Law firms under pressure to stop representing fossil fuel interests

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Keyes and an increasingly vocal group of law students across 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 lobbied the nation’s largest law firm. stop providing legal services to 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 highlighted the role law firms play in supporting the oil and gas industry. They hope to make it harder for companies to attract top legal talent and force them to stop profiting from global warming.

Harvard Law School student Amelia Keyes (right) at a November campus protest against Los Angeles-based law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher for representing oil giant Chevron Corp. Amelie Keyes

Last fall, in an effort to document the extent of law firm involvement in oil and gas interests, their group released a report which found that 88 of the nation’s 100 largest companies “have undertaken works that have aggravated climate change”.

Using publicly available databases, the report estimated that companies helped process $1.36 trillion in fossil fuel transactions between 2016 and 2020. Over the same period, it found that they represented oil and gas companies in 358 cases, while earning nearly $35 million through lobbying for fossil fuels. oil interests.

In a report card on the impact of business on the climate, students gave more than a third of them failing grades. These companies have worked on at least eight cases ‘exacerbating climate change’, backed more than $20 billion in fossil fuel deals, or earned at least $2 million through lobbying for fossil fuel companies, according to the report.

“Law firms must consider the fundamental role they play in this crisis,” the students wrote in the report. “It’s high time that every company adopted an ethical standard for its climate work and made it clear which side of history it wants to be on.”

At least a fifth of the companies noted in the report were founded or have offices in Boston. Of those with the deepest ties to the city, eight received Ds, including Ropes & Gray, Holland & Knight, Nixon Peabody, Greenberg Traurig and WilmerHale.

The Globe called or e-mailed lawyers for each of them; only two of the companies responded.

Attorneys at Ropes & Gray, which was founded in Boston in 1865 and now has more than 1,400 attorneys and other employees, argued the report misrepresented their work.

“The methodology used for this report paints a simplistic picture and, unfortunately, leads to misleading conclusions,” said Aaron Kellogg, a spokesperson for Ropes & Gray, which in 2020 made more than $2 billion in revenue. “He’s not trying to distinguish between very different customers.”

Allison McClain, spokeswoman for Nixon Peabody, insisted the Boston-based company strike the right 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 more than 700 lawyers since its founding in 1999, has helped companies develop a range of climate-friendly projects.

“We have a diverse client list 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 started two years ago at Yale and now has members at 55 law schools, said their methodology was fair and explained transparently in their report.

Students have had limited success so far. They received considerable attention for the protests they launched against the Los Angeles-based company Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which represented Chevron Corp. and Dakota Access Pipeline, and New York-based Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, which represents ExxonMobil.

More than 260 law students have signed a pledge to “eliminate the legal industry’s complicity in perpetuating climate change” and refuse to work for companies that represent the fossil fuel industry. But only 11 companies have signed a similar pledge pledging not to represent similar companies and affirming their responsibility in the fight against climate change.

Alisa White, a third-year student at Yale Law School and one of the group’s founders, said they spent more time organizing than getting students and businesses to sign their pledge. “We are sensitive to those who don’t want to do this,” she said, noting that some may choose to work at a big company but quietly urge them to take action.

One company that signed its pledge was the Boston Law Collaborative, which focuses on mediation and other forms of dispute 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 student campaign to efforts to stop the Vietnam War and urged his fellow lawyers to use their access to power to do “much more to counter this existential threat to humanity.

Hoffman also hosted a Zoom webinar this month to discuss how industry colleagues could help. “I’m embarrassed that I didn’t do it sooner,” he said during the webinar. “What we do can promote change.”

Other members of the city’s legal community were unwilling to join the students’ campaign.

Lisa Goodheart, a partner at Sugarman Rogers and former president of the Boston Bar Association, acknowledged that most law firms aren’t doing enough to fight climate change.

“There is no doubt that most law firms, like everyone else, could and should do more,” she said.

Yet, she says, asking lawyers to stop representing a class of clients is going too far.

“The idea of ​​blackballing a particular group by generally declaring them unworthy of representation by reputable attorneys doesn’t sit well with many,” she said. “This approach is likely to strike many lawyers as being in tension with the best traditions of our profession.”

But others noted that law firms choose who they represent all the time.

“For too long, the big law firms that hire the best and the brightest have been complicit in the oil and gas industry’s efforts to undermine climate science, shut down urgent climate policies and attack those working to avoid a climate catastrophe,” said Bradley Campbell, president. of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation. “Lawyers should lead, not hinder, climate solutions.”

Bill McKibben, the author and environmental activist, was encouraged by the students’ efforts.

“It’s incredibly inspiring to see the breadth of research done by this group. . . . 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 an event on campus to help other students shape their careers to “oppose the destruction of our environment. “.

She encouraged them to seek environmental justice rather than big paychecks.

“The companies that are marketed to us daily are the same companies that defend the fossil fuel companies that are directly responsible for horrific environmental disasters,” she said. “Nobody pays billable hours when we’re all dead because of a climate catastrophe.”


David Abel can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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