Law Students for Climate Accountability, 2021 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard

The Law Students for Climate Accountability recently published their “2021 Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard.”

This seems to be a really interesting resource for law students or lawyers who are concerned about climate change and other environmental issues and therefore would like to choose law firm employers with that in mind. The report only reviews large law firms that are profiled on the website vault.com. (My law firm days are so far in the distant past that I am no longer familiar with the various law firm ranking organizations.) Suffice it say though, the LS4CA scorecard seems to grade law firms on how responsible they are with respect to their work on climate/environmental issues, i.e. are they making things worse or helping to make things better on climate and the environment through their legal representations in litigation, transactions, and lobbying matters? The score card assigns law firms with grades ranging from A to F.

I would recommend this report to any of my students who care about the social responsibility of lawyers, especially those who are interested in an environmental law practice in a private law firm setting.

However, a closer examination also leaves me scratching my head. While I am not familiar with all of the law firms that are included in the scorecard (especially their practice specialties and strengths), the inclusion of some firms seems odd. (Of course, as I mentioned, I am not particularly close to private law firm environmental law practice these days.) For example, Wilson Sonsini (A) and Fenwick West (B) are big Silicon Valley firms that cater to a tech clientele; Littler Mendelson (B) is primarily an employment/labor law firm; Fish and Richardson (B) does primarily intellectual property/patent work. As far as I can tell, none of these firms have significant environmental law/climate change law practices, whether regulatory, transactional, or litigation-focused.

On the other end of the score card (grades D and F) are many of the firms that I think of as having major environmental law practices: Latham & Watkins, Morrison Foerster, Gibson Dunn, Perkins Coie, Pillsbury Winthrop, Arnold & Porter, Sidley Austin, etc. These firms have a group of very experienced environmental law practitioners and interesting work and could thus provide really valuable training for junior lawyers.

I didn’t look carefully at the study methodology, but there is no reason to think that the measures don’t reflect something problematic about the work of the ranked firms. However, maybe there is also something else going on, which may be more obvious — if one wants to practice environmental law in a large private/commercial law firm, it is very difficult to represent “green” interests/clients. Inherently in the nature of private lawyers being “hired guns,” environmental law practice in a private firm setting is going to skew overwhelmingly to the representation of polluters and organizations that use up/degrade natural resources. Those are the paying clients. Which is of course why most students who are committed to “green” causes end up doing NGO or government work. And it seems that the law firms that come out most positively with respect to the environment on the scorecard are the firms that don’t really do much environmental law work in the first place (at least not in a traditional environmental law practice).

So, maybe the take-away from the scorecard for aspiring young environmental lawyers is this — don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can do positive environmental/climate work at a traditional large law firm. OK, that’s probably overstating the point, but something like that is probably the bottom line. (OK, OK – this is also contrary to what I usually advise my students – that even in a large law firm/corporate environmental law practice, you can still do good for the environment by advising and directing your client toward the environmentally responsible course of action. However, this scorecard seems to suggest that there is a serious limitation to that kind of thinking.)

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