Yale Daily News

Last month, Law Students for Climate Accountability, a national network of law students founded in 2020 by seven Yale Law School students, released its second climate scorecard which assesses top law firms’ roles in the climate crisis.

The scorecard gave each of the firms listed in the Vault Law 100 — an annually-released list of the 100 most prestigious law firms in the country — a climate score between A and F. A total of 36 firms received a grade of F, while only three received an A. The group’s report revealed that the top 100 firms facilitated $1.36 trillion in fossil fuel transactions, marking a $50 billion increase from last year’s report. It also found that the top 100 firms litigated a total of 358 cases for fossil fuel clients in the past five years, compared to 275 cases from last year’s report. 

“In very real terms, these are law firms that are using their skills to build refineries that pollute communities of color, or to increase the pipelines and drilling that create emissions which are causing the climate-related disasters we’ve seen this summer,” co-founder of the organization Tim Hirschel-Burns LAW ’22 told the News. 

Hirschel-Burns emphasized the increase in the top law firms’ involvement with fossil fuel transactions, which often involved projects such as building pipelines, refineries and drill sites.  

He also commented on the firms’ increased involvement with fossil fuel litigation. The litigation includes helping fossil fuel companies obtain permits for new pipelines as well as representing the companies in lawsuits about climate misinformation, according to Hirschel-Burns.

“Now more than ever, all sectors of society need to contribute to the urgent fight against climate change,” co-founder of LSCA Rachael Stryer LAW ’22 wrote in a press release. “Our future is on the line, and the fact that so many top law firms have chosen to expand their fossil fuel work shows how desperately out of touch they are with the next generation of lawyers.”

LSCA designed its scoring system to reflect the principles of climate justice and a “just transition,” which refers to the shift from an “extractive economy to a regenerative economy.” Each firm in the Vault 100 received a litigation score representing how many cases which exacerbate climate change were litigated by the firm between 2016 and 2020. The firms also received a transaction score based on the value of the transactional work the firm did for the fossil fuel industry between 2016 and 2020, as well as a lobbying score based on the sum of lobbying compensation the firm received during that time frame. These three scores were then combined using an algorithm to produce the overall climate score in the scorecard.

Since LSCA was founded last year, the group has focused on expanding its reach nationally. According to Hirschel-Burns, they have worked with students from over 50 law schools across the country and have created a national board of law students dedicated to advocating for law firms to focus on climate responsibility. 

“We’re at crunch time, when we need every sector of our society doing all they can to help head off the deepest crisis humans have ever faced,” climate activist Bill McKibben said in the scorecard’s press release. “That big law has decided to fan the flames instead should make everyone angry — if the law is to be a pillar of societal stability it simply must come to grips with the crisis now engulfing us.”

Hirschel-Burns said that LSCA purposefully released their scorecard during law firm recruitment, which he said typically takes place in August, so that students have information about various firms’ climate impacts when making decisions about accepting job offers.

While he recognized that law students have many factors to consider about an offer — including financial concerns such as high levels of student debt — Hirschel-Burns said that the scorecard is especially useful when deciding between two very similar offers. Most law students, he said, would rather work at a firm that received a B than one that received an F when all else is equal.

“This scorecard covers the top 100 ranked law firms,” Hirschel-Burns said. “Those of course aren’t the only legal career options available to students. There are a lot of firms that are taking the climate crisis seriously, especially smaller firms… A lot of the recruiting focuses on Vault 100 firms, but there are other options out there who are really demonstrating leadership.”

According to the Law School’s most recent employment report, of the students in the class of 2020 who accepted a job offer from a law firm after graduation, 83 percent of them were from law firms with over 500 employees.

Julia Brown served as University Editor on the Managing Board of 2023. Previously, she covered the University's graduate and professional schools as a staff reporter. She graduated cum laude from Yale University with a B.A. in Economics & Mathematics.