By Haley Czarnek. Haley served on LSCA’s first National Leadership Committee as a 3L at the University of Alabama, and graduated in May 2022. Haley has since begun developing their role as LSCA’s first National Director, and is excited to support the committee and student organizers as they build a movement to change the culture of the legal profession.

 

The legal industry benefits tremendously from a lack of transparency. The average person, certainly in the Global North but frequently beyond, has decent familiarity with oil giants like Chevron, Exxon, Shell, BP, and Saudi AramCo. Moreover, many people associate certain companies with specific catastrophes, such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. But even global behemoth Kirkland and Ellis is likely to be known by a relatively small section of the population, given the billions of dollars they rake in annually. Spectacularly bad press about Jones Day’s involvement with some of Donald Trump’s many legal cases stuck in the public eye more strongly than any other BigLaw representation I can recall—but it remains a multi-billion dollar firm.

Law firms are thus able to facilitate many hundreds of billions in fossil fuel transactions with little to no public scrutiny, in spite of the critical role lawyers play in the process of development and extraction. Many law firms also lobby for weaker regulations, and dozens of the largest firms in the world lend their litigation services to defend Big Oil’s profit margins in court, often against communities they’ve poisoned. Of course, this is all in addition to the oil majors’ sizable in-house teams. If every law firm in the world dropped their fossil fuel clients, those companies would still have better access to representation than most frontline communities that have been harmed by dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure—to say nothing of all those suffering from the present-day effects of climate change.

It might seem strange, then, that I belong to an organization, Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA), that is focused on getting firms to do exactly that: drop their fossil fuel clients. What’s the point, if those clients will always have representation anyways?

My organizing journey has its roots in Alabama’s labor movement, and I’ve been privileged to know incredible people who are fighting David-and-Goliath style battles every day. Of the many lessons I’ve learned from them, two are particularly relevant here. First, it matters how we do (and don’t!) use our labor. Workers that are very organized can use petitions, pickets, slowdowns, sickouts, and strikes, while even small groups can leverage whistleblowing to hold their management to account for malfeasance. In the legal profession, students can also play a potent role by collectively making it known that they care about their future and understand that firms’ fossil fuel work is endangering that future. Because the product that law firms sell is their talent, law students and associates have more leverage than many of them realize at present.

The second lesson that sticks out to me is the power of a supermajority. Good organizers don’t spend all their time talking to the most hostile segment of the group they’re engaging. Instead, they start by seeking out two categories of people: the individuals that are most primed to join them, and the leaders that are capable of bringing the largest number of people along. If they are successful at recruiting those two groups, hostilities are likely to soften, even if they don’t abate. Regardless, a supermajority can achieve big wins in spite of naysayers. And because the legal industry is incredibly gatekept and elite, a cultural shift is likely to ripple out to every hall of power. It is my firm belief that even this conservative and profit-driven profession can build a supermajority of people who are self-interested in a habitable world, and willing to not just turn down fossil fuels work, but also to tell their peers they shouldn’t spend their valuable time exacerbating climate chaos, either.

These are some of the principles that animate my work with LSCA. The organization grew out of protests in early 2020, with students at Yale, Harvard, NYU and Michigan showing up recruitment events hosted by Paul Weiss calling on them to #DropExxon, which has long been on the firm’s client list. It was unusual in such a risk-averse field and drew media attention, but to date, Paul Weiss has yet to respond.

Determined to keep momentum, a subset of the protestors decided to expand their focus and ultimately created the first Law Firm Climate Change Scorecard as part of a report that outlined the critical role that lawyers play in maintaining and expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. They decided to name the project Law Students for Climate Accountability, but at the time they chose the name, had no idea their work would go farther than that. After its publication in October 2020, the flurry of attention that resulted—drawing the eyes of reporters, academics, activists, and of course law students and lawyers—made it clear that this information was both crucial and not available elsewhere. Thus LSCA was born, and the original crew set out to find a group of student leaders from across the US to formalize the group and chart its course.

Around that time, I was beginning to think much more seriously about the scale of the climate crisis. I was born in California, and the state’s record-setting 2020 wildfire season made it clear to me that climate migration was already occurring, and not just in the Global South. I started to wonder incessantly about the fine line between habitable and uninhabitable land, and how many people were already living in that gray zone but still rebuilding, either out of love for their home or a lack of other options or both. I decided to organize a few virtual panels exploring climate migration, and that ended up being one of the best decisions of my life. It was through that little conference that I met Camila Bustos and Alisa White, both Yale Law students who were beginning to turn the Scorecard into a national organization. I eventually became one of LSCA’s inaugural student leaders, and spent that year working alongside more than a dozen other students to determine what, exactly, LSCA should be.

Over the course of the year, we worked to release a new Scorecard and make it an annual publication; we restructured our student committee and recruited new leaders; and we landed on our mission and vision:

LSCA activates and mobilizes the power of law students to transform the legal industry’s role from exacerbating climate injustice to meaningfully supporting a just transition away from fossil fuels. We aspire to move legal ethics and practice towards a just transition for our planet, in solidarity with frontline communities, to build an equitable and sustainable world in our lifetimes.

That year, we also successfully raised enough funds to expand our work and bring on our first staff person—which, I am incredibly privileged to say, ending up being me. It’s been a whirlwind journey developing my role alongside incredible colleagues who have become my friends. I deeply cherish our commitment to building an internal culture that is strong and supportive enough to counter the hegemonic forces in the legal industry that have long stymied progress in favor of profit. It is that commitment, I believe, that has kept us going for several years now, and has helped us connect with an ever-widening audience, including abroad.

Our strongest international interest has come from the UK, and with support from a number of academics and attorneys, we gathered together a group of students to replicate what the team was doing in the US. Last summer, they produced our first report on UK law firms, and six of those report authors have since stepped up to serve as our first UK student leaders. They are building connections with students and lawyers across the country, and we are excited to turn last year’s report into an annual production. We’re also working with a number of clinics to produce additional research that can be used to spur organizing, and have already had the chance to connect with a number of employees at major law firms. I have been heartened by the reception that our work has received in the UK, and believe our young and growing transcontinental movement is already making waves in the industry—but we need all the people power we can get.

If you’re a current or aspiring legal worker who values a consistent food supply; access to clean water; weather that doesn’t cause many thousands of excess heat deaths; and the prospect of a liveable world for future generations, I hope you’ll join us. Together, we can and will build an equitable and sustainable world in our lifetimes.