“Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice.” Many lawyers would agree with this statement. Yet more often than not, recognition in the legal community doesn’t come from “establishing justice.”

Recently, the online publication Law360 released its annual list of “Practice Groups of the Year.” The award for “Environmental Group of the Year” went to the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, notorious for its scorched-earth approach to getting Chevron off the hook for environmental degradation in Ecuador.

How could Gibson Dunn be recognized for such anti-environmental work? It’s not surprising, actually. Every award in this category went to a law firm that helps defendants avoid environmental liability or limit the scope of environmental regulations. No firms that help use the law to force environmental cleanups or stop harmful pollution, or NGOs that protect endangered species and critical habitats, merited any recognition.

This reflects a troubling reality about the values in much of mainstream U.S. legal culture. The “best” firms are recognized not based on their social value – the degree to which their efforts help establish justice – but based on the dollar value of the judgments they win or avoid, or the size of the “deals” that they broker. Law360 is open about this – they say they recognize the practice groups “that notched the biggest litigation victories or deals of the year.”

Virtually no plaintiffs’-side law firms made the list at all. (One exception – perhaps the only exception – was ERI’s co-counsel Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, recognized for its antitrust work.) Instead, Law360 has a separate listing of the “Most Feared Plaintiffs’ Firms.” (Law 360 is subscription-only, but the full listing can be found here.)

That title alone says a lot about the audience expected to read the rankings. The defense-side firms score major victories; the plaintiffs’-side firms are to be feared. But the plaintiffs’ firm rankings themselves also reflect a highly limited set of values. Many of the firms made the list for large securities class-action victories, which often lead to huge judgments by awarding a few cents per share of stock in a major corporation. That can be socially useful in helping to regulate stock markets, but there’s a whole range of other work that plaintiffs’ lawyers do that is closer to traditional notions of justice.

For example, Cohen Milstein – which was also named “most feared,” based on a big securities class action win – uses such litigation in part to enable it to take on less lucrative cases defending civil rights, human rights, and the environment. Looking at plaintiffs’ firms through the lens of securities litigation is a pretty narrow view of justice; it might be what corporate executives are most interested in, but it’s certainly not what victims of injustice are most concerned about.

For its part, Chevron should take little comfort in the recognition that its law firm has gained. Back in 2004, as ERI was deep in the Doe v. Unocal litigation, Unocal’s lawyers at O’Melveny & Myers were named by American Lawyer magazine as the “Litigation Department of the Year” – partly based on their work for Unocal. A year later, O’Melveny had failed to avoid a jury trial for their client, and Unocal agreed to a landmark settlement of the victims’ claims.

As a lawyer, I hope my profession can remember what its fundamental purpose is – not simply to rack up big wins and find loopholes for the highest-paying clients, but to do justice.

Today we’re heading into a long weekend to celebrate the birthday – and the life – of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That’s why I chose to open with a quote from Dr. King, who was not a lawyer, but who understood better than many the true purpose of the law.

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