How Gossip Transformed the Legal Industry

Meet David Lat, the former Assistant U.S. Attorney who keeps judges and lawyers on their toes with his blog, Above the Law.

Styling by Lana Chiu. Grooming by Kumi Craig at The Wall Group. Photographed at The Standard, New York.

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.

Styling by Lana Chiu. Grooming by Kumi Craig at The Wall Group. Photographed at The Standard, New York.

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."

Styling by Lana Chiu. Grooming by Kumi Craig at The Wall Group. Photographed at The Standard, New York.

Getting a handle on his identity has never been easy for Lat. At Harvard in the mid-1990s, he was notorious; an archconservative on a liberal campus who held nothing back in a biweekly opinion column for the Crimson. "I was at a party once, chatting with a woman, and at a certain point I introduced myself," he recalls. "And she said something like, 'You're David Lat? But you're so nice.'" In one column, he argued that discrimination was reason enough for a gay person to stay in the closet. He protested National Coming Out Day, writing, "How many homosexual Harvard students are still in the closet? Two? Three? . . . These alleged celebrations of diversity have devolved into mutual masturbation festivals."

Lat laughs uncomfortably when reminded of these words. "If I'd looked in the mirror . . . at least one," he says. As a hard-working associate at Wachtell, Lat begged out of dating using the old too-devoted-to-my-work-to-bother-with-love excuse. "I realized in my late twenties that I was going crazy trying to be in the closet," he says. "I was just miserable and deeply unhappy, and then I decided to come out. I think part of me then also thought it would be much harder to have the kind of success in the law that I wanted because my mentors, my connections were on the conservative side and yet I'm gay." Lat lives in an apartment in New York's Flatiron neighborhood and has been in a relationship for three years. "Maybe I should just throw in the towel, then, and become a journalist. This is another thing that's very liberating about not being on that lawyer-judge track; you can be a lot more open about your life."

After leaving the Attorney's office, Lat became the co-editor of the political-gossip site Wonkette in 2006. Shortly afterward he started Above the Law—with Elizabeth Spiers (a Gawker founder), Justin Smith, and Carter Burden—for a privately held blog company called Breaking Media (at the time known as Dead Horse Media), whose most successful property at the time was a Wall Street gossip site called Dealbreaker. (Spiers later left the company.) The voice and range of topics covered weren't all that different from Underneath Their Robes, but this version had Lat's name proudly emblazoned on the site's masthead as managing editor. "Maybe it was vanity on my part or something," Lat says, "but I just felt like I wanted to go back to being a character. [Now] I enjoy what I do. I think it's societally useful—and I don't have trouble sleeping at night."

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