Earlier this week, Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA) released this annual Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard for the Vault 100 Law Firms which contained some rather disturbing results. The Scorecard concluded that “America’s most prestigious law firms have expanded their fossil fuel work,” thus “exacerbating climate change” at a time when concerns over global warming are intensifying.
The LSCA Scorecard grades law firms based on the amount of litigation, transactions and lobbying work they handled for fossil fuel companies between 2016 and 2020. In total, the LSCA flunked 36 firms for their performance on climate change and awarded a D to 34 others. As action items, the Scorecard recommends that students (if their circumstances permit) pledge not to work at law firms that support the fossil fuel industry, and at a minimum, question law firms about their commitment to sustainability during the interview process.
Though conventional wisdom within the legal profession holds that clients’ business choices shouldn’t matter because everyone is entitled to representation, I disagree. In today’s world, just as investors are demanding transparency on companies’ environmental, social and governance criteria including treatment of workers to guide investment decisions, law students are equally justified in understanding the business of their potential employers’ clients before deciding whether to invest their talent in that firm. So kudos to the LSCA for making the process more transparent.
Where the LSCA report falls short however is in its implicit assumptions and action items. For starters, to the extent that the LSCA report is intended to discourage big firms from representing the fossil fuel industry by threatening a diminished talent pool if they do, the initiative is unlikely to succeed. It’s one thing for law students to refuse to work for firms that don’t promote diversity or support pro bono or offer adequate work-life balance because these fixes don’t cost much. But as I well know from my tenure in the energy industry, fossil fuel companies are meat-and-potato clients for many large firms, readily paying those exorbitant rates without batting an eye. For that reason, I don’t see biglaw shutting down the gravy train with the fossil fuel industry any time soon.
Moreover, what the LSCA Report also doesn’t focus on sufficiently is the cost of compromise. Personal circumstances or not, lawyers should not readily share their value – the talent and the brainpower and passion that makes them special – to a law firm with clients that don’t share their values. I know it doesn’t seem that way when you’re staring down the nose of a $200,000 student loan, but trust me, those loans pale in comparison to what compromise will cost in the end.
Here’s the message that the LSCA report misses: Biglaw isn’t the only game in town. The fact that biglaw is fighting climate change so hard means that there are vast opportunities to be on the right side of history. Why spend your time fighting what biglaw does when you can take that talent and back the companies and the causes doing work that matters to you?
To me, that’s the absolute best part of law firm ownership. Yes, owning a firm means autonomy and work-life balance and for many lawyers, increased financial security. But starting a law firm is also a path to taking on causes and clients that matter, changing the world and leaving a legacy.
It doesn’t get any better than that.