A general view of Exxonmobil or Exxon Mobil refinery in the Port of Rotterdam on April 23, 2020 in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

A new report found that graduates of top-ranked law schools are disproportionately likely to work in the fossil fuel industry.

The report, from Legal Planet, a collaboration of environmental law professors, analyzed data on the career paths of students from the top 25 U.S. law schools ranked by U.S. News and World Report. It found that these schools produce more graduates working for fossil fuel companies than would be expected based on their overall employment rates.

For example, Yale, Stanford and Harvard law schools collectively produce 22% of associates at some of the largest oil, gas and coal companies despite graduating only about 8% of all U.S. lawyers. Seven of the top 25 law schools account for more than 40% of fossil fuel industry associates hired between 2000 to 2017.

Researchers attributed this in part to the “recruiting effect” of fossil fuel companies directly targeting top students from elite law schools. It also reflects how these schools emphasize coursework and experiences like property, contracts, corporate law, and mergers & acquisitions that are relevant for the oil and gas industry.

However, the report noted that results “raise questions about priorities, and whose interests are being served, at some of the nation’s preeminent law schools.” It argued for providing more support and opportunities for students interested in environmental law and policy.

Supporters of these law schools disputed some report conclusions, but many said findings should prompt reflection on curriculum, recruiting practices, and market pressures that may disproportionately steer students toward careers benefiting from environmental harm. Some suggested law schools have an ethical obligation to counter these dynamics.

“Law schools have a responsibility to prepare students for public interest work, not just lucrative jobs in an environmentally destructive industry,” saidreport co-author Sammy Finkelstein, an environmental law professor at University of Colorado. “Our top schools are falling short of that responsibility, to the detriment of society and future generations.”

Reforms proposed in the report include promoting environmental law opportunities, bringing in industry experts with critical perspectives, creating environmental practice groups, and prioritizing pro bono and public interest work. Some also advocated ending corporate funding and recruitment at law schools to reduce bias.

While debate around the report’s methods is likely, its findings add urgency to long-running calls for making environmental protection and justice a higher priority in legal education and the profession overall. Law schools have influence over the values, knowledge, and career choices that shape the world students will inherit. There is power and responsibility in that influence, requiring reflection on where existing systems and habits may be failing society and future generations. The well-being of both depends on it.


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