Harvard Law School students protest Exxon Mobil’s law firm over defending fossil fuel interests

A group of Harvard Law School students on Wednesday shouted down speakers and stalled a campus recruitment dinner hosted by a major law firm that represents fossil fuel interests in climate change lawsuits.

Holding a banner reading “Drop Exxon,” more than two dozen students in blazers and ties chanted, “We won’t work for you if you work for them,” at recruiters from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, a law firm that employs more than 1,000 attorneys around the world.

“We have just a few years left to address the climate crisis. That means stopping corporate polluters from continuing to block climate action and evading accountability for their malfeasance,” said first-year law student Aaron Regunberg, amplified with a human microphone. “And what is the most critical tool these corporations use to get away with climate murder? It’s this right here.”

Law school recruitment dinners like these are usually high-end, low-key, genteel affairs, according to students. The venue for the Paul Weiss dinner was the Catalyst Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts, replete with an open bar, whole lobsters, and an ice sculpture, and more than 100 students were in attendance.

So a raucous protest like this served as a jarring new tactic to pressure greenhouse gas emitters: targeting the white-collar workers that protect them.

Paul Weiss has a reputation for siding with progressive causes. The firm helped reverse “separate but equal” in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case and paved the way for same-sex marriage by representing Edith Windsor in her challenge of the Defense of Marriage Act. In the 2018 election cycle, more than 93 percent of Paul Weiss donations went to Democrats.

But the firm also represents Exxon, the world’s largest investor-owned oil company, in a number of climate lawsuits filed by city and local governments. Many of the suits allege that Exxon has created a public nuisance with its products by exacerbating problems like sea level rise that threaten coastal cities.

The message mirrors that of the recent global wave of youth-led climate activism, with students around the world going on strike from school to protest inaction on climate change. It also echoes the climate divestment movement at Harvard that’s pushing the school to withdraw its nearly $40 billion endowment from fossil fuel holdings.

There are nearly 2,000 students at Harvard Law, so the protesters on Wednesday represented a tiny slice of the student body. But given the prestige of one of the top-ranked law schools in the country, the demonstrators are hoping to inspire other law students to factor climate change into their career decisions. Such a movement could force law firms to reconsider who they represent and make fossil fuel companies more willing to yield to legal pressure.

Local governments are suing fossil fuel companies. Law students want to pressure the firms defending them.

Campaigners said the legal sector is an easily overlooked element of the fight against climate change, which is why they want to draw attention to the institutions that protect some of the worst actors.

In particular, climate lawsuits have emerged as an increasingly popular way to try to hold fossil fuel companies to account for the impacts of their greenhouse gas emissions, although many of the suits are still underway and some have already been dismissed. One reason some cases have dragged on for so long is that the defendants have retained powerful legal representation, including firms like Paul Weiss.

With the protest Wednesday night at one of the country’s most prestigious law schools, some law students are hoping to chip away at that legal armor from the other side. Beyond pressuring Paul Weiss to drop Exxon as a client, protesters want their classmates to reconsider working for such a firm when they protect fossil fuel companies, thereby throttling their pipeline of elite talent.

Climate activists are also trying to change the culture of law school that routes graduates to corporate law firms

Activists said there’s a strong current drawing law school graduates toward elite law firms rather than public interest groups. Classes are often taught as abstract legal exercises rather than weighing real-world impacts. The school’s career services office is focused on placing graduates in corporate law firms. And law school debt, which can easily run into six figures, pushes students to look for high-paying jobs.

“I would describe the whole institution as a factory for the next generation of corporate lawyers,” said Kurt Walters, a third-year law student at Harvard.

The result is that most students abandon the idealism of their admissions essays when they type up their résumés as graduation approaches. The “public interest drift” among law students has been a long-running concern among some legal educators.

With the climate protest, activists are trying to build a counternarrative that there are values beyond what’s taught in school that must be considered, both by students and by the firms that hire them. And they say student-led pressure campaigns have worked before. Kirkland Ellis, the largest law firm in the world, abandoned forced arbitration clauses in its employment contracts with workers last year after a campaign by law students.

Major law firms also make value judgments about the clients they represent, sometimes declining to work with private prison companies, anti-LGBTQ rights campaigners, and tobacco companies. Some have turned down clients simply because they would bring bad publicity.

Exxon itself has shown that it considers litigation a serious threat. In 2018, Exxon went as far as to back a campaign for a carbon tax, with the provision that it would be granted immunity from lawsuits.

Students at Yale Law School and Boston University School of Law also voiced solidarity for the protest at Harvard.

“I was proud to join in solidarity with the Harvard Law community at tonight’s historic action and look forward to spreading this critical movement to Boston University and other law schools to end the legal industry’s defense of our climate’s destruction,” Tyler Creighton, a second-year student at Boston University School of Law, said in a statement.

So the campaign to erode the legal bulwark around fossil fuels may only continue gathering strength.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a statement by a student.

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