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Wilson Sonsini

Finding a Law Firm Energy & Climate Innovation Practice

Published: Dec 11, 2023

By many measures, the energy industry is the largest industrial sector in both the United States and the world, so it is unsurprising that nearly every large law firm has some sort of energy practice. But it isn’t always easy to tell from the outside what kind of energy and climate work a law firm performs or which client bases it cultivates: fossil or renewables, litigation or corporate, legacy incumbent clients or new business models and technology innovators.

If you are interested in working inside a large law firm on solutions to climate change, how do you figure out which practices are right for you? And how do you get a job there? We are five partners, with work experience at ten different law firms, who came together to create a purpose-built energy and climate solutions practice. We have opinions, and we’re here to help.

There are lots of ways to work for the “white hats” in the energy industry, so you’ll need to think about what kind of work you want to do and who you want to represent. Energy isn’t really a legal practice area as much as it’s an industry, and a mature industry at that, so it has the same legal needs as any other mature industry. Do you want to litigate? Work in policy or regulation? Do project or structured finance? Tax? M&A? Patent? Technology Transactions? Specialist areas such as real estate or permitting? Deeply engage with innovators across corporate, finance and energy regulatory practice areas and focus on the future of electrons, fuels, water and related technologies and infrastructure? (Full disclosure: that last one is what Wilson Sonsini’s practice is all about.) No one firm specializes in all of those areas, so before you choose a firm and a practice group, you’ll need to narrow your search by thinking about your goals.

First, look at the name of the practice group, which will tell you a surprising amount. At Wilson Sonsini, our practice is called Energy and Climate Solutions (ECS). This signals that we are focused on the innovative side of the field, and on solutions to the societal problem of climate change. If a practice is named “Oil and Gas,” or “Utility Regulation,” or simply “Energy,” that will also tell you something about their focus within this very large sector. But do your research and watch out for green-washing: some firms have a “Climate Change” practice that is centered on defending polluters in environmental compliance matters, and some firms lead with “Energy Transition” in law school recruiting materials but with “Oil and Gas” in business development materials.

Second, look to the kinds of matters the firm works on. Does the practice you are looking at have a lot of litigation or regulatory matters? If so, which side of the matters is the law firm on? Are they working with government regulators or doing impact litigation? Are the positions they are taking promoting decarbonization or seeking to protect the status quo? Are they doing corporate, finance or technology transactions work with startups? Are they taking companies public or working on mergers and acquisitions? Looking at the representative matters listed for a firm’s practice, or researching what the firm finds itself in the news for, will tell you a lot about the kind of work you would do day to day in their practice. The LinkedIn profiles of the attorneys in the practice can also be helpful in seeing how the key lawyers describe their work. Not surprisingly, lawyers will show you their stripes when celebrating the deals and wins they highlight on the firm’s website and on social media.

Third, look to the clients. You can often find a list of the firm’s clients or even the practice group’s clients on their website. If you can’t find a list, look to the biographies of the attorneys in the relevant practice group to see what matters they have worked on—and on which side. Look to see if the clients are established companies or startups, traditional energy or innovation sector. But remember that it isn’t just about who the clients are, but the kind of work that attorneys do for them. For example, in addition to our extensive roster of startup clients, we often represent big energy companies, investors and infrastructure funds, but only on their green initiatives. To suss that out, look to see if the matters are, for example, working on financing coal-fired facilities vs. solar facilities, or preserving utility market positions vs. new business models and wholly innovative technologies before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

For all of these areas, of course, make sure to read with a critical eye—anything can and will be spun as sustainability, and you’ll need to read between the lines to see if it really is. You’re a law student, so you are smart and learning to read critically, and this is a great test of that skill. Think about the logical extension of a deal or a win: if the firm succeeded at this matter a 100 more times, what would the world look like: would it be better or worse? In addition to looking at the websites, ask people in the climate field who the leading lawyers are, who is doing exciting deals, who is working on the new business models, who is leading the most important litigation. Their answers can guide you to the attorneys and firms in the fields that best align with your interests.

If you’re interested in litigation, it’s fairly easy to find out who is leading the charge by looking at dockets in key cases. On the corporate side, it can be harder to find publicly available information, but innovative clients hire innovative lawyers. Innovative companies in the climate change space are both looking for profit and to solve a social problem. If you look at the press releases on a firm website and see clients and transactions that are novel or that advance disruptive business models, chances are that firm has lawyers that are creative and comfortable with innovation. You can also look to external factors, like news articles, to tell you where the innovative lawyers are. We’re pretty proud that Fast Company declared Wilson Sonsini one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies in 2022—the first time a law firm has ever made the list.

We also recommend that you look at their pro bono and community impact work. Ask the attorneys you are interviewing with what kind of pro bono work their team (not just their firm) does, and their reaction will tell you a lot. Do they proudly trumpet the successes of their nonprofit clients who are addressing climate change? Many law firms have foundations and community impact arms—find out to which organizations in the climate space, if any, they are giving their money and time. For example, our ECS practice has an enormous team working with the Justice Climate Fund, which aims to ensure that the most vulnerable communities in the United States and its territories get the affordable, accessible, responsible climate capital they deserve and are able to lead all Americans in the energy transition. Also, look at the boards of the non-profits, foundations, and industry groups on which the firm’s attorneys serve on a pro bono basis. Firms and lawyers show you their priorities and values when they show you their pro bono and community impact portfolio, so be sure to ask about it.

Outside of the firm websites, here are some independent resources to figure out which lawyers and practices fit with your interests and ideology:

  • Look to two of the most seminal cases in the field: Massachusetts v. EPA (2006) and West Virginia v. EPA (2022). These cases determined whether the United States was going to regulate carbon, so seeing which firms, which lawyers, and whose clients lined up on either side will be instructive to you. And it may not just be about who is there (not every firm could be involved), but who is not lined up on the side you wouldn’t want to represent.
  • Mike Gerrard at Columbia Law School has a great website that tracks all climate litigation worldwide. Forty-five minutes on that site will tell you which firms are working to improve climate change.
  • Law Students for Climate Accountability look at a variety of factors in putting together a climate change scorecard for law firms.

So once you understand the field and know what you want, how do you narrow down your choices and get the job? First, ask good questions at your interview. The websites will tell you a lot, but you’ll need to dig deeper at the interviews to understand what these practices are really about. Ask the attorneys what they work on day-to-day and how they developed their practice. Second, figure out at which firms you will need certain skills or backgrounds in order to do the work well. For example, our ECS practice recruits technically-trained and/or financially-trained attorneys, especially ones who are mathematically-inclined. The kind of work we do in structuring joint ventures and financings at all levels of a company’s capital stack, planning for tax credits, leading complex energy market transactions, helping clients to determine ROI based on government incentives—that requires our attorneys to be doing complex math every day. And, of course, it helps greatly when our lawyers understand the innovative technology and business models our clients are trying to bring into the world. If your school offers classes on renewable energy, project or structured finance, climate law and policy, secured transactions, or other similar courses, take them. The best groups hire those who have demonstrated professional and academic interests in the field in which they practice and want to see focus and dedication in candidates.

Third, ask questions about how lawyers at the firm collaborate. Are the firm’s practices broken down by practice group or by industry? In other words, if you want to work in project finance, do you have to be in the project finance group, and then serve clients in many industries? Or can you be in the energy group and do many kinds of legal work serving a specific industry? Our ECS practice is the latter, which allows junior associates to get a wide variety of experience ranging from project development and project and corporate finance to energy market regulatory matters and allows the practice group to represent clients from early startup days through their whole corporate life cycle, as well as major corporate and infrastructure asset owners. Speaking of junior associates, ask those juniors how quickly they were given meaty responsibilities in terms of deal work, client relations, and group knowledge building. Renewables and climate solutions are growing at an amazing clip—young professionals should expect career growth with a similar trajectory!

Additionally, try to figure out what a particular firm is looking for in their climate lawyers, and show how you fit that. For example, our ECS practice (and most of Wilson Sonsini’s practice groups) represents innovators, so by definition, we represent the anti-incumbent. This means you have to have a bit of “gladiator mentality” to work with us—you have to approach your work as part of a small group in a boat that is working to decarbonize all sorts of sectors: energy, industrial, transportation, agriculture, water, etc. When you represent the new guard, you have to get up every day and want to work hard to create change, and when we interview, we’re looking for people who show that passion. We want to see that you understand innovation—that you’ve shown a willingness to innovate and disrupt and fight for something that isn’t the incumbent in this world. Ideally, for every firm you’re interviewing with, you’ll find a mission statement like that and you’ll know what you have to show in the interview to get the job.

As a law student, trying to figure this out isn’t always easy. You’ll need to dig behind all the buzzwords and PR-speak and understand a firm’s clients, matters, and values. All you need is a little effort and a little savvy, qualities that will serve both you and your clients well in the long run.


Read more articles like this on the Vault Law Blog.