Earlier this year, after weeks of hearing rumblings from a network of tipsters, David Lat, the 37-year-old managing editor of Above the Law (ATL), one of the most widely read legal blogs on the Web, published a story he never dreamed possible. In the post, cheekily titled "Where's LeBoeuf? An Update on Doings at Dewey," Lat broke the news that one of most prestigious law firms in the world, Dewey & LeBoeuf, which employed more than 1,300 attorneys in 12 countries in 2007, was on the verge of imploding. "I was flummoxed," says Lat, a former Assistant United States Attorney. "It seemed absurd."
Dewey & LeBoeuf was the child of a 2007 boom-time megamerger between a 100-year-old firm bearing the name of three-term New York governor Thomas Dewey and another old Gotham stalwart that represented some of the nation's biggest utilities and insurance companies. In the legal world, the possible dissolution of Dewey & LeBoeuf was on par with Lehman Brothers' monumental bankruptcy in 2008. Lat, a blogger by trade, had the skinny on what was really happening in those hallowed halls. Armed with a network of inside sources, a dogged reporter's sense, and a good, old-fashioned hunch, Lat dropped the latest in a string of bombs on the beleaguered legal profession.
After that initial post, the doomsday stories—and scoops—came fast and furious: Dozens of partners were leaving (ATL had the names), and an internal memo (leaked to Lat) actually blamed "U.S. legal blogs" for making some of the firm's woes public. That was followed by the announcement of a 60-day-notice policy designed to retain the remaining partners—more than 20 percent had announced their depatures by this time —and reports that Dewey was considering closing three international offices. In late April, Steven Davis was ousted from his role as chairman, and the Manhattan District Attorney's office began a criminal probe to investigate his actions. Finally, on May 28, three months after Lat's first post, Dewey filed for bankruptcy. For Lat and his staff, the story was only just beginning.
"We would get our intel in a number of different ways," he says, citing a flood of e-mails and texts, including information from friends and friends of friends who worked there and a "well-placed source at the firm" who leaked the memo. ATL even unearthed details about the company's downfall in what appeared to be minor stories—like the firm prohibiting lawyers from using Federal Express and not being able to afford black car service. "[Web] traffic during the Dewey period was phenomenal," recalls Lat, whose breaking stories were cited by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Throughout the summer, Lat kept tabs on the key players, digging around for answers about what went wrong and reporting that, even as the firm was sinking, many of its multi-millionaire partners were still pulling in six-figure checks. "They were like pigs at the trough, all muscling each other aside to get a share of the feed," Lat says. "The story delved into a lot of themes, whether it's greed or anxiety or the distribution of spoils in the legal profession." In other words, it was catnip for Lat and the ATL faithful.
Not long ago, the law was considered a stable, prestigious, and lucrative career path—the one that your parents pushed on you over filmmaker, impressed the in-laws, and scored you a six-figure salary in your twenties. Those days, by most accounts, are over. In the past two years, the profession has entered a kind of free fall, with the job market bottoming out, major firms collapsing, and law schools getting sued for misrepresenting employment stats. When professor William Henderson of the Indiana University Maurer School of Law analyzed figures released by the American Bar Association, he found that only 55 percent of 2011's law-school class found full-time jobs in the field nine months after graduating—a bitter pill to swallow for J.D.'s often $150,000 in debt.
These new conditions, compounding stress in a field already known for cutthroat competitiveness and sketchy morals, have created a perfect storm of career anxiety from which one man has emerged. "It's kind of cool to think about how much influence we have within the profession," says Lat, who is not normally one to boast. Like Nikki Finke or Matt Drudge, Lat has harnessed the demand for industry gossip and turned it into a thriving online business and added "a tremendous amount of transparency to the profession," he says. "The recession was a sea change in the legal world," says a senior associate at a major New York City firm. "Nobody knows the rules right now. Above the Law is gossip, but it's also our best source of information to navigate the new reality of the legal profession."
Founded by Lat in 2006, ATL racks up around 900,000 unique visitors per month, an impressive degree of audience penetration, considering there are only 1.25 million licensed lawyers in the U.S. Posting or editing roughly 12 articles a day, Lat and his team mix salacious scandal ("Lesbian summer associates!") with industry gossip (leaked memos, layoff discussions overheard on Acela trains, reports on which firms are delivering on associate bonuses) and legitimate breaking news like the Dewey & LeBoeuf debacle.