When recruiters from the nation’s top law firms come to Harvard Law School, they often boast about their pro bono work and efforts to promote environmental sustainability. But all too often, as they try to lure the coveted hires, they don’t discuss their clientele.
That’s a problem for law students like Amelia Keyes who worry about climate change and don’t want to work for a firm that represents the fossil fuel industry.
“Most of my classmates would pause at taking a job at Exxon, but they’ll go and work for law firms that help Exxon or similar companies avoid regulations and accountability,” said Keyes, a second-year law student at Harvard. “There’s a big disconnect there. Law firms are the enablers and supporters of that harm.”
Keyes and an increasingly vocal group of law students around the country are trying to change that.
Shortly after moving to Cambridge, she joined a growing campus movement called Law Students for Climate Accountability, which has been pressing the nation’s top law firms to stop providing legal services for fossil fuel interests.
Inspired by other youth-led climate movements, such as the increasingly successful campaign to pressure universities and other institutions to stop investing in fossil fuel companies, these students have been casting light on the role that law firms play in supporting the oil and gas industry. They hope to make it harder for the firms to attract top legal talent and compel them to stop profiting from global warming.
Last fall, in an effort to document the extent of law firms’ involvement with oil and gas interests, their group issued a report that found 88 of the nation’s top 100 firms “undertook work that worsened climate change.”
Using publicly accessible databases, the report estimated the firms helped process $1.36 trillion in fossil fuel transactions between 2016 and 2020. Over the same time period, it found they represented oil and gas companies in 358 cases, while earning nearly $35 million from lobbying for fossil fuel interests.
In a report card on the firms’ impact on the climate, the students gave more than a third of them failing grades. Those firms worked on at least eight cases “exacerbating climate change,” supported more than $20 billion in fossil fuel transactions, or earned at least $2 million from lobbying for fossil fuel firms, according to the report.
“Law firms must reckon with the fundamental role they play in this crisis,” the students wrote in the report. “It is past time that each firm adopts an ethical standard for its climate work and makes clear which side of history it wishes to be on.”
At least one-fifth of the firms graded in the report were either founded or have offices in Boston. Of those with the deepest ties to the city, eight received D’s, including Ropes & Gray, Holland & Knight, Nixon Peabody, Greenberg Traurig, and WilmerHale.
The Globe called or e-mailed lawyers at all of them; just two of the firms responded.
The lawyers at Ropes & Gray, which was founded in Boston in 1865 and now has more than 1,400 lawyers and other employees, said the report misrepresents their work.
“The methodology used for this report gives a simplistic picture and, unfortunately, leads to misleading conclusions,” said Aaron Kellogg, a spokesman for Ropes & Gray, which in 2020 earned more than $2 billion in revenue. “It does not try to distinguish among very different clients.”
Allison McClain, a spokeswoman for Nixon Peabody, insisted that the Boston-based firm strikes the appropriate balance.
“Our annual volume of work for renewable and sustainable clients exceeds the amount of work we provide to fossil fuel companies,” she said.
She added that Nixon Peabody, which has grown to more than 600 attorneys since its merger in 1999, has helped companies develop a range of climate-friendly projects.
“We have a diverse client roster, and we recognize that every organization, including ours, has a role to play in mitigating the effects of climate change,” she said.
The founders of Law Students for Climate Accountability, which began two years ago at Yale and now has members at 55 law schools, said their methodology is fair and transparently explained in their report.
The students have had limited success so far. They’ve received considerable attention for protests they launched against the Los Angeles-based firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which has represented Chevron Corp. and the Dakota access pipeline, and the New York-based firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which represents ExxonMobil.
More than 260 law students have signed their pledge to “eliminate the legal industry’s complicity in perpetuating climate change” and refuse to work for firms that represent the fossil fuel industry. But only 11 firms have signed a similar pledge vowing not to represent similar companies and affirming their responsibility to address climate change.
Alisa White, a third-year student at Yale Law School and one of the group’s founders, said they have spent more time on organizing than prodding students and firms to sign their pledge. “We’re sensitive to those who don’t want to do that,” she said, noting that some may choose to work at a big firm but quietly press them to act.
One firm that did sign their pledge was the Boston Law Collaborative, which focuses on mediation and other forms of conflict resolution, whose founding member made a New Year’s resolution to do more to protect the environment.
In a blog post on the firm’s website, David Hoffman, who is also a lecturer at Harvard Law School, compared the students’ campaign to the efforts to stop the Vietnam War and urged fellow lawyers to use their access to power to do “far more to counteract this existential threat to humanity.”
Hoffman also hosted a Zoom webinar this month to discuss how colleagues in the industry could help. “I’m embarrassed I didn’t do this sooner,” he said during the webinar. “What we do can promote change.”
Others in the city’s legal community haven’t been eager to sign on to the students’ campaign.
Lisa Goodheart, a partner at Sugarman Rogers and a past president of the Boston Bar Association, acknowledged that most law firms aren’t doing enough to address climate change.
“There’s no doubt that most law firms, like everyone else, could and should do more,” she said.
Still, she said, asking lawyers to stop representing a category of clients goes too far.
“The idea of blackballing any particular group by declaring as a flat rule that they are unworthy of being represented by reputable attorneys doesn’t sit well with many,” she said. “That approach will probably strike many lawyers as being in some tension with the best traditions of our profession.”
But others noted that law firms make choices all the time about who they represent.
“For too long, major law firms recruiting the best and the brightest have been complicit in the oil and gas industry’s efforts to undermine climate science, stop urgently needed climate policies, and attack those working to avert climate catastrophe,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group. “Lawyers should be leading, not impeding, climate solutions.”
Bill McKibben, the author and environmental activist, has been heartened by the students’ efforts.
“It’s incredibly inspiring to see the depth of research this group has done. . . and even more moving to see them willing to make real personal sacrifices to push their profession in the right direction,” he said.
Among them is Jessica Rahmoune, a second-year law student at Boston University, who recently led a campus event to help fellow students shape their careers to “stand against the destruction of our environment.”
She encouraged them to seek environmental justice more than big salaries.
“The firms that are marketed to us on a daily basis are the same firms defending fossil fuel corporations that are directly responsible for horrifying environmental disasters,” she said. “No one is paying billable hours when we’re all dead from a climate disaster.”
David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.