“Every year, Paul, Weiss holds receptions to recruit students like us – the future lawyers they need to stay on top of their field,” said first-year Harvard Law School student Carly Margolis. “But one thing you won’t hear them touting at these events is their representation of ExxonMobil – the corporation that has, according to climate leaders like Bill McKibben, ‘helped more than any other institution to kill our planet.’”
In the first action of its kind, and perhaps a harbinger of a new front in the youth climate movement’s campaign against the fossil fuel industry, 30 students at Harvard Law School disrupted a first-year student recruitment reception held by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, a corporate law firm of over 1,000 attorneys around the world. The law students’ message: “We won’t work for you as long as you’re working for ExxonMobil.”
Paul, Weiss is currently defending ExxonMobil against the public in at least a dozen cases related to the multinational oil and gas corporation’s role in damaging the climate. The firm’s tactics are extreme: the Attorney General of Massachusetts Maura Healey called Paul, Weiss “absurd” and “blatantly obstructionist.” And, student organizers argued today, the firm’s stance – that ExxonMobil did “absolutely nothing wrong” – is incompatible with a livable future.
As law students and firm partners mingled at the upscale reception with glasses of wine and hors d’oeuvres, a representative from Paul, Weiss began to address the room. Within seconds, a group of students unfurled a banner reading “#DropExxon” and began chanting over the firm’s speaker. “We, students of Harvard Law School, will not work for you as long as you work for ExxonMobil. Our future is on fire, and you are fanning the flames. If you want to recruit us, then drop Exxon and join us in fighting for a livable future.”
After continuing to fill the reception with chants and songs for 15 minutes, the law students left the room to rally with fellow students and community members who had come together outside the reception to show their support for the action. Among those outside were members of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, which staged a high-profile disruption at the Harvard-Yale football game in November.
“This is a do-or-die moment in human history,” said Aaron Regunberg, a first-year student at Harvard Law School and former Rhode Island state representative. “We have just a few years left to rein in corporate polluters and address the climate crisis. This firm’s enabling of corporations like Exxon to continue blocking climate action and evading accountability for their malfeasance is, simply put, not compatible with a livable future.”
Researchers have drawn parallels between tobacco companies’ efforts to delay dangerous health findings from smoking to the fossil-fuel industry’s response to climate change, involving “trotting out fake experts, promoting conspiracy theories and cherry-picking evidence.” As a result, several cities and states around the country are suing Exxon and other energy companies, seeking to hold them accountable for billions of taxpayer dollars spent on acclimating to a changing climate. A team of Paul, Weiss attorneys, led by “scandal guru” and member of Harvard’s highest governing board Ted Wells, recently fought to shield Exxon from liability in a trial over climate change disclosures in New York. Paul, Weiss is currently defending Exxon against the state of Massachusetts in a related #ExxonKnew lawsuit in Suffolk County Superior Court, just miles from the site of tonight’s action.
“Every year, Paul, Weiss holds receptions to recruit students like us – the future lawyers they need to stay on top of their field,” said first-year Harvard Law School student Carly Margolis. “But one thing you won’t hear them touting at these events is their representation of ExxonMobil – the corporation that has, according to climate leaders like Bill McKibben, ‘helped more than any other institution to kill our planet.’ Exxon knew the truth about climate change 35 years ago, yet they continued to pollute our planet and fund the decades-long campaign of deception and misinformation that led us to this moment of crisis. So we came today to send a clear message to the partners at Paul, Weiss that as long as they are working to shield the corporate polluters wrecking our climate, we won’t be working for them.”
I have a letter on my wall from this firm, demanding I secure all my emails in case they showed a conspiracy to hurt Exxon. Law students: if you would enjoy a career harassing activists and writers on behalf of the super-powerful, Paul Weiss is for you!https://t.co/nUT1jEY7uy— Bill McKibben (@billmckibben) January 16, 2020
“Before entering law school, I was a researcher at the International Arctic Research Center studying climate change. I came to law school because we must keep Alaska cold,” said first-year Harvard Law School student Lily Cohen. “Meanwhile, Paul, Weiss is making profits protecting the companies who have knowingly been working to make climate change worse.”
Hannah Perls, a third-year law student at Harvard, was excited to see new students stand up for change. “I’ve been at Harvard for almost three years, and in my experience, direct action like this is incredibly rare at our school, with some notable exceptions. The fact that students are overcoming the culture of complacency that dominates law school is truly a big deal, and gives me hope that real change is possible.”
Regunberg believes that the action was a successful first step toward addressing the legal industry’s role in the climate crisis. Student organizers point to previous examples of law school activism as proof that their tactics can work. Last year, a law student-led organization called the People’s Parity Project was successful in compelling Kirkland Ellis, the largest law firm in the world, to stop forcing its employees into coercive arbitration agreements.
The organizers of this action plan to continue their campaign for Paul, Weiss to #DropExxon, and say they look forward to welcoming more law students to join the fight. Students at other law schools are already getting involved. Tyler Creighton, a second-year student at Boston University School of Law, said, “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.” Karen Anderson, a co-chair of the Yale Environmental Law Association, said, “We join the Harvard Law community in their call for Paul, Weiss to drop their representation of Exxon, rather than enable continued public deception and profit from mass climate suffering.”
“It’s often said that law students are some of the most cautious people around, since our reputations are established right away,” says Amy Frieder, a first-year student at Harvard Law School, “But we’re here today, standing up and taking this risk because we know we can’t address the climate crisis without dismantling the institutions that shield the fossil fuel industry from accountability for the harm they’ve caused. And as the future lawyers Paul, Weiss depends on to recruit, we believe we are actually in a position to do something about it.”
[From a press release]