UChicago Law and Other Top Law Schools Are Producing Disproportionately Large Numbers of Fossil Fuel Lawyers, Study Finds

A new report from Law Students for Climate Accountability illustrates that students at T20 colleges are pursuing fossil fuel law at higher rates than average law schools and suggests ways that these institutions can lower their contributions to the climate crisis.


University of Chicago

The Law School

By Shinjini Chakraborty

Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA), a national group of law students against climate change, released a report on March 9 showing that elite law schools are producing fossil fuel lawyers at high rates. The report details why this phenomenon is occurring, its impact on the climate crisis, and what actions law schools and students can take to address the issue of climate change.

In the report, the LSCA found that (T20) law schools per US News & World Report produce fossil fuel lawyers “at over three times the rate of the average US law school.” The University of Texas produces the most fossil fuel lawyers, at 12.9 times the rate of an average school. The University of Chicago Law School produces fossil fuel lawyers at 3.7 times the rate of an average law school, the sixth-highest rate of the T20 universities.

The LSCA claims that the high rate of fossil fuel lawyer production at elite law schools is harmful because these lawyers “use their legal skills to advance extraction of and dependency on the primary cause of the climate crisis: fossil fuels.” Specifically, these lawyers “litigate to protect polluters from climate accountability lawsuits and to strike down environmental regulations. They also lobby to weaken environmental regulations.”

In addition to noting the harm that fossil fuel litigation and lobbying cause to the environment, the report warns that entering the field of fossil fuel law may have consequences for prospective lawyers.

“As the energy transition unfolds and the fossil fuel industry faces an increasingly precarious future, law students whose career prospects ebb and flow with the fate of the fossil fuel industry could face serious financial costs,” the report states.

The report also offers explanations of forces that drive law students to work for fossil fuel companies. “Top-ranked law schools produce disproportionately more fossil fuel lawyers…because they send graduates to elite corporate law firms at high rates,” states the report. It then goes on to assert that these top “Big Law” firms are often characterized by law schools as distinguished and desirable despite also being the ones engaged by fossil fuel companies.

Another pressure that drives students towards these careers is the massive amount of debt that they face. The report states that “the average law school graduate owes $180,000 in student loan debt, and [of law school students graduate in debt.” An urge to pay off these loans as fast as possible might drive students to work for Big Law firms that pay their incoming associates “over $200,000 before tax annually, while most public interest jobs pay just about one third of that.”

The LSCA also made several recommendations to law schools and students. They encouraged law schools to “ensure their career offices devote at least as much time and resources to promoting careers in public interest law as careers at corporate firms” and suggested that they lower the amount of debt that they put on their students. The organization also encouraged law students to raise awareness about “the role of lawyers in the climate crisis” and to urge their schools to become more environmentally friendly.

Tim Hirschel-Burns, who graduated from Yale Law School in 2022, is a lead author of the report and a cofounder of the LSCA. In an interview with The Maroon, Hirschel-Burns said that the LSCA was formed in 2020 following protests against Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, the firm that represents ExxonMobil in climate accountability lawsuits.

Hirschel-Burns and other law students from around the nation protested the receptions that the firm hosted at their law schools. “Major law firms doing work to exacerbate the climate crisis was something that we were uncomfortable with and wanted to work against. Seeing these protests showed that there was a larger group of students out there who felt the same way across the country,” Hirschel-Burns said.

He and his fellow students acknowledged that ExxonMobil and Paul, Weiss were not the only organizations contributing to the climate crisis, and launched the LSCA in an effort to learn more about what groups were aiding this issue and to what extent they were doing so.

While the LSCA had focused on studying the impact that law firms had on the climate crisis in the past, Hirschel-Burns stated that the group also wanted to understand the role of law schools in the matter. “Law students feel that—in a very visceral way—that their law schools make it far easier to get jobs at elite law firms that also do lots of fossil fuel work than law schools make it easy to find jobs at other types of employers. We wanted to look at which law schools are playing the biggest role in the trend, [what were] some of the practices that are contributing to this and make some recommendations about what law schools should be doing,” he said.

Hirschel-Burns emphasized that law students should think twice before entering fossil fuel law. “We understand, especially given the debt pressures, why students feel that pressure. At the same time, we’d say [that] this work is not morally neutral…lawyers are causal actors, they are the ones in court making arguments for fossil fuel projects to succeed…so lawyers can’t just say that’s not on us; they do have more responsibility there.”

Hirschel-Burns also had a message for law schools themselves: “The choices law schools are making are actually having effects. We don’t see a lot of top law schools going as far as they should, but there is certainly variation [in the rates at which these schools create fossil fuel lawyers], and I think that points to the improvements that law schools can make.”

Speaking on behalf of the LSCA, Hirschel-Burns said, “At the very minimum we think that [T20 law schools] should not be producing fossil fuel lawyers at a much higher rate than even the average US law school.”

The University of Chicago Law School declined to comment.