ATL’s Lat Muses About Professional Responsibility

BY ANDREA SAENZ

The man behind the legal blog Above the Law, David Lat, visited Professor David Wilkins’ Legal Profession class on April 11 to share the story of how a Yale Law grad, Wachtell associate, and Assistant U.S. Attorney ended up reporting on legal gossip and news online – all while continuing to post to the site throughout his talk.

Lat was asked about his first blog, Underneath the Robes, which became popular for its gossip on the federal judiciary and the mystery around its seemingly-female writer, “Article III Groupie.” “I started it as a foil,” Lat said in response to a question about why he chose the A3G persona. “In some ways, I think that A3G was more true, in many ways, to my real personality that the federal prosecutor, respectable and serious.”

Once an interview with a journalist led to his decision to make his identity public, things got, as Lat put it, “a little weird with the day job.” Lat offered his resignation at the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, but since Underneath Their Robes had shuttered and Lat was a valued attorney, his bosses let him stay. Still, Latt missed the blog world, and eventually left to write for political gossip blog Wonkette. Finding that he liked legal blogging better, he started Above the Law.

Lat fielded a number of questions from students about the mechanics and ethics of legal blogging. Many posts start as tips from readers, and Lat’s practice is often to post first, then update and correct.

“You get to see the sausage being made,” he said. For negative news, such as layoffs at a firm, Lat always makes an attempt to verify with the firm before posting.

Students brought up the line between reporting on developments in the legal world and taking a stand on them; arguably, Lat’s coverage of issues from pay raises to maternity leave has pushed some firms to keep up with the market. Lat acknowledged the concern, but maintained that he was “letting the market determine these things,” and simply reporting on what was happening. Noting that he used to be a “conservative gadfly” when he wrote for the Harvard Crimson, he now sees himself not as advocating for one thing or another, but putting things out there with humor.

When asked if he planned on practicing law again, Lat noted that he is somewhat risk-averse and still keeps up with his bar fees and continuing legal education credits. “I like what I’m doing and want to keep doing it,” he said. To the question of whether law school was a waste for him, he disagreed, saying it’s “what allows me to speak with the credibility that I do…I’m insulated, almost, by credentials armor.”

Lat also spoke about the general tone and focus of Above the Law. People like that there is a lighter side to the profession, he said. “Nobody has to read the site,” he said. “There’s high-minded stuff out there.” He responded to concerns about the site’s purported focus on big law firms and elite schools, saying, “The site actually has a large following among non-elite law schools. And they’re actually appreciative.” One student at Loyola Law School thanked him for drawing attention to issues some law schools would rather not discuss, such as the job search difficulties at some lower-tier schools.

“The internet is a big place,” said Lat. “If someone wants to put up a site about public interest law, tell me about it. I’ll link to it, I’ll write about it.”

Professor Wilkins noted that the internet has provided increased transparency about previously-hidden information about mid-level salaries and bonuses at firms, and asked Lat if the internet could be used for less quantifiable things like training or mentoring at firms. Lat responded that while quantifiable data is likely to dominate, “the internet in some ways is like this ideal laboratory,” and that people can now see what new strategies firms are trying, from two career tracks to no billable hours to more chair massages instantly, rather than through rumor, and then see how those firms perform later on.

Even during the class, Lat didn’t miss an opportunity to troll for blog-worthy information. “If anyone knows the two missing Alito clerks,” he said as an aside, referring to his quest to fill out next year’s Supreme Court clerk roster, “tell me. They’re trying to hide from me.”

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