Law Students For Climate Accountability, Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard:
When future generations look back at the origins of the climate crisis, they will see that too many law firms were on the wrong side of history. Law firms constitute an indispensable pillar of support for the fossil fuel industry. When fossil fuel companies want to build new pipelines and refineries, law firms write the contracts and advise the project financing. Law firms lobby public officials to roll back environmental regulations and give tax breaks to polluters. And when fossil fuel companies face lawsuits seeking to hold them liable for violating laws and damaging communities, law firms work to get them off the hook in exchange for substantial legal fees.
The 2020 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard is the first to detail the scale of top law firms’ role in the climate crisis. Using the best data available, the 2020 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard analyzes litigation, transactional, and lobbying work conducted by the 2020 Vault Law 100 law firms—the 100 most prestigious law firms in the United States—from 2015 to 2019. Each firm receives an overall Climate Score reflecting its contribution to the climate crisis based on the data in these three categories. ...
This report shows that Vault 100 firms lend their services to clients engaged in expanding fossil fuel dependence and exacerbating climate change far more than clients working to mitigate climate change. From 2015 to 2019:
- Vault 100 firms worked on ten times as many cases exacerbating climate change as cases addressing climate change: 286 cases compared to 27 cases.
- Vault 100 firms were the legal advisors on five times more transactional work for the fossil fuel industry than the renewable energy industry: $1.3 trillion of transactions compared to $271 billion of transactions.
- Vault 100 firms lobbied five times more for fossil fuel companies than renewable energy companies: for $36.5 million in compensation compared to $6.8 million in compensation.
Of the Vault 100 firms, only four firms receive an A Climate Score, while 14 receive a B, 15 receive a C, 41 receive a D, and 26 receive an F.
While these Climate Scores show that the Vault 100 firms as a whole are in need of significant improvement, some firms contribute far more to the climate crisis than others. Within the Vault 100 rankings, individual firms differ significantly in the scale of their contribution.
As this report elucidates, law firms are not neutral actors. The Vault 100 firms have no shortage of clients to choose from, and too many have chosen the side of the actors destroying humanity’s chance to avert the climate crisis. The firms included in this report often defend their reputations by pointing to their pro bono work and sustainability projects. While these efforts are valuable, firms’ work on behalf of paying clients holds much more significance in the fight against climate change. No Vault 100 firm dedicates more than 11% of its billable hours to pro bono clients,  and most dedicate substantially less.
However, this report also acknowledges the role law firms can and do have in mitigating the climate crisis. Firms are graded based not only on their contributions to the fossil fuel industry, but also their support of the renewable energy industry and their litigation to mitigate climate change. We factor in this positive work to illustrate a path forward for law firms that seek to affirmatively fight climate change through their work.
The legal industry needs to fully address its role in the climate crisis. We hope this report will assist a wide range of individuals involved in the legal industry and help the legal industry begin the process of reckoning and change.
First, this report provides law students and young lawyers with a resource when deciding on their current and future employment. We cannot ignore the role of law firms in exacerbating the climate crisis, and this report is another step in raising consciousness of how our employment choices shape the world. We, the next generation of lawyers, can choose what firms to work for and where to spend our careers. We can ask law firms how they plan to address their role in the crisis and hold them accountable to do so.
Second, we hope this report will spur change in the Vault 100 firms themselves. Vault 100 firms undoubtedly provide excellent representation. These firms could use their extraordinary skills to accelerate the transition to a sustainable future, but too many are instead lending their services to the companies driving the climate crisis. Law firms cannot maintain reputations as socially responsible actors if they continue to support the destructive fossil fuel industry. We hope that firms will recognize the need for change. Firms can take the Law Firm Climate Responsibility Pledge included in this report to agree to stop taking on new fossil fuel industry work, continue to take on renewable energy industry work and litigation to fight climate change, and to completely phase out fossil fuel work by 2025.
Third, this report calls upon clients of Vault 100 law firms, some of whom have their own commitments to mitigate climate change, to ensure their legal representation is as committed to fighting the global climate crisis as they are. We encourage law firm clients to review this report and insist the law firms they hire phase out support for the fossil fuel industry.
From schoolchildren taking to the streets to universities, investment funds, and banks shifting funding out of fossil fuels, all sectors of society are reckoning with their role in addressing climate change. It’s time for the legal industry to join them. This report should serve as a wake-up call for law firms to stop lending their services to the fossil fuel industry—and instead use their skills and power to fight climate change. This change will not happen overnight, but time is running out to prevent the worst effects of the crisis. This report is only the beginning.