A new national student organization known as Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA) is putting pressure on the nation’s top-ranked law schools to gradually eliminate paths toward careers in fossil fuel representation and instead support those that foster a just and livable future for everyone.
The top 20 law schools in the U.S. News & World Report rankings have produced fossil fuel lawyers at more than three times the rate of the average legal institution, according to LSCA’s March report, “Fueling the Climate Crisis: Measuring T-20 Law School Participation in the Fossil Fuel Lawyer Pipeline.” The study points out that prestige in the field is often awarded to schools and individuals who advance climate injustice.
Institutions can alleviate influences that push students toward fossil fuel work by mitigating the amount of student debt; providing more informational resources regarding the corporate nature of such work; offering courses, clinics, and journals that advance students’ pursuits of careers in environmental law; and preventing fossil fuel lawyers from serving in law school governance or teaching courses, the study concludes.
Nathaniel Waldman and Jamie Smith, law students at New York University, are among the five lead authors of the study. Both say they joined LSCA after the organization released its 2022 scorecard that ranked Vault Law 100 Firms — the most prestigious law firms as ranked by peers — on their climate change impact. The March 2023 study expanded on this research by analyzing the law school origins of approximately 3,300 U.S. lawyers that have participated in fossil fuel work in significant ways.
“One of the main points that we try and drive home through Law Students for Climate Accountability is that 86 percent of low-income people are not able to find a lawyer to defend themselves in lawsuits.”
“In the context of several of the top schools pulling out of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, we wanted to use [this] moment to say we can reevaluate how we do rankings and incorporate moral, just transition work into how we evaluate schools — and we should do so, because we as a society need to work towards mitigating the climate crisis,” Smith says.
Not only is this work valuable for law students, but it’s also important for people of color. Waldman points to a 2017 study by the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force that finds Black Americans are 75 percent more likely to live in fence-line communities, or areas that produce hazardous waste.
“One of the main points that we try and drive home through Law Students for Climate Accountability is that 86 percent of low-income people are not able to find a lawyer to defend themselves in lawsuits,” Waldman says. “When we look at fossil fuel companies, every single company either has a lawyer on retainer or in-house lawyers. It’s very clear that it is much harder for [low-income] communities to fight back … when they don’t have the same access.”
Overall, the goal of LSCA is to shift the conversation around legal work so the practice isn’t viewed as neutral. While students can make a difference by becoming involved with LSCA and persuading their schools to divest from fossil fuel interests, the organization is especially focused on changing the legal institution as a whole and the systems that push students into work that exacerbates climate change. In the future, LSCA hopes to expand its research with this focus, Waldman says.●
This article was published in our July/August 2023 issue.