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How BigLaw Firms Stack Up On Climate Change Work

By Marco Poggio for

Three BigLaw firms received top grades from a law student group for avoiding representing fossil fuel companies, according to a report released Thursday that ranks the 100 largest U.S. firms based on their work on behalf of polluters. The bad news: 36 law firms received an “F.”

Cooley LLPSchulte Roth & Zabel LLP and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati PC were ranked “A” in the scorecard report from Law Students for Climate Accountability, which based its grades on the amount of money firms earned representing fossil fuel companies and trade groups associated with them over a five-year period. The report is in its second edition.

The three firms earned the highest grade for engaging in legal work in renewable energy while avoiding representing or lobbying for fossil fuel companies. The report assigned a “B” grade to nine firms and a “C” grade to 18.

But 88 of the ranked firms have done work that “worsened climate change,” according to the report, and received grades of “D” or “F.” Last year, fewer firms, 26, received an “F.”

How BigLaw Firms Were Graded on Their Fossil Fuel Work

Thirty-six of the 100 largest law firms in the U.S. received an “F” grade for their roles in supporting the fossil fuel industry, the biggest human-made contributor to climate change. Scores were based on the amount of money firms received as compensation from fossil fuel companies and associations representing them.

CooleySchulte RothWilson Sonsini
Boies SchillerFish & RichardsonIrellMintz
Drinker BiddleGunderson DettmerLittlerSeyfarth
Fenwick & West
Ballard SpahrFoley HoagKilpatrickWilliams & Connolly
BCLPFox RothschildKramer LevinWillkie Farr
Cozen O’ConnorFried FrankMcDermottWinston & Strawn
Davis WrightGoodwinProskauer
DebevoiseJenner & BlockSheppard Mullin
Alston & BirdDentonsKattenReed Smith
Arent FoxDLA PiperLocke LordRopes & Gray
Blank RomeDuane MorrisMorrison & FoersterTroutman Pepper
CadwaladerFoley & LardnerNixon PeabodyVenable
Cahill GordonGreenberg TraurigO’MelvenyWachtell
ClearyHaynes and BoonePaul HastingsWeil
CovingtonHolland & KnightPerkins CoieWilmerHale
Davis PolkHughes HubbardPillsbury
DechertJones DayQuinn Emanuel
Akin GumpFreshfieldsMayer BrownSidley
Allen & OveryGibson DunnMcGuireWoodsSimpson Thacher
Arnold & PorterHogan LovellsMilbankSkadden
Baker & HostetlerK&L GatesMorgan LewisSquire Patton Boggs
Baker BottsKellogg HansenMunger TollesSteptoe & Johnson
Baker McKenzieKing & SpaldingNorton Rose FulbrightSullivan & Cromwell
Clifford ChanceKirklandOrrickSusman Godfrey
CravathLathamPaul WeissVinson & Elkins
Crowell & MoringLinklatersShearman & SterlingWhite & Case

Source: Law Students for Climate Accountability

Michaela Anang, a student at the University of California, Davis School of Law who led the group in compiling the report, said that the top grade doesn’t mean absolute approval, but rather reflects the efforts of certain law firms in considering the impact on the climate while choosing their clientele.

“Firms are able to take on any client. That is their choice,” Anang said. “We want to hold firms accountable for their fossil fuel industry work.”

Peter Werner, co-chair of Cooley’s global emerging companies and venture capital practice group, told Law360 Pulse in an email the firm was “thrilled” to receive a high mark from the students.

“It’s a reflection of our incredible client base, including many companies outside of the energy industry, that are incorporating environmental responsibility into their businesses at many levels,” Werner said. “We’re thankful that law students see the value in supporting clients that understand this responsibility and we believe that combating the climate crisis will only become a more central focus of companies everywhere.”

From 2016 to 2020, BigLaw handled $1.36 trillion in transactions of behalf of the fossil fuel industry, up from $1.31 trillion recorded between 2015 and 2019, the report says.

The report deemed Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison LLP the “worst” firm for fossil fuel litigation, with 30 cases litigated on behalf of polluters from 2016 to 2020 — eight times the average. The firm litigated more fossil fuel cases than 60 Vault 100 firms combined, the report says. Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Latham & Watkins LLP, Sidley Austin LLP and Baker Botts LLP followed right after.

Allen & Overy LLP was singled out for handling $126 billion in fossil fuel transactions during the same time period, followed by Clifford Chance LLP, Latham & Watkins LLP, Vinson & Elkins LLP and White & Case LLP.

The report noted Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP for the nearly $7 million it made in five years lobbying for the fossil fuel industry. Hogan Lovells, Squire Patton Boggs LLP, Steptoe & Johnson LLP and McGuireWoods LLP followed in that list.

Adrian Walker, global head of Hogan Lovells’ environmental, social and governance practice, said the firm helps people “build more sustainable business models” and has supported hundreds of companies in advancing their agendas across all areas of the United Nations‘ Sustainable Development Goals, including work on energy transition and climate change, environmental compliance and best practice, green finance, governance, diversity and social inclusion.

“Every industry sector has a key role to play, including the energy and natural resources sectors,” Walker told Law360 in an email.

“We take our impact on the climate seriously in a number of ways,” said Susan Bright, the firm’s global managing partner for diversity and inclusion and responsible business. “That includes our commercial work, our award-winning pro bono legal work including for the over 800 social enterprises we have advised in recent years on related issues. We are a signatory to UN Business Ambition for 1.5°C and Race to Zero and are committed to achieve net zero by 2030. We are also founder members of the Legal Sustainability Alliance.”

The other firms declined to comment.

But the report also showed some promising trends for the environment.

Lobbying on behalf of fossil fuel companies decreased from a collective $36.5 million last year to $35 million this year. Firms also increased renewable energy transactions from $268 billion to $347 billion and renewable energy lobbying from $6.6 million to $8.3 million, the report says.

In January 2020, dozens of students disrupted a Paul Weiss recruiting reception at Harvard Law School, calling for the law firm to drop Exxon Mobil as a client. Students at other law schools, including Yale, New York University and University of Michigan, also staged protests against the firm, and more than 600 students ultimately pledged to boycott Paul Weiss until the firm dropped Exxon as a client. Those protests galvanized law students to launch Law Students for Climate Accountability in October.

In April, the group launched a campaign singling out Gibson Dunn for its work representing Chevron and Energy Transfer Partners, which owns and operates the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline.

Law Students for Climate Accountability challenged BigLaw firms to sign a pledge to engage in legal work that supports the environment against climate change. That’s a piece in the puzzle that could earn a firm an A+ in the future, according to the report.

The report is also meant to help law students make informed decisions about where they aspire to work, said Anang, who is pursuing a combined law degree and doctorate in geography.

“[Law] is not a neutral field. It has a certain set of ideals and systems that we are allowed to interrogate,” Anang said. “I think it’s important for us as students.”