You’re not off the hook for your company’s actions.
A few years ago, I attended a federal court hearing about the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline passed near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation and beneath a lake that is sacred to local bands of Lakota and Dakota people, and a protest camp had sprung up to block its construction.
At the time, in 2016, the pipeline story was one of the country’s biggest climate controversies. The Obama administration would go on to freeze the pipeline, before President Donald Trump revived it. (It is now operational.) But the courtroom, where the pipeline’s fate was ostensibly going to be decided, was largely empty. I was one of maybe a dozen journalists in the gallery; other than that, it was just the two legal teams and the judge. The only other young people in the room, besides me, were one of the judge’s clerks and an entire row of young lawyers seated behind the legal team—for the pipeline.
I thought of that experience this week as I read the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent “Ethicist” column in The New York Times. The column is addressed to an anonymous law student who is debating taking a high-paying job at a big law firm to pay down their student debt and help their family.
“The firm’s work entails defending large corporations that I’m ethically opposed to, including many polluters and companies that I feel are making the apocalyptic climate situation even worse,” the student writes. “Even if I only stay at the firm for a short time to pay off my loans, I would be helping in these efforts for some time … Will defending polluters, even for a short time in a junior position, be a permanent black mark on my life?”
Appiah does not give a resounding “no.” He recognizes that climate change is a real problem, but offers a series of justifications for why it might be okay to work for a company knowingly and intentionally making it worse. (None of them includes the standard—and most straightforward—reason to work for, say, an oil company, which is that people still want a lot of oil.) Because companies are required to hire good and experienced lawyers, Appiah seems to say, that means that you should not feel bad about working for one: “For an adversarial legal system to function justly, there have to be lawyers who are willing to serve clients they disapprove of.”
His thinking gets more slippery from there. “Even if what your clients are doing is legal, you may still feel uncomfortable supplying guidance and representation, because the activities shouldn’t be legal,” he writes. “We ought to have laws and regulations that treat the climate crisis with full seriousness, and we don’t.” Yet he treats this problem—that the country’s climate policy, even after the Inflation Reduction Act, remains insufficient—as an unfortunate coincidence that has nothing to do with the behavior of companies or, indeed, their lawyers.