It’s an ancient tradition for lawyers to absolve one another of criticism for representing controversial clients or causes. Now it’s back in the spotlight with Human Rights Campaign ranking law firms, in part, by their clients; most everyone who has weighed in has criticized HRC for it. See Overlawyered, Above The Law, and Legal Ethics Forum.

I’ve discussed this issue before in"Judging Lawyers By Their Causes." Sure, everyone’s entitled — or at least should be — to counsel. But we shouldn’t conflate representing clients and representing causes into the same analysis.

Drawing upon the references to other unpopular clients made in the links — e.g., accused terrorists in Guantánamo and BP — there’s of course nothing professionally wrong with defending accused terrorists in Guantánamo for free and or reckless polluters like BP for millions of dollars. Our criminal and civil justice systems are wholly-dependent upon the presence of zealous advocates on each side.

But let’s be clear: putting on a white shirt and cracking open a casebook doesn’t absolve you of all personal responsibility for your decisions.

If accused terrorists are railroaded at Guantánamo without the right to counsel and due process, and thus with no guarantee of actual guilt or of just punishment, then the Constitution loses. We all lose.

In contrast, BP screwed up, killed some people, economically injured thousands more, and spoiled hundreds of miles of coastline and ocean, and now they’re trying to minimize their monetary liability. If Jamie Gorelick doesn’t represent BP in the oil spill case, then someone else will, and will likely obtain similar results. "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" this is not.

BP certainly has a right to counsel, and Gorelick does nothing professionally wrong by being that counsel, but there’s nothing that says we all have to applaud her for doing it, as if all lawyers, from Carter Phillips to Charles Hamilton Houston, were morally, ethically, professionally and personally equivalent regardless of their work, just different folks plugging away at the same job.

Which brings us back to the firms criticized in the Human Rights Campaign report. As far as I can tell — the report and the reporting about it are unclear — HRC didn’t lower a firm’s ratings merely for representing clients with policies that HRC didn’t like, but rather lowered a firm’s ratings if they assisted clients in anti-gay lobbying or litigation. They then singled out a particular firm that did substantial work for an organization devoted to anti-gay lobbying.

The notion that HRC has somehow broken with professional custom by criticizing that particular work is misguided: the lawyers weren’t working on behalf of some greater legal principle, they were getting paid to advance a political agenda which they presumably did with zeal. Just as the anti-gay organization can applaud the firm for taking on work consistent with their values, HRC can criticize it.