The world’s biggest corporate law firms have been making millions of dollars representing fossil fuel companies but, as the climate crisis intensifies, this work is coming under increasing scrutiny.
Over the last five years, the 100 top ranked law firms in the US facilitated $1.36tn of fossil fuel transactions, represented fossil fuel clients in 358 legal cases and received $35m in compensation for their work to assist fossil fuel industry lobbying, according to a “climate scorecard” published in August.
The scale of law firms’ work for the fossil fuel industry is huge, said Tim Herschel-Burns, a third year student at Yale Law School and co-founder of Law Students for Climate Accountability, which developed the scorecard. “As we started digging we realised how holistic this is. Everything fossil fuel companies want to do, they need lawyers to accomplish.”
Fossil fuel companies rely heavily on armies of lawyers to advise on projects, lobby, negotiate contracts, secure permits and navigate an increasing number of climate lawsuits. Law firms’ fossil fuel industry work has increased compared with the previous year’s scorecard, even as climate warnings become more dire and the International Energy Agency has warned new fossil fuel development is incompatible with the target of net zero emissions by 2050.
The climate scorecard awarded firms grades based on their involvement in lawsuits “exacerbating climate change”, their support for fossil fuel transactions and fees received for lobbying on behalf of the fossil fuel industry.
Paul Weiss, a top 10 US firm according to Vault Law’s rankings, was one of 37 to receive the lowest F grade. The firm, which has its own sustainability practice, has acted for fossil fuel companies in 30 cases over the last five years, according to the scorecard. Among the most high-profile was the firm’s work representing ExxonMobil in a landmark trial where the company was accused of having misled investors about the risks of climate change to its business. The court ruled in favour of Exxon in 2019. Paul Weiss did not respond to a request for comment.
Only 12 law firms were rated an A or B in the scorecard, which meant they did not conduct work for fossil fuel clients. Three firms – Cooley; Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati; and Schulte Roth & Zabel – have actively addressed the climate crisis through renewable energy transactions, lobbying or pro-climate litigation, according to the scorecard report.
“We definitely agree that the law can be this force for good,” said Herschel-Burns. “But one thing that we found really striking is that overwhelmingly the top law firms are [representing] the wrong side of it.”
There’s a tangible human cost, said Alyssa Johl, legal director for the Center for Climate Integrity. “Elite law firms are representing the oil…
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