Years ago, students chatting during the precious breaks in on-campus interviewing cattle calls would ponder who among them would really be interviewing with Chadbourne & Parke. The now-deceased firm — sucked up into the Norton Rose Fulbright megalith — was on everyone’s radar as one of the firms representing big tobacco against allegations that the company had willfully deceived the public about health risks for decades. Everyone may deserve an attorney, but not everyone deserves you as an attorney, and for law students at elite schools back then, future lawyers that every law firm would love to have, this was an opportunity to exert some social pressure on a firm tying its bottom line to a public health crisis of the client’s own making.
A couple of decades down the road, law students are taking a page from the past and upping the ante. Last night, law students at HLS staged a protest at a Paul Weiss recruiting event demanding the firm drop Exxon as a client, arguing that Paul Weiss attorneys have facilitated Exxon’s efforts to undermine climate change action. From the group’s press release:
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.
The protest in the room ended after 15 minutes as the students moved outside to join more students, including the activists involved in the Yale-Harvard football protest. The organizers are in touch with students at other elite law schools and suspect that this is only the beginning of the high visibility protests against the firm’s fossil fuel work.
“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.”
Paul Weiss is certainly not the only firm representing entities like Exxon with a long history pushing regressive positions in environmental litigation, but the reputation Paul Weiss carries in the legal industry is one reason why the protest focused on that firm first. Paul Weiss is known for its liberal lean and high profile pro bono efforts, making the firm one of the most likely to respond to direct action from top-tier law students. While some firms would respond to a protest like this by releasing the hounds and then spend the rest of the night building a styrofoam bonfire to own the libs, Paul Weiss values its role as a bridge between its corporate clients and a conscience. It’s part of their DNA!
This is exactly why the firm got more public flack over its lack of a diverse partner class while other firms with worse track records fly under the radar — part of accepting the mantle as a socially conscious firm is accepting criticism when tensions arise. When it comes to diversity in the partnership, Paul Weiss responded this year.
Will the firm respond to this protest the same way?
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.
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