On a home page where the site's name is written in a font that seems to echo Law & Order's title screen, there are routinely as many pictures of women in their briefs as lawyers holding briefs. And forget what you know about legal writing—Lat keeps the tone light and entertaining, in that vein of train-wreck reality TV. (Recent headlines include: TEXAS TEACHER ON TRIAL FOR ALLEGEDLY PARTICIPATING IN A GANG BANG WITH STUDENTS and DEAD CAT MARS USUALLY LOVELY ALBANY BAR EXAM EXPERIENCE.) Thanks to his army of tipsters, Lat has heard from partners that the site has reported in-house shenanigans about their firms that they hadn't even heard yet. "Gossip can be profound—it's how you determine what professional moves to make," Lat says. "If you're the person who never gossips in the office, then you're the person who misses out on the news that your rival is about to get a promotion. That the company is about to close this office. That this product is about to be killed. All of that stuff, before it's officially announced, is gossip—and yet it is vitally important for people to know."
Lat—slight of stature with a pate of thick black hair—works with editor Elie Mystal. They sit facing each other like a couple of 1Ls pulling an all-nighter. The table they share is covered with a mess of used paper towels, spent Post-It notes, old shopping bags, pen caps, empty 20-ounce cups of Starbucks coffee ("If they made 30-ounce cups, I'd drink them," Lat admits). Their office—located in a shabby space on the ninth floor of an exhaust-stained high-rise in lower Manhattan—is tiny. Lat spends countless hours in this depressing little room, hunting down leads, talking with tipsters, editing copy, strategizing about ways to grow ATL, and obsessing over site traffic.
"It's very funny how your moods are affected by it," he admits. "And when the traffic is mediocre, you're kind of depressed." But thanks to his quickly filling in-box, there's never a dull moment. In truth, Lat and Mystal often spend the early-morning hours at home arguing over Gchat about something, like how far to push a post, before resuming the dialogue in the office and finding the juiciest law-related stories of the day. That can sometimes include meeting a tipster at a bar, a frantic round of texts from an insider, and even a little gumshoe work from behind the desk. "To confirm the Acela layoff leak, I had to e-mail a partner," says Lat, who is affable and quick to smile. "But I used a dummy e-mail address." Rounding out the team is one more full-time writer (Staci Zaretsky), plus about a dozen outside columnists, many of whom are practicing lawyers. The goal, Lat says, is to "cover everything in the legal universe."
The site's mixture of pointy-headed legal know-how and shameless, tabloid-style hearsay dovetails with the man who started it. "I can go from reading the Harvard Law Review to Us Weekly," says Lat, who was raised in an affluent New Jersey suburb by two Filipino immigrants who are both still practicing doctors. "My mother has been a big influence on my personality," he says. "My love for human drama, I get from her. She can talk for hours about what's going on in other people's lives." Lat's father was, he says, "intellectually curious," and Lat channeled his own limitless capacity for knowledge into law—never imagining that he would be anything but a lawyer following his elite, white-collar education (the private Regis prep school in New York City, then Harvard, then Yale Law).
His future certainly looked promising after he secured a prestigious summer internship in the U.S. Attorney's office in Newark (New Jersey) in 1997, and he practically won the legal lottery by being asked to join the prominent firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz two years later. But things quickly started to change for the golden boy. He got burnt out at Wachtell ("I was insanely well paid, but I did not love the world of commercial litigation") and rejoined the U.S Attorney's Office before becoming the subject of a major scandal himself in 2005, when he was unmasked as the author of an infamous blog called Underneath Their Robes. Assuming the guise of a sassy, superficial, female West Coast—based attorney, Lat anonymously skewered the private and public lives of federal judges, conducting write-in contests to rank the "superhotties" and "bodacious babes of the bench" and coining terms like litigatrix. The blog's writing style was as tart and syrupy-sweet as a cosmo, unlike anything else published about the law at the time, and counted dozens of federal judges and even members of the Supreme Court among its readers. When the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin publicly named Lat as the author, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, then U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, didn't demand Lat's resignation, but he did chastise his talented staffer, saying, "You put us in an awkward position." And although he wasn't fired, Lat believes he could have had a very hard time getting another law job if he had been. It didn't matter; the once-rising star had already changed course in his own mind after giving up (and then acutely missing) the blog writing. "When you're a prosecutor, originality and personality are not rewarded," he says. "When I was blogging, I really felt like an individual, like I had my own opinions."