At a sold-out ceremony in Hollywood on Thursday night, the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles inducted four titans of the Southern California legal community into its Hall of Fame.
The honorees -- Gary Dordick, Carl Douglas, Gretchen Nelson and Brian Panish -- have tried some of the most consequential cases and won some of the biggest verdicts in the nation's history. Douglas and Panish were members of the team that in 1999 won a record $4.9 billion against General Motors for a family that suffered burns during an accident because of a defective fuel tank.
Recent scandals in the Southern California legal community loomed over what was otherwise an occasion for celebration. Minh Nguyen, president of CAALA, opened the event by saying that the honorees "say what they mean and don't say something in public and another thing in an email."
Nguyen of Nguyen Theam LLP was referring to recent revelations that two lawyers formerly with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith had for years made derogatory comments in emails about minorities and women, and even boasted that they wouldn't hire Jews.
The downfall two years ago of plaintiffs attorney Thomas V. Girardi, who had been a major figure within the CAALA organization, continued to weigh heavily on the crowd. In his acceptance speech, Dordick said the profession "has taken a hit" by the actions of "people we held in esteem."
He said it was "embarrassing and makes us all feel ashamed."
Dordick of Dordick Law Corporation urged the crowd to set a good example for the profession and pointed to a diversity program that he is funding at Loyola Law School.
But most of the night was a celebration of good lawyering.
Dordick and Panish both remarked that the award seemed like an invitation to retire, and both vowed they didn't plan to leave the courtroom anytime soon.
"I love it and I'm good at it so I don't plan to go anywhere for a while," Dordick said.
Donald Kottler of Kottler & Kottler hired Dordick as an "assistant clerk" before he went to law school.
"I knew he'd be a good lawyer. I didn't know he'd be this good," Kottler said.
Dordick went on to win eye-popping verdicts including a record $125 million award in Ventura County in 2016. He has also received virtually every award handed out to trial lawyers, including one from the defense bar that he called especially meaningful.
Dordick is "larger than life," Genie Harrison of Genie Harrison Law Firm and a past CAALA president told the crowd.
Douglas of Douglas Hicks Law was lauded as one of the greatest orators in the profession. One commentator said, "Watching Carl giving a closing argument is like going to church on a Sunday."
"He has a personal style that grabs people," said Bruce Broillet of Greene Broillet & Wheeler LLP.
Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass in taped remarks brought up the millions of dollars Douglas has won for victims of police abuse. Whenever there is such a violation of civil rights, "Carl Douglas is the man to call," she said.
Douglas' law partner, Jamon Hicks, noted that Douglas had been a member of two legal "dream teams" -- the GM fuel tank civil litigation and the O.J. Simpson criminal trial. "Each one of those cases is a lifetime case," Hicks said.
Douglas didn't disappoint in his acceptance speech, beginning by "giving glory to God from whom all blessings flow" and concluding by telling the crowd that CAALA "gave me an identity" after he left the Federal Defenders Office to practice civil law.
Nelson was praised for her intellect and rectitude.
"Her greatest characteristic is her moral compass," said Christine D. Spagnoli of Greene, Broillet & Wheeler LLP.
"She's had tremendous results, but that's not what matters to her," Spagnoli said, concluding that Nelson's main aim is securing justice for clients.
Nelson was the second woman inducted into the CAALA Hall of Fame and she noted that the first woman was Spagnoli. Nelson told the crowd that Spagnoli's father died the day of the awards ceremony so Nelson went to the event and read her speech for her.
Nelson, of Nelson Fraenkel LLP and a member of the Cowboy Lawyers Association, told the crowd she was "humbled to be in your class."
"We've been there through trials and trails. We may have gotten bucked off but we always got back on," she concluded.
Panish, several speakers noted, won the GM verdict early in his career and went on to rack up more than 100 verdicts or settlements exceeding $10 million. He was lead trial counsel in litigation resulting from the gas leak at a Southern California Gas Company facility near Porter Ranch that resulted in a $1.8 billion settlement two years ago.
Ibiere Seck, president-elect of CAALA, noted Panish's Irish roots and said some might be tempted to dismiss his many successes as the "luck of the Irish."
"Brian is not lucky. He's gifted," said Seck of Seck Law.
Tim Wheeler of Greene, Broillet & Wheeler LLP said one reason for Panish's successes is that he "enters with a swagger."
"He oozes confidence. He oozes intelligence," Wheeler said.
Rahul Ravipudi, Panish's longtime law partner, had another theory of his success: He works harder than everybody else.
"There's no task that is too small and there's no task that's unimportant," Ravipudi said.