Law students to law firms: kick Exxon to the curb or sashay away

We asked Manny Rutinel, law student at Yale, to spill the tea on #DropExxon

I’m going to be straight with you all: the world is feeling very strange and kind of volatile right now. I don’t know about you, but between Coronavirus, this election, and um, let’s not forget the climate crisis, I could use a tonic.

So here’s some news I found inspiring: from Harvard and Yale to NYU and the University of Michigan, law students across the country are protesting a prominent law firm’s representation of ExxonMobil (one of the world’s biggest oil corporations charged with knowingly and intentionally destroying the planet for profit, that is, you might’ve heard of them) in multiple court battles to date. The firm, Paul, Weiss has taken Exxon as a client in a variety of lawsuits including the recently dismissed investor fraud suit filed by New York’s attorney general. 

I spoke with Manny Rutinel, a second year law student at Yale and future legal advocate for environmental justice, climate justice, and animal rights. Manny was one of many law students-turned-activists to protest the firm’s recruitment event at Yale in February, and that’s just the beginning. Here’s what he had to say about his involvement and the #DropExxon campaign.

What does the climate crisis mean to you personally?

I was raised in multiple cities, all of which have been the victim of climate change-related wildfires or incessant flooding. Witnessing that has made this issue personal. I was born in Los Angeles, but I spent the first six years of my life in the Dominican Republic, where catastrophic flooding has displaced thousands of people from their homes. I spent the next six years back in Southern California, which has suffered from droughts and wildfires, and then another six years in Tampa, Florida, which is facing hurricanes and other high-risk weather events. 

To me, the climate crisis means that the people that I care about and love most, and the places I call home, are at risk. So I have no choice to advocate on behalf of the environment and the people that it sustains.

Why is this campaign so important right now? 

Right now is the time to address this crisis. People are being forced to flee from their homes because of droughts, floods, extreme weather events, wildfires… it’s a disaster and it’s only getting worse. And there are a handful of corporate entities that have contributed the bulk of the environmental destruction that we’re in the midst of and will continue to suffer. 

As future lawyers from these institutions we have a responsibility to use any amount of skill or talent that we have for the common good. Paul, Weiss claims to be progressive, claims to have values in line with the public interest, and should align its own actions with those values. Their defense of Exxon is a clear representation of the fact that they’re not doing that. We have a responsibility to the public, to the people who don’t have the means to be represented by the highest paid lawyers in the country — not to the corporate elites that are hoarding billions of dollars and causing climate destruction at every chance they get. I think Paul, Weiss is failing tremendously on this front, and we are making that clear.

How have the law firm (Paul, Weiss) and Exxon reacted to the pressure from this campaign so far?

Paul, Weiss has had to cancel events that they’ve planned to hold in legal institutions such as ours, and they’re looking to PR firms to try to clean up the mess that they’ve made. On the Exxon end of things I think it’s more of a black box — I’m sure they’re seeing that their greenwashing attempts aren’t successful, and I think that ultimately both are really concerned about the backlash that has resulted from both Exxon’s historic terrible practices to the law firm’s current defense of those practices. Alongside the Harvard and NYU and U of Michigan folks that have protested in a similar vein, we have a huge chance of seeing a change in terms of whether Paul, Weiss defends Exxon and other similar heinous contributors to climate change in the future. 

What responsibilities do lawyers have when it comes to choosing who to represent? 

I think you’ll hear Paul, Weiss say that everyone deserves a lawyer, as a way to signal a sort of public defense, scrappy lawyer type attempting to represent an indigent victim of the criminal justice system. But the reality is that in the Exxon case for instance, they already have counsel in house. The facts on the ground show that these corporations don’t deserve representation from the highest paid attorneys on the planet.

Exxon has gone out of their way to squash evidence about the role their business plays in causing climate change, and yet they present themselves in such a way that hides the fact that they’re destroying the planet at every turn. They’ve consistently profited off the backs of communities across the globe. I don’t think it’s the role of us as lawyers to use our resources, skills and talents to further entrench the fossil fuel industry and the fraud they’ve committed over the last few decades and up until the present day. I think that lawyers ultimately have a responsibility to do what’s in the public’s interest, and this is clearly not that.

What does justice have to do with the way people are affected by this crisis and the way we decide to address it?

Without justice in this space, without bringing these corporations and the government policies that have enabled those corporations to prosper on the backs of our most marginalized communities to justice, we have very little hope. The courts have a responsibility to make sure that these entities that have caused so much harm and will continue to cause harm pay their reparations to those who have been affected. We need an appropriate incentive structure for these corporations to be held accountable for the damage that they have caused and will continue to cause, and that’s something the courts can provide.

Exxon wants us to see them as part of the solution, and is using the courts to help paint that image. Do you believe the company actually intends to change its ways?

I hope that the folks in Exxon have a change of heart and ultimately fully transition their industry to one of clean energy. But I think the evidence paints a different picture. The fact that they’re fighting back so intensely against public interest attempts to bring justice on this front is a strong indication that they lack the remorse necessary to be able to make the changes that they want us to believe they will make. I’m hopeful that these companies will admit to their wrongdoings and compensate harmed individuals, but ultimately I think that there’s a slim chance that they will settle in that way.

How can current and future law students get involved in the fight to hold fossil fuel companies accountable?

Take an intense interest in the public, and fight on behalf of them. Ideally get involved in clinics inside of your law school and help contribute to the fight against climate destruction by representing or helping represent nonprofits, or government agencies at the local or state level that are fighting back against the egregious practices of large fossil fuel companies. I know that there are a lot of awesome litigators fighting on the right side of history, and I’m hopeful that they’ll have success in bringing justice in this field.

Credit: Giphy

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