Megan Graham, Production & Design Editor

Early Thursday morning, Yale Law School students launched the organization Law Students for Climate Accountability with the release of a scorecard evaluating top law firms’ roles in the climate crisis.

The 2020 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard gives each of the law firms listed in the Vault Law 100 — an annual list of the 100 most prestigious law firms in the country — a climate score between A and F. The scorecard is the first ever study of the role that top law firms play in the climate crisis, according to LS4CA co-founder Tim Hirschel-Burns LAW ’22. After analyzing tens of thousands of data points, the group’s report gave 26 firms a climate score of F, while 41 received a D, 15 received a C, 14 received a B and only 4 firms received an A.

The report also concluded that the top 100 firms are doing significantly more litigation, transactions and lobbying for clients who exacerbate the climate crisis than for those who address it.

“This data really shows that the top law firms have chosen a side, and they’re placing themselves on the wrong side of history,” Hirschel-Burns said. “While there certainly are differences among the top 100 firms, the firms that are getting F’s and D’s are not firms that should be able to come to law schools and pitch themselves as socially-responsible actors.”

Hirschel-Burns said that the group of YLS students first began their work with February protests against the 10th-ranked law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison LLP’s ties to ExxonMobil.

He added that, while Paul Weiss, as the firm is colloquially known, is a “particularly egregious actor,” there are many other firms that also have deep ties to the climate crisis.

The scorecard report outlines three demands of law firms, according to Hirschel-Burns. First, it demands that firms stop taking on any new fossil fuel clients. Second, it demands that firms phase out their existing fossil fuel work by 2025. Finally, it also demands that firms engage in positive work to address the climate crisis.

“We are launching the Law Firm Climate Responsibility Pledge, that is inviting any firm out there –– whether it’s Vault 100 or otherwise –– to sign this pledge and commit to those three demands,” he said. “That’s our ask. Any firm that commits and pulls through will receive an A+ on future versions of the report.”

For Hirschel-Burns, this issue is reflective of the broader culture of law, where top law firms have become so institutionalized that they can present themselves as being socially responsible, when the data shows that they are “anything but.”

Law professor and former Dean of YLS Harold Hongju Koh told the News that this study obliges every law student, lawyer and law firm to ask themselves whether they are part of the climate change solution or problem.

“Many lawyers claim to work on a ‘taxicab principle,’ but in reality, lawyers are not taxicabs,” Koh wrote in an email to the News. “As the lawyers and law students who boycotted law firms over representation of the South African apartheid regime showed, a lawyer can always tell someone who does heinous things to take another cab. Even if everyone deserves a lawyer, not everyone deserves you.”

Part of the motivation for this report, Hirschel-Burns said, was to provide law students with more information about the firms they are looking to join. He said that most law students have flexibility as to which firm they join, and they want to find a firm that aligns with their values.

“It shouldn’t be difficult for law students to find an ethical law firm to work for,” Hirschel-Burns said.

Still, he added the main purpose of the report was to call out law firms –– and not law students –– for their role in exacerbating the climate crisis.

Law professor Douglas Kysar said that the report forces elite law firms to consider whether their professional services are contributing to the climate catastrophe.

“To be on the right side of history, it is no longer enough for law firms to green their offices,” Kysar wrote in an email to the News. “They must green their work.”

A total of seven YLS students and alumni are listed as leaders on the LS4CA website.

Julia Brown | julia.k.brown@yale.edu