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The Law Students that Aren’t

By Andrew W. Liang
Andrew W. Liang ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House.

The famous maxim that “the ends justify the means” has long been associated with the philosophy of Machiavelli. It seems that recently, a number of Harvard Law School students — of all people — have taken up the same mantle.

Around two weeks ago, dozens of Law School students disrupted a recruitment event by the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. The reason? Paul Weiss had recently provided legal representation to the oil and gas company ExxonMobil in New York state court. The students demanded that if the firm wants to recruit them, it must “drop Exxon,” and held a banner to the same effect. They chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, ExxonMobil’s got to go.”

Though the chants were catchy, it seems the most charitable explanation for the students’ behavior is that they fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of a lawyer. They ignore the lawyer’s role in a legal system designed to be based on facts and not on prevailing public sentiment.

It goes without saying that my view of the threat posed by carbon emissions is likely identical with the view of these students; moreover, I have no stake in Exxon or its success. Yet, the students’ demand for less representation in the legal system is exactly the wrong way to go about effecting the results we want to see.

A defense attorney’s job, an issue that I’ve written about before, is to advocate for a client — paid or unpaid, public or private — within a court of law. It is very serious to level a legal allegation against someone else in this country. In a criminal case, a conviction can result in a person’s removal from free society. In a civil case, the penalty is monetary, and often a very substantial amount.

The reason we have an adversarial legal system is to ensure that such punishment is not rendered without the allegation’s being airtight enough to meet the appropriate burden of proof. Though there is no right to counsel in civil cases (meaning that the government does not need to appoint an attorney for a party), a lawyer unquestionably helps to make this process more airtight. And the process here matters far more than the result. The central proposition of the system is that the correct judgment, according to existing laws, will naturally follow if the procedure is sound.

For some, this work may not seem sexy. But the representation provided by law firms like Paul Weiss is more than profitable; it is important to our society, particularly when a defense attorney may be the only one preventing abuse of power by the government, which is the antithesis of our legal system.

In the Exxon case, the New York state government had sought a penalty of $1.6 billion and charged Exxon with securities fraud, relating to how the company was disclosing costs of environmental regulation to its shareholders. The New York State Supreme Court judge ruled against the government, and made it clear in his opinion that “the testimony of the expert witnesses called by the Office of the Attorney General was eviscerated on cross-examination.” Without such a vigorous defense, the state government may very well have won on weak evidence.

In providing such representation, Paul Weiss is not defending climate change. It is defending the law. The legal profession does not exist to pass moral judgment on a client, but to uphold the process. Indeed, as the judge wrote, “Nothing in this opinion is intended to absolve ExxonMobil from responsibility for contributing to climate change,” as “this is a securities fraud case, not a climate change case.”

We should all support the vigorous passage of legislation to combat climate change, but that is not what these Law School students have advocated for. Their perfect world would have us essentially substitute the policymaking process with the cartel-like, collective denial of representation for certain entities: the Office of the Attorney General may have good lawyers, but Exxon must not.

Now, their inevitable response would be that representation is already unequal within our courts, so docking some representation from Exxon isn’t all that important. But this is incredibly naive. Does the legal system need to ensure better representation for, say, individuals who are too poor to afford representation in criminal trials? Of course. But wanting to improve the process for some shouldn’t lead us to deny the same protections to others. And that is what such public shaming does; it makes the unwise demand for less representation, without realizing that abuse of the process (even against large corporations) hurts the system at large.

I rarely weigh in on events of other schools within Harvard, because the decisions made within those particular institutions usually have little effect outside of their own student bodies. This case is different, however, because the ideology that these Law School students hold about our legal system is damaging for all of us.

If they don’t care about the means, and worry only about the end, they shouldn’t pretend to be lawyers. Perhaps they would be better suited as legislators; the Kennedy School is only a short walk away. But if they continue as members of the legal profession, they are gradually sawing off the very branch upon which they sit. Indeed, they are sawing off the branch upon which we all sit.

Andrew W. Liang ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House.

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