Right now, law students across the country are making major decisions about their careers. Each summer, they overwhelmingly apply to big law firms to secure summer internships or job offers. Students are interviewing with scores of the biggest firms and researching those firms’ cultures, clients, and conduct.
But this is no ordinary summer: After months of record-breaking heat nationwide and devastating extreme weather, the climate crisis is commanding students’ attention as they confront their futures—and also amid growing disillusionment with the US Supreme Court’s legitimacy. Already we’ve seen law students express their discontent with the legal field’s support of fossil fuel companies.
We owe such action to our generation and those to come. But while many students go to law school intending to pursue careers that fight these crises, they are often weighed down by pressure from career offices, massive law school loans, and personal financial situations. Big law presents itself as the solution: With a starting salary of over $200,000, joining a big law firm for a couple of years after law school often seems like an easy choice.
Yet the choice is morally fraught: At varying levels, big law firms are shirking their responsibility to assess the risks of the worsening climate crisis. Instead, many big law firms greenwash their practices, highlighting small sustainability goals while disregarding the damage they help their clients inflict. And while ESG initiatives promoting diversity or transparency are laudable, they in no way offset firms’ role in the fossil fuel industry’s exploitation of vulnerable communities and our planet’s natural resources.
Too often, firms’ ESG commitments are like addressing lethal heat waves by recycling more: far too little, far too late, and far too distant from the root of the problem.
In participating in summer recruitment, law students thus have a choice: They can either pursue work for a big law firm that’s substantively committed to a sustainable future, or a firm that intends to keep lining its pockets at the price of growing climate disasters.
It’s time for students to do their homework, read up on the biggest climate stories or environmental justice issues, and docket dive to see who’s doing the work. Then make a choice about where they’d like to work, and which firms they want to avoid.
Law students thus have a crucial role to play in changing the legal industry so it responds to, not exacerbates, the defining crisis of our time. But they must act now to influence a more ethical legal industry that helps accelerate the green transition and gives us the skills we need.
Students have a responsibility to research the work big law firms are doing, and to choose where they’ll spend their career wisely and ethically. Each year, Law Students for Climate Accountability releases a Scorecard that places big law firms on a scale from A to F based on a rigorous analysis of firms’ lobbying, transactional work, and litigation relating to the fossil fuel industry.
Given the billions they rake in from fossil fuel clients, most big law firms unsurprisingly receive a D or F rating. But there are also big law firms that have received an A and are actively taking steps to increase their scores and align their practices with environmental justice and climate accountability.
There are other steps outside of research. Students can share information about the difference between law firms when it comes to sustainable practices. They can also question a firm’s role in the climate crisis during law firm recruitment events and interviews. If law students join a big law firm, they can inquire about the firm’s climate change commitments and advocate for the firm to take stronger action to reduce its role in the climate crisis—and help stigmatize continued complicity.
In an era of deep ethical crisis at the very apex of our profession, some law students are feeling disillusioned about our field. Our choices have real and profound implications. We must engage critically with big law firms, and use our collective power to move the legal industry towards a just climate future.
This article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg Industry Group, Inc., the publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.
Jessenia Class is a 2L at Harvard Law and editor of Harvard Law Review. She is media co-chair of Law Students for Climate Accountability.
Aidan Bassett is a 2L at Georgetown University Law Center and media co-chair of Law Students for Climate Accountability.
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