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BigLaw: Above the Law Founder David Lat

By Liz Kurtz | Monday, December 14, 2009

Originally published on December 7, 2009 in our free BigLaw newsletter.

BigLaw 12-14-09-240At age 34, David Lat has already compiled an illustrious set of credentials. After graduating from Yale Law School, Lat clerked on the United States Court of Appeals, worked as an associate at mega-firm Wachtell Lipton, and spent several years as an Assistant United States Attorney. But it is his career as a blogger and journalist that has made him a household name in legal circles, where he is known as the founder of the wildly popular online legal tabloid "Above the Law."

Above the Law amasses 8-10 million page views each month with a stream of news, gossip, and humor focused on legal personalities and the world of large firms. "There was a hunger in the market," for a site like Above the Law, Lat told the ABA Journal last month. "These law firms are large, wealthy and powerful institutions that generally don't like to talk about how they work. So when you proffer information, people get excited. They are peeking behind the curtain." This hunger for information, Lat maintains, has had a measurable impact on the world of large firms. "Other sites and Above the Law have changed the ways firms communicate. We are moving in the direction of greater and greater transparency."

Last month, Lat was recognized by the ABA as one of its "Legal Rebels." Recently, he took a break from his hectic schedule to chat with BigLaw about such topics as the changing face of law firms, Facebook in the workplace, and, of course, the joys of legal gossip.

The ABA recently named you a "legal rebel." What, in your opinion, makes you a legal rebel? Is it your approach to a changing legal profession, or do you tear around on a motorcycle in black leather?

More the former, I'd say! Motorcycles and leather are scary. The ABA was looking for folks who are shaking up the legal profession, and Above the Law is certainly doing that.

Speaking of Above the Law, is it driving law firms toward greater transparency, particularly with respect to "personnel" decisions? And why is transparency important?

Transparency keeps institutions honest. It has a civilizing effect on our sometimes brutal profession. It forces firms and other institutions, such as law schools, to treat their people fairly. We've had numerous cases over the three years the site has been around when a firm or law school revisited a decision after seeing how it was received on Above the Law.

So, how would you say the movement — perhaps driven by sites like ATL — toward greater transparency has impacted large firms?

The biggest change, as a hiring partner of a large New York law firm told me, is that it has accelerated the pace of change. Whether it's pay raises or layoffs, trends spread more rapidly now thanks to the freer flow of information. This may be a good thing, or it may not be. But it's the way things are now.

There's a lot of talk about what will become of law firms, given the vagaries of this economy. Where do you think they're going?

Oh, if I knew the answer to that, I'd be a very wealthy man! This isn't earth-shattering, but I'd predict that BigLaw is going to become smaller and more flexible. Firms will grow smaller, partly because it's possible to do more with less thanks to technology and outsourcing. As for flexibility, firms will have to become more nimble to navigate a rapidly changing economy and profession. For example, instead of hiring in large numbers and then laying off in large numbers, firms might start to rely more upon contract attorneys and freelancers, who can be drawn upon and then let go with greater ease.

There's a lot of talk about salaries getting lower. Is this a good thing for the market?

Some of our associate readers won't want to hear this, but my personal opinion is yes. Clients aren't as willing to pay for junior associates who aren't that useful in their first years of practice. So it probably makes sense to pay them less and focus on training them more, which a number of firms are starting to do.

You were an associate at a law firm known for its demanding work conditions. Realistically, is there a way for profitability and the humane treatment of associates to coexist?

That's a big topic. But one overall change I'd suggest is allowing lawyers greater flexibility. For example, let them decide if they'd like to work reduced hours in exchange for reduced pay. A number of firms already have multiple-track systems, but I think the hours and pay levels could be even more customized, and the trend should spread to more firms.

If, as some predict, small-to-midsize law firms gain market share, will we get less deliciously juicy gossip on sites like atl? In other words, will anyone leak, will anyone care?

Oh, small and midsize firms generate lots of great gossip! Some of our juiciest stories have come out of smaller firms, which often have more freewheeling, uninhibited office cultures than their BigLaw counterparts. The problem is getting those stories out there. With a large law firm, you can tell a tale without fear or being revealed as the tipster since hundreds of people have probably heard the story. This is not as much the case at smaller firms.

Speaking of buzz, you've certainly embraced social networking using services like Twitter and Facebook. Are you surprised to see them becoming tools of the trade for certain practitioners? Do you think that social networking belongs in the workplace?

I'm not surprised at all. The overall trend over the past decade or so has been in favor of lawyers doing more marketing. To make partner these days, you don't just need legal ability; you need the ability to bring in clients. Social networking is perfectly appropriate for the workplace. Your Facebook friends might someday send you work. Say you make Facebook friends with a law school classmate. Ten years later, you could be a law firm partner, and they could be in-house. Law is a lot like journalism, or finance, or a whole host of other fields — it's all about your Rolodex (so to speak).

What do you think the role of legal journalists is in a volatile market like the one we've observed over the past year? In airing the dirty (or at least slightly unclean) laundry of the law firms you report on, are you hoping to hold their feet to the fire, force greater accountability, or just entertain your readers?

Honestly, I try not to philosophize too much. I do my job because I enjoy it on a day-to-day level. I give people information, and they decide what to do with it.

I don't have an agenda. In terms of my identity as a blogger and journalist, I'm more of a reporter than an editorialist. One of my favorite quotes, listed on my Facebook page, is this one, by Jeffrey Hart:

"I confess to a fondness for gossip, which, indeed, is a conservative genre. Gossips do not want to change the world; they want to enjoy it."

What's on your night table?

A review copy of Union Atlantic, the forthcoming novel by Adam Haslett. Haslett is a brilliant young writer who wrote an amazing collection of short stories, You Are Not a Stranger Here. He's also, incidentally, a fellow graduate of Yale Law School (although we didn't overlap there).

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