Naomi Ages was happy to land at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in New York after graduating from law school at the University of Southern California in 2010.
The global financial crisis was still roiling the legal industry, and while some classmates saw their start dates deferred, she was able to start right on schedule at the firm where she worked as a summer associate. And while Ages went to law school with a goal to pursue public interest work, she wanted to return to the East Coast, and nonprofits and NGOs had few resources for cross-country recruiting.
It was only after she started looking for a job outside of Big Law, specifically in the area of environmental advocacy, that she realized her time at the firm might pose a challenge. While Ages ultimately landed a position as a legal adviser with Greenpeace International, her job search took her two years. She suspects the firm’s high-profile work successfully defending Chevron Corp. against multibillion-dollar pollution claims in Ecuador might have played a part in the delay.
“My best guess is that there was some skepticism. Doing a quick Google search would have revealed a lot,” she said. “But I don’t know if that’s specific to Gibson Dunn or any law firm.”
Some law school professors are concerned enough about the potential stigma that they are advising environmentally conscious students to weigh the consequences of a career stop at firms with a heavy roster of fossil fuel clients. Potential recruits, meanwhile, may be put off by certain firms’ aggressive tactics on behalf of their energy clients.
In spite of scientific predictions that climate change driven by human activity is likely to send global temperatures upwards by several degrees by the end of the century, survey data presents mixed messages over how salient the issue is for millennials.
That may be why Harvard Law School professor Richard Lazarus, an environmental law specialist, said he has yet to see students recoil from law firms that do energy work the way many rejected firms handling tobacco clients several decades ago.
“Energy work broadly defined, including representation of utilities and even major oil and natural gas companies, has not yet seemed to trigger that same reaction in students looking for private sector employment in the Big Law firms, which frequently have a very wide client base that include that industry among many others,” he said in an email.
There are exceptions, Lazarus noted. One, he suggested, is a firm like Hunton & Williams, which historically had a narrower client base and a deeper reliance on energy clients. The firm, now Hunton Andrews Kurth after a recent merger, also represents several coal industry players.
“Students do tend to identify coal more specifically as antithetical to their personal concerns with climate and sustainability and do seem to shy away from firms with significant practices representing the coal industry, or at least seek assurances they can avoid those clients,” Lazarus said.
Hunton Andrews emphasized that the recent merger created one of nation’s most diversified energy practices.
“In addition to our energy and environmental work on behalf of numerous industries, the firm is known for its focus in a number of key industry sectors—including financial services, real estate and retail/consumer products—and we are confident that we will continue to attract students from the nation’s top law schools,” the firm said in a statement.
Deborah Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford University, noted a growing number of firms have been highlighting the nonfossil fuel aspects of their energy work during campus recruiting visits, pushing their emerging “climate and energy” practices—often transactional practices aimed at getting renewable energy projects off the ground.
“They definitely tout it,” she said.
Sivas counsels her students to pay close attention to the client mix when being recruited, as it will have an impact both on their experience at a firm and on many students’ ultimate goal of landing a job in the public sector or with an NGO.
“I advise them to be discerning and really explore who a firm is representing and on what matters,” she said.
That’s important even when associates will likely have nothing to do with energy work that they might find distasteful. Ages worked for an environmental nonprofit after her first summer of law school and knew that she would be screened from Gibson Dunn’s energy practice. Instead, she worked on leveraged finance in the firm’s global finance department.
But even having those clients on the firm’s roster might limit the pro bono opportunities for young attorneys.
“They realize that if an energy company is a big client of the firm, it’s going to be much harder to do a thing that could be perceived as a business conflict, let alone a true legal conflict that involves adverse position,” Sivas said.
Indeed, Ages, who came from environmental advocacy and returned to the same field, devoted her pro bono energies to asylum efforts while at Gibson Dunn.
Her former firm, meanwhile, maintains that its continuing work for Chevron has had no ill effects on recruitment.
“Chevron is a great company and great client with a strong culture of social responsibility. We love working [with] them on so many important and cutting-edge matters,” global litigation co-chair Theodore J. Boutrous Jr. said in an email. “And as a result of many litigation successes for Chevron and others, our recruiting has never been stronger.”
Since the rise of the modern environmental movement of the 1960s and ’70s, law schools have been turning out graduates with interests in conservation, sustainability and fighting pollution.
But there have been ebbs and flows, and we’re now in the midst of an upturn, noted Sivas, who just finished reading applications to participate in the Stanford clinic.
“It was just really interesting the number of students who are saying, ‘I don’t have a big environmental background, but I can’t believe what [Ryan] Zinke, [Scott] Pruitt and [Donald] Trump are doing,” she said.
According to Sivas, while environmentally minded attorneys graduating law school in the ’70s flooded organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club, those entering the job market 10 years later had fewer opportunities. With the early crop of activists still in those plum NGO jobs, many attorneys—herself included—turned to law firms.
Now, renewed interest in public interest causes may be coinciding with expanded opportunities. Anecdotally, looking at her own Stanford class and her associate experience, Sivas said, those who were committed to the cause but wound up at Big Law firms have found a way out.
“Virtually all of them have left and gone to places like NGOs, teaching in the field, or government jobs,” she said.
Ages also suggested that some law firms have gained attention for particularly aggressive tactics in environmental litigation, potentially turning off environmentally minded attorneys as a result.
She pointed to a $900 million SLAPP suit that Kasowitz Torres Benson is pursuing on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners against Greenpeace—her employer—over the organization’s advocacy against the Dakota Access oil pipeline.
“They’re using law firms to silence protest. It’s a really troubling trend,” she said. “Had I been working in Big Law, it would have been disturbing.”
A spokesperson at Kasowitz Torres said the firm was still seeing strong interest from lawyers and law students looking to join the firm.
“Kasowitz represents a wide range of clients and interests and, in our experience, that variety attracts many of the most talented candidates,” the firm added. “Similar to other leading law firms, we have a number of significant energy company clients, but uniquely, we also are the firm that achieved the largest plaintiff settlement in the history of environmental litigation,” referring to a $300 million settlement in a case over polychlorinated biphenyl pollution in the vicinity of a Monsanto plant in Alabama from 2003.
In another high-profile ongoing matter, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison is representing Exxon as the company fights probes by state attorneys general over whether it misled consumers and investors on the subject of climate change.
The company and its lawyers have made the case that the AGs’ actions are politically motivated attacks on its free speech rights, and has successfully petitioned to depose governmental officials for plaintiffs in climate change-related lawsuits brought by California municipalities, a precursor to a potential lawsuit of its own. A federal lawsuit aiming to squelch the New York and Massachusetts investigations came up short in March, but the decision is currently under appeal. Other courts, including a Texas state judge, have been more receptive to the company’s arguments.
Ages, however, suggested that the litigation strategy serves to undermine the First Amendment and ultimately “weaponize” it for corporations.
“The new, more aggressive, litigation tactics are off-putting to many current students,” Lazarus said, specifically pointing to attacks on state AGs and environmentalists over their suits against industry.
“We may well see this fall that effect [on] the recruitment of those firms, should students who follow the issue broadcast more widely the role of those firms,” he added.
Representatives from Paul Weiss declined to comment on this story.
To be clear, firms like Paul Weiss, Gibson Dunn and other high-profile law firms representing other energy producers in the California climate fights have not been contesting the scientific reality of climate change. ExxonMobil and Chevron also acknowledge the risks of rising global temperatures linked to increased greenhouse gas production, and Exxon supports the Paris climate accord.
Attorneys engaging in outright climate change denial would be taking client advocacy a step too far, said Philadelphia attorney Steve Harvey, president of A Call to the Bar, which mobilizes lawyers to fight against the issue.
“We have an obligation as lawyers to do something affirmative about this issue. At the bare minimum, that means not misrepresenting the facts,” he said. “At this point, contending that climate change is not caused by greenhouse emissions from human activity— to me, there’s no reasonable basis for that argument.”
But the comments from Harvey—himself a former partner at Pepper Hamilton—point to a subtler tension for large firms that rely on powerful corporate clients to sustain their hard-fought positions in an increasingly competitive legal marketplace.
“I’m concerned that law firms could be induced in the pursuit of their own economic interest to take positions that are inimical to human society,” he said.