Top law firms taking on more fossil fuel work as planet warms - report

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A view of the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, U.S., May 15, 2021. REUTERS/Kathleen Flynn

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  • Law student scorecard flunks 36 law firms based on their clients' climate change impacts
  • Report found U.S. firms increased litigation, transactional work for fossil fuel companies

Aug 19 - Despite mounting concerns over climate change, U.S. law firms are handling ever more deals and litigation for the fossil fuel industry, according to a law student group that aims to name and shame firms for their work on behalf of polluting companies.

The second annual scorecard report from Law Students for Climate Accountability doles out more failing grades to Vault Law 100 firms than it did last year.

The organization on Thursday flunked 36 law firms based on the litigation, transactions and lobbying they handled for fossil fuel companies between 2016 and 2020. Last time the organization gave failing grades to 26 law firms for their work between 2015 and 2019.

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"Communities most affected by climate catastrophe have made it clear that critical consciousness and action for environmental justice are imperative and past due," Michaela Anang, a student at UC Davis School of Law and the report's lead researcher, said in a statement.

Anang said she hopes the report "will be one tool for law students and professionals to challenge the continuing complicity of the legal field, and commit ourselves to do better."

Law Students for Climate Accountability, founded in 2020 by a group of Yale Law students, now counts board members from seven law schools, including Yale, Harvard, Stanford and the University of Alabama.

As part of its scorecard report, the group invites firms to pledge to not take on any new work to support the fossil fuels industry and to phase out current work by 2025. Law students are asked to pledge to not work for poor-scoring firms if their financial and personal circumstances permit.

The effort is part of a continuing trend of law students confronting law firms over their values. Student-led groups have also challenged firms over arbitration policies that could make it hard for associates to sue for sexual harassment, and called out firms that represented former President Donald Trump in his re-election bid.

The climate scorecard report comes days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that global warming is close to spiraling out of control.

Law Students for Climate Accountability found that U.S. law firms handled $1.36 trillion in deals for the fossil fuel industry between 2016 and 2020 and litigated 358 cases that stand to exacerbate the effects of climate change.

Those numbers are both up from last year's scorecard, though fossil fuel supportive lobbying took a dip between the two reports. Between 2016 and 2020, Vault Law 100 firms earned $34.9 million from lobbying on behalf of fossil fuel companies, down from $36.5 million for the five-year period starting in 2015, according to the report.

The 36 U.S. law firms that received an F either worked on a net eight or more lawsuits that exacerbated climate change; worked on more than a net $20 billion in deals for the fossil fuel industry; or received more than a net $2 million for lobbying on behalf of fossil fuel companies. A low grade in one category can sink a firm's overall score.

This year's report singles out Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; and Allen & Overy as the worst offenders in terms of litigation, lobbying and transactional work, respectively. Representatives for Akin Gump and Paul Weiss did not respond to requests for comment.

An Allen & Overy spokesperson objected to its depiction in the report, saying it does "more renewables work than any other law firm in the world by most key measures and top[s] the league tables for solar and renewables work."

Only three Vault Law 100 firms received an A, indicating that the organization found they did no litigation, lobbying or transactional work that would exacerbate climate change or benefit the fossil fuel industry. The three firms named in that category are Cooley, Schulte Roth & Zabel, and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.

The report is a reflection of Cooley's client base, Peter Werner, co-chair of Cooley's global emerging companies and venture capital practice group, said in a statement.

"We’re thankful that law students see the value in supporting clients that understand this responsibility and we believe that combatting the climate crisis will only become a more central focus of companies everywhere," Werner said.

(This story has been updated with statements from Allen & Overy and Cooley.)

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David Thomas reports on the business of law, including law firm strategy, hiring, mergers and litigation. He is based out of Chicago. He can be reached at d.thomas@thomsonreuters.com and on Twitter @DaveThomas5150.