By Karen Savage
Students at some of the nation’s top law schools are demanding that the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a top U.S. law firm, drop ExxonMobil as a client, saying they will not work for the firm until it stops defending the oil giant in climate change-related lawsuits.
The students have interrupted recruiting events at elite law schools including Yale, New York University, Harvard, and Michigan Law School in recent months. Organizers are encouraging fellow law students across the country to sign a pledge to not interview with or work for Paul, Weiss, until the firm ends its relationship with Exxon.
"We're not saying death to Paul, Weiss, we're just asking the people who work at this firm to come on our side and help us fight for a livable future instead of representing companies like Exxon,” said Angela Liao, a first-year student at Yale.
“We students at Michigan Law School will not work for you as long as you work for ExxonMobil,” students said in unity shortly after unfurling a banner that read #DropExxon at a reception sponsored by Paul, Weiss, which the firm held last month in Ann Arbor.
Elite law school students are heavily recruited by big firms like Paul, Weiss, “which gives us a position of privilege and power that many people don’t have,” Liao said. The growing protest movement hopes to encourage students, as well as attorneys currently working at Paul, Weiss, to use that privilege not just for personal gain, but for the betterment of all, she said.
Their protest could have real consequences for the firm. About 29 percent of law school students are hired through on-campus recruiting events, according to James G. Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a research organization that advises law schools, students, lawyers and legal firms.
"The large law firms are still, for the most part, recruiting through the on-campus interview programs,” Leipold said. “They're exercises in building relationships, building brand, and trying to distinguish their firm.” He added that campus receptions like those interrupted by the student protests are preludes to more formal on-campus interview programs.
In 2019, Paul, Weiss employed just over 1,000 attorneys who worked in eight offices across the globe. The firm took in about $1.5 billion in total revenue, making it the 17th highest grossing law firm in the country and the 23rd highest globally, according to Law.com. As one of the nation’s top-tier firms, first year associates reportedly earn $190,000, plus year-end bonuses of between $15,000 and $100,000. All of which typically makes Paul, Weiss a desirable place to work for graduating law students. But for an increasing number, it’s not enough.
“No salary is worth destroying our own future. If you want our talents, then drop Exxon and join us in fighting for a livable planet,” Michigan law students told Paul, Weiss recruiters during a livestream of the Michigan event.
Theodore Wells, best known for defending Big Tobacco in the U.S. government’s racketeering case against the cigarette companies, is leading the firm’s defense of Exxon against dozens of climate liability suits filed by municipalities across the country, as well as in investigations and lawsuits by state attorneys general. Most of the liability suits allege that the oil giant has known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels is harming the climate, but failed to share that knowledge with the public.
The municipalities want Exxon and other fossil fuel company defendants to pay for damages already caused by climate change, as well as the infrastructure they will need to build to protect residents and property from future impacts.
"ExxonMobil, as we see it, is possibly the most culpable actor in engineering climate change, and in perpetrating a campaign of climate denial,” Max Vogel, a first-year student at Michigan Law School said. “Representing them means standing up for those practices and ensuring that they aren't held accountable for their role in the destruction of our planet."
With the help of Paul, Weiss attorneys, Exxon has fought back vigorously against the suits, typically by first suing any attorney general who dares to file suit against it.
Exxon filed a lawsuit against Virgin Islands attorney general Claude Walker, who launched a climate change-related racketeering investigation of the company in 2016. The oil giant alleged Walker’s investigation and subsequent subpoena violated its First, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. The company dropped the suit when Walker agreed to withdraw his subpoena.
Exxon also hit back against investigations by attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts, filing lawsuits against both AGs, alleging their examinations were politically motivated and in violation of the oil giant’s constitutional rights, including its right to free speech.
The company claimed in a 2017 brief that the AGs were “at the forefront of a conspiracy to violate ExxonMobil’s constitutional rights.” Similar accusations were lodged against several individuals it attempted to depose in relation to climate liability suits filed by California communities.
"I don't think there's any place for that in an ethical, legal world, and it's really something that is just like taking advantage of loophole, to gum up the system to make sure they aren't held accountable,” Vogel said.
Students have compared the firm’s representation of cigarette giant Philip Morris USA in litigation aimed at holding tobacco companies liable for smoking-related health care costs, to its work for Exxon, saying that it mirrors what many considered heavy-handed legal tactics on behalf of Big Tobacco.
"We also believe that they aren't representing them ethically, that they're using aggressive and obstructionist tactics that are really pushing the boundaries of what we should be okay with as lawyers,” Vogel said.
The AGs eventually succeeded in fending off Exxon’s lawsuit and after a lengthy investigation, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey filed suit last year against the company for climate fraud. The case is expected to go to trial later this year.
Wells and a team of Paul, Weiss attorneys successfully defended ExxonMobil last year against a lawsuit filed in 2018 by the New York Attorney General’s office that alleged the company violated the state’s anti-fraud laws by misleading investors about risk posed to their investments by climate change.
"It's clear that the end game is to just shield Exxon for having spread disinformation and not just trying to reduce the damages, but really trying to create a precedent that no company is liable for literally lying to the public,” Liao said.
It’s the “public” part that’s the sticking point. “They're representing a company like Exxon in lawsuits brought by the people, which I think is different than a lot of other private actions that often happen in between types of companies,” said Liao.
The firm did not respond to requests for comment, but chairman Brad Karp told Bloomberg Law that Paul, Weiss is proud of its recent work in defense of Exxon.
“Paul, Weiss is committed to free speech and debate, just as we are committed to the principle that we represent our clients and safeguard the rule of law zealously and to the best of our abilities,” he said.
In addition to representing Exxon and other corporate clients, Paul, Weiss provides pro-bono assistance on constitutional, civil rights, and other public interest issues according to its website; recent examples include partnering with the ACLU to defend immigrant families separated at the border, and with Planned Parenthood to block abortion bans. It’s something students say it highlights at recruiting events.
“Paul, Weiss uses these receptions to impress students with visions of impactful work and successful careers. But when partners return to their offices, they bring retaliatory lawsuits on
behalf of a major architect of the climate crisis,” Camila Bustos, a second-year Yale Law school student said in a press release prior to the Yale protest in early February.
This type of activism on law school campuses isn’t new. Students at Harvard and several other top law schools boycotted firms that represented South Africa’s segregationist government in the mid 1980s.
More recently, students in 2018 boycotted Gibson Dunn, the large California-based law firm that represents Chevron, and other large law firms that enforced mandatory arbitration provisions, forcing attorneys to waive their rights to sue employers. As a result of the pressure, one firm, Chicago-based Kirkland Ellis, the highest-grossing firm in the country, dropped that policy.
"We have had students take on an activist role with regard to a variety of employers in the last two or three years,” Leipold said, adding that students have also demanded that the federal judiciary implement stronger policies to protect against sexual harassment.
Leipold declined to speculate whether the recent protests would affect the firm’s reputation or spur it to drop Exxon.
The students say they will continue to protest against Paul, Weiss as long as Exxon is the firm's client.