The UK’s Carbon Circle


May 10, 2023


US-based law student climate organisation releases report outlining the impacts of the UK legal industry on climate change 

A first of its kind report by Law Students for Climate Accountability (LSCA) exposes the London’s legal industry ties with fossil fuel companies and the role top-ranked law firms play in exacerbating the climate crisis. This comes at a crucial juncture as climate litigation movements have increasingly reaffirmed their power within courtrooms and collected significant victories across the globe.

The alarming reality detailed in the report outlines 55 firms facilitated £1.48 trillion in fossil fuel projects, more than 2.5 times the amount these firms facilitated for the renewable energy industry (£546 billion) between 2018-2022.

The Carbon Circle’ report analyses law firms’ oil and gas transactions, as well as their representation of fossil fuel companies in Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) arbitration. LSCA, which is US-based, hopes this report will spur further organising within the UK’s legal industry.

The legal profession plays an indispensable role in supporting the fossil fuel industry, from arranging financing and writing contracts to ensuring corporations aren’t held accountable for harming communities. As we have worked to change the conversation in the US, we’ve also realised the extent to which these firms are global actors, and we’re excited to have found a group of students and legal professionals in the UK who are passionate about highlighting the role of lawyers in enabling climate destruction.” – Camila Bustos, LSCA Co-founder and Report Editor.

The report team found that:

  • In the context of transactional work (e.g. drafting contracts and arranging financing), from 2018 to 2022, 55 firms facilitated £1.48 trillion in fossil fuel projects, more than 2.5 times the amount these firms facilitated for the renewable energy industry (£546 billion). We chose to analyse these 55 firms because each facilitated over £1 billion in fossil fuel transactions over the past five years (2018-2022). Clifford Chance, Allen and Overy, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May, the elite quintet known as the ‘Magic Circle’, are collectively responsible for over £285 billion worth of fossil fuel transactional work. Five firms out of 55 make up almost 20% of the total fossil fuel transactional work, with 4 of those 5 firms placing in the top 15 of the list.
  • In the context of ISDS, a legal mechanism by which companies can sue countries, both Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and King & Spalding represented fossil fuel interests in more than 20% of all fossil fuel-related cases examined in this study. Freshfields represented fossil fuel interests in 20 cases, the highest number of any firm, while King & Spalding ranked second with 18 cases. These two firms play a  disproportionate role in ensuring fossil fuel interests prevail in arbitration disputes, representing more than ten times the average number of cases across the 55 firms examined in the report. 

The report makes clear that London’s legal industry is deeply entangled with fossil fuel companies. I shouldn’t have to endanger my own future in order to become a lawyer, and I hope to be part of forging a climate just profession.” – Fatima Aziz, law student at University of Bristol

The report argues that students “are at the core of the talent pool that law firms need to continue operating. Both solicitor and barrister firms are at risk of losing valuable talent as prospective employees opt out of applying to a firm based on its climate record.” It encourages students to ask firms about their fossil fuel work and client selection processes, and recommends that associates who are assigned to fossil fuel clients should request to opt out of that work. It further contends that firms should:

  • Phase out existing fossil fuel work i.e., tackle serviced emissions; 
  • Decline to take new fossil fuel clients or work that seeks to expand fossil fuel infrastructure;
  • Avoid misrepresentation or greenwashing by ensuring communications on sustainability and climate change are not misleading;
  • Allow attorneys to opt out from representing fossil fuel clients.

The report comes on the heels of significant public organising within the legal sector. In March of this year, a group of lawyers formed a coalition called Lawyers are Responsible and projected a message directly onto the Royal Courts of Justice in London, arguing that an urgent transformation is needed to seriously tackle the climate crisis. The group has also successfully gathered more than one hundred lawyers as signatories to a declaration refusing to prosecute climate protesters, while The Law Society released a landmark guidance recognizing that solicitors can turn down clients on climate change grounds.

The climate crisis confronts us all with a simple choice: will you contribute through your work to the destruction of the planet? This is a proper question to ask of lawyers. And the generations to come, who must live on the planet we are slowly destroying, are entitled to answers. I applaud this report.’ – Jo Maugham, Director of Good Law Project

At the same time, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes clear that ‘there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all’. The ‘Carbon Circle’ authors hope their advocacy will serve to speed up the just transition.

‘This report is just the beginning. We urgently need to transform this industry, and we call on all law students and lawyers to refuse to take on fossil fuels work. Together, we have a tremendous amount of power to bring about a liveable future.’ – Chris McCay, law student at Trinity College Dublin.


You can read the full report here:

The Carbon Circle: The UK Legal Industry’s Ties to Fossil Fuel Companies