Above the Law Gets Down with the Record

BY ANDREA SAENZ

Q&A with David Lat

This summer was full of legal gossip big and small, from rising firm salaries in secondary markets to summer associate misbehavior to the saga of a big firm’s leaked publicity song – its really, really bad publicity song. The man behind the blog, David Lat of Above the Law (www.abovethelaw.com), talked to the Record about his role at the helm of a “legal tabloid.”

Record: Thanks for talking with us, and congrats on ATL’s first birthday! First and foremost: Is another hottie contest coming soon?

Lat: Oh yes – thanks for the reminder! But I need to figure out what group to focus on next. Since the AutoAdmit controversy, I’ve been having second thoughts about hottie contests involving what I call “civilians” – i.e., people who aren’t public figures. Speaking for myself, I love publicity, good or bad. But I suppose not everyone feels the same way. Maybe I’ll do a second Superhotties of the Federal Judiciary contest. Now that it’s clerkship hiring season, it would be timely. If people have suggestions for future hottie contests, they should drop me a line!

Do you write the blog at home in your PJs, or do you put on a clean shirt and go to an office?

I work from home, and I don’t bother dressing up – so I guess I’m the stereotypical blogger in his pajamas. My dry cleaning bills are a fraction of what they once were. But sometimes I forget to brush my teeth.

When I’m in Washington, DC, I work out of a home office in my apartment. But I also travel a lot, which is one of the nice things about my job. I can work anywhere I have a decent internet connection. Have laptop, will travel.

Our beloved school’s given you a LOT of material this year: We had 1L SectionNameGate, LLM drama over English-impaired party flyers, heckling of the Attorney General, and leaked Law Review emails showing huge internal catfights. What’s our deal? Why does so much drama emerge from HLS?

It’s so, so true. HLS has generated more items for ATL than any other law school. It reminds me of that Facebook group entitled “Dear Law School: High School called, and they want their drama back.” Some events that might not be that exciting in and of themselves become newsworthy simply because they happened at Harvard. My fellow Yalies might chastise me for saying this, but Harvard is still THE American law school. Think of all the law school stories, from The Paper Chase to Legally Blonde, that have been set there.

So there may be a schadenfreude effect going on here. People at other schools derive pleasure and amusement from seeing that pettiness and infighting exist at the legendary Harvard Law School, just like anywhere else. We enjoy HLS gossip for the same reasons that we enjoy celebrity gossip. Harvard Law School students – they’re just like us!

We are VERY excited about having both Prof. Noah Feldman and Prof. Jeannie Suk on campus at last. Do you think that, if necessary, the Brangelina of the legal academy could “take” the Bogie and Bacall of the legal academy, Cass Sunstein and Martha Nussbaum? You know, like in some kind of ACS panel discussion gone horribly wrong.

I would pay good money to watch a tag team wrestling match between Feldsuk and Sunbaum! And if I were the oddsmaker on such a battle, I might have to give the edge to Feldsuk. Sure, Sunstein and Nussbaum are more seasoned, with more books under their belts – maybe about 40 between the two of them. But Feldman and Suk have youth on their side, plus the whole multicultural thing (even if it got Noah in trouble with his yeshiva). They’re a perfect power couple for the 21st century. And have you seen that mansion of theirs?

About the Nixon Peabody Theme Song Debacle: Why do you think the whole thing turned into such an internet phenomenon? And did you ever get the chorus out of your head?

ThemeSongGate had all the ingredients for a good internet controversy: a little idiocy, in terms of the song; a little illictness, in terms of the unauthorized leak; and a David-versus-Goliath quality, in terms of a single blogger facing off against a giant national law firm.

As for that chorus, it’s terribly infectious! I can’t listen to it anymore, because if I listen to it just once, it gets stuck in my head for the whole day. Sometimes I need to engage in reparative therapy after listening to it, by exposing myself to some less odious song with an equally catchy chorus – like, say, “I’d Do Anything for Love, But I Won’t Do That.”

Have you gotten other legal threats because of your blogging? Would you do time in the slammer in the name of legal gossip?

We’ve received a handful of legal threats over the year or so that ATL has been around. Considering that the blog is read largely by lawyers, it’s not surprising. We’ve never been sued, knock on wood.

I would be willing to do some time in jail in the name of legal gossip – e.g., to protect a source. Imagine the free publicity for ATL! But I wouldn’t want to spend as much time behind bars as Judy Miller – or even, for that matter, Paris Hilton.

Lawyers and students have been comparing salaries and perks at big firms for years. But the ATL coverage seems to put the pressure on in a whole new way. Why post every compensation memo? Do you feel there’s any downside to the coverage, or do you figure, the more information, the better?

Well, I don’t post EVERY compensation memo – I tend to stick to firms that people have heard of, like Am Law or Vault 100 firms. But it’s true that ATL covers salaries very, very closely. One reason is that readers never seem to get tired of it (even when I do). When I look at our traffic statistics, I see that compensation coverage is consistently a huge driver of visitors to ATL. Even the most mundane memos generate lots of hits and comments.

There is an issue about whether higher salaries are good for associates, who may have to work longer hours to pay for them, or good for firms, which could overextend themselves financially trying to keep up with the Joneses – and then have to layoff associates. But ATL isn’t making anyone do anything; we just provide greater transparency and more information. What firms and individuals decide to do with that information is up to them.

About now, 3Ls are scheduling their clerkship interviews and panicking about potential exploding offers. As someone who’s been through it, any advice for how they can not make asses of themselves?

Alas, I don’t have much original advice for clerkship applicants, other than plain common sense. Carefully research the judges to whom you apply, especially if you get an interview (but don’t come across as a stalker). Work the back channels, by talking to HLS alums who have clerked for the judge in question, to see what the experience is really like.

As noted by Saira Rao, author of the deliciously clerkship novel “Chambermaid,” the written forms that people fill out describing their clerkship experiences can be misleading. It’s best to talk to current or former clerks in person or over the phone, so you can better assess whether they’re giving you the unvarnished truth.

The current process, with its elaborate and compressed timetables, does have its pitfalls. I feel for current clerkship applicants, who often find themselves in difficult positions. Some of the judges in this process comport themselves in ways that are ethically questionable or, at the very least, immature. But it may not be the place of a 3L to call out a federal judge for dubious conduct.

Do you have a career plan beyond blogging? Is there a book deal or TV show in the works, or are you just hoping to ride the ad revenue a while longer?

Now that I’m no longer actively practicing law, I’ve cast aside all five- and ten-year career plans. I love my job, which is ridiculously fun – sometimes I can’t believe I get paid to do this – and which pays the bills (even if I’m making less than I was at Wachtell).

So I have no immediate plans of career change. Every now and then, I get approached about other opportunities, typically in the mainstream me
dia – and I’m certainly open to them. But I enjoy my current gig too much to leave for something that isn’t a great fit.

As for a book deal, I have an agent, and we’ve been tossing around ideas. But between the blogging and my other commitments, in terms of freelance writing for print publications, I haven’t had the time to put together an actual proposal.Since this IS our Annual Career Guide: Any general advice for our overachieving, prestige-obsessed, ATL-reading Harvard Law students deciding between firms big and small, government, public interest, or just plain wondering why they came to law school at all?I guess this might be perceived as ironic, coming from an ex-law-school-gunner who runs a website that preys upon the status anxiety of lawyers. But my general advice would be: Relax. Just as water finds its own level, you’ll eventually find some measure of career satisfaction – even it may take you a while, and even if you go down a few wrong paths before you do. It will all work itself out in the end.

For better or worse, there’s a lot more mobility in the legal profession than there used to be. It’s no longer the case that you go to a firm as a summer associate, return there as a full-time associate, and spend the rest of your professional life there. People jump from one firm to another, even partners who have been at the same firm for decades, and they move fluidly between private sector, government, and public interest jobs. Some people leave the practice of law entirely. Some of them eventually return, and some don’t. It’s all good.

I’d refer people to the great song that closes the wonderful musical, “Avenue Q”: whatever you do is “only for now.” So don’t agonize too much over where you’re going to work next summer, or which firms to interview with, or which judge to clerk for. Expose yourself to lots of different professional experiences, and see what grabs you. If you happen to wind up in some nightmare experience – like a firm job that you detest, but need to stick with for a while for financial reasons, or a one-year clerkship with an awful judge – just remember: this too shall pass.

Good luck!

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