Slaughtering the Planet?: Magic circle firm targeted by environmentalists

March 27, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

On 28 February, Lawyers for Extinction Rebellion staged a demonstration outside Slaughter and May’s Moorgate office to protest against its representation of big players in the oil and gas sector.

What does this mean?

Lawyers for Extinction Rebellion is an environmental campaign group for lawyers, legal professionals, and law students. It has accused Slaughter and May of having a “significant and enduring role in the climate crisis”, due to its extensive roster of fossil fuel company clients. The firm recently advised Premier Oil on its £600m acquisition of North Sea oil and gas fields. It has also represented Shell, INEOS and Maersk Oil. 

Paul Powlesland, a barrister at Ely Place Chambers and former Slaughter and May vacation scheme participant, said during the protest: “Slaughter and May is charging a lot of money to actively assist oil companies to acquire new fields and to exploit them. It’s effectively taking blood money to fuel the climate crisis. These fancy offices and pay packets that are 10, 20 maybe 50 times the average annual wage of people in this country, are paid for with that blood money”. Lawyers for Extinction Rebellion plans to target more City firms in upcoming months.

What's the big picture effect?

This story highlights the potential impact of law firms on the climate emergency. This arguably imposes on them an ethical obligation to act responsibly. A written policy is no longer sufficient to discharge this obligation. Law firms are under constant scrutiny to ensure that they are acting consistently with their claims. Slaughter and May’s environmental policy states that it is “committed to the protection of the environment and the prevention of pollution”. Lawyers for Extinction Rebellion has labelled this statement as “hollow”, due to the firm’s representation of “major oil industry polluters”. 

This story also raises an important ethical dilemma. Major oil and gas company clients provide law firms with significant revenue. However, where clients are engaged in environmentally damaging business practices, law firms must weigh up the profits generated by advising them with the ethical implications of doing so. As the global climate emergency escalates, law firms must be held to account to ensure that they are representing the interests of our planet, and not just those of fossil fuel companies.

Report written by Isobel Deane

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