion in fossil fuel transactions, litigated 358 major cases on behalf of oil and gas corporations, and received nearly $35 million to lobby for fossil fuel interests. Notably, this represents a significant increase in fossil fuel work from a prior 2020 report — meaning that even as the existential nature of the climate crisis grows more horrifyingly apparent, top corporate lawyers are choosing to double down on legal work that directly increases emissions, blocks climate action, and shields corporate polluters from accountability.
Politicians, financiers, insurers, economists, and members of other professions have rightly become the targets of condemnation and escalating pressure over their roles in promoting climate deception and supporting fossil fuel extraction. Yet the elite lawyers and law firms that oil and gas companies depend on are not yet receiving the same level of criticism.
Consider Ted Boutrous, a partner at the firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who revels in portraying himself as a Trump-opposing liberal on #Resistance Twitter. Boutrous’s firm has represented the Dakota Access Pipeline in litigation since 2016, and Boutrous himself represents Chevron in lawsuits across the country that — like earlier litigation against Big Tobacco and members of the opioid-profiteering Sackler family — seek to hold the oil giant accountable for deceiving the public about the climate disasters its leaders knew their products would cause. Representing Chevron, Boutrous said recently, was an “easy call” — indeed, he stressed that although he has the flexibility to decline potential clients and cases, Chevron “[is] a great American company that is litigating issues that I think we are absolutely on the right side of.” Does anyone really believe Boutrous’s advocacy for Chevron — one of the very largest climate polluters on earth — is motivated by a sense of justice?
Boutrous’s comments also illuminate the absurdity of the primary defense these firms use for their indefensible conduct — that “everyone deserves a lawyer.” That is profoundly disingenuous. The truth is, there is no right to counsel in our civil legal system. Some people do truly find themselves in desperate need of a civil attorney: A 2017 study found that 86 percent of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans were met with inadequate or no legal help. In the midst of this honest-to-god crisis in civil legal aid, which forces millions of Americans to face life-changing judicial consequences without any professional representation, hearing millionaire lawyers use the “right to counsel” line to justify working for the most powerful and well-represented corporations on the planet feels like a sick joke.
Lawyers, particularly elite lawyers, have a choice in the work they take on. The Law Students for Climate Accountability report shows that over the last four years, firms like Paul Weiss, which is representing ExxonMobil in 30 major cases in which the company is accused of exacerbating climate change; Allen & Overy, which facilitated over $125 billion in fossil fuel transactions; and Akin Gump, which was paid $6.78 million to lobby for oil and gas companies, have consciously chosen their own profits over humanity’s ever-narrowing chance at a livable future. That’s disgusting.
I reached out to the firms mentioned in this article to give them a chance to comment. Only Allen & Overy responded. It said that the firm does more work to facilitate renewable energy “than any other law firm in the world by most key measures” and that it has advised on hundreds of infrastructure projects aimed at “driving sustainability.”
That’s a frequent strategy — changing the subject. It’s great for firms to represent renewable energy companies. But doing so doesn’t neutralize the effects of helping lock in oil and gas pollution that will drive the average global temperature increase to cataclysmic levels.
Big law firms themselves know their work is never value-neutral. Consider the vitriolic condemnation many of these same voices (rightly) directed toward Rudy Giuliani for representing Donald Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. As Trump’s suits were being filed, legions of corporate attorneys called for Giuliani to be disbarred, showing recognition that lawyers do, in fact, have a degree of responsibility for the clients they choose to represent. But as repugnant as Giuliani’s behavior was, it’s not clear why helping a would-be fascist attack our democracy is morally or ethically worse than helping corporate polluters condemn countless children like mine, born in the smoke and flames of the Anthropocene, to a future of climate catastrophe.
The Giuliani cases also illustrate how game-changing it can be when lawyers hold themselves to a moral standard. Facing immense backlash for representing Trump’s campaign, elite law firms overwhelmingly refused to aid Giuliani’s efforts to overturn the election, and that made an enormous difference. It’s true that Trump’s suits were premised on fabricated evidence and fringe theories — but in this era of ideologically driven judicial decisions, plenty of cases using fringe theories and fabricated evidence succeed. What kept Trump’s election litigation from going very far in court was, in large part, the absolute ineptitude of its execution, because no competent lawyers were willing to touch it. As Trump himself is reported to have said, “None of the sane lawyers can represent me because they’ve been pressured.” Can you imagine the difference it would make if “none of the sane lawyers” were willing to abet corporate polluters?
The 2020 election was also not the first time lawyers faced social consequences for standing in the way of progress. As lawsuits against Big Tobacco multiplied in the 1990s, representing tobacco companies became so toxic that many top firms were forced to adopt policies allowing attorneys to decline their cases if they wished to do so. More recently, in the lead-up to the legalization of marriage equality, elite law firms overwhelmingly refused to take cases opposing gay marriages.
In a legal system like ours, the quality and quantity of representation that a party can bring to bear on a situation often determines its result. So it matters greatly that our nation’s most elite lawyers are using their legal firepower to help the fossil fuel industry maintain its stranglehold on our judicial and political systems.
The newest generation entering the legal profession is increasingly pushing to change this. In 2020, I helped organize a demonstration by about 30 students at Harvard Law School that shut down a Paul Weiss recruitment reception, to highlight the firm’s role defending ExxonMobil. Two weeks later, one-sixth of Yale Law School’s first-year class disrupted a second Paul Weiss reception, and law students at NYU and Michigan followed soon after, joining hundreds of their fellow law students across the country in pledging to boycott the firm. This organizing helped lead to the creation of Law Students for Climate Accountability, which this year delivered a letter signed by 88 law-student organizations to the headquarters of Gibson Dunn demanding the firm commit to a climate standard for its legal work.
Disrupting business as usual like this is still rare in the legal profession. But it is a hopeful sign that more and more young people are stepping up to insist that lawyers and firms have a moral responsibility to current and future generations. This moral responsibility is why so many of us chose to enter the legal profession in the first place — because we believe that the law can be a force for good and that our legal system does not need to remain overwhelmingly rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.
In law school, we are told again and again that the rule of law is a pillar of societal stability. Yet if that is to be the case, then the legal industry simply must confront the existential crisis now engulfing us. Doing anything less would constitute a betrayal of everything that is noble about our profession. And more important, it would represent the abandonment of a fundamental moral responsibility we have as human beings on this breathtaking and profoundly fragile planet we all share.
Aaron Regunberg served in the Rhode Island House of Representatives from 2015 to 2018 and now is a third-year student at Harvard Law School.