Over the weekend, we drew your attention to an interesting article from the Legal Times, written by Nathan Carlile. We found it interesting because, well, it was mainly about us and ATL. We also described it as “exhaustively reported, colorfully written, and a genuine pleasure to read.”
We mentioned we had a few “quibbles” (which should not be viewed as detracting from the overall excellence of the piece). Some of you expressed curiosity about said quibbles.
For those of you who might be interested, the Legal Times piece, along with our running commentary, appears after the jump. But if you’re not interested, simply skip this post; for your convenience, we’ve placed the bulk of this post AFTER the jump. To expose your eyeballs to this, you must affirmatively elect to do so. Thanks.
The piece starts off as follows:
David Lat Takes on the Legal World One Post at a Time:
Blogger and ex-lawyer takes no prisoners
By Nathan Carlile
October 23, 2006
OLD MEDIA DOES STORY ON NEW MEDIA, STILL DOESN’T GET IT
There’s a pervasive fear in the print-media industry that readers increasingly get their news not from disheveled, poorly dressed reporters, but from disheveled, underdressed bloggers, with objective, puritan journalism exchanged for snarky opinion.
“[D]isheleved, underdressed bloggers”? Hey, we do care about fashion! (Although, to be sure, the Zegna suits from our Biglaw days are collecting dust, since we spend most of our days in shorts and a T-shirt.)
Even the notion of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein chasing down leads had a hint of action. But who’s going to make a movie where the caffeine-addled hero jockeys a sofa, rifles pronouncements from a cyber-soapbox, all while smoking menthols and gratuitously instant-messaging a network of friendsters?
We don’t smoke. And the reference to “friendsters” is very dated.
It’s a popular stereotype. And unfortunately for the news business, it appears to be coming somewhat true.
Exhibit A might be David Lat, the former federal prosecutor turned Internet gossip maven. His Northwest D.C. apartment doubles as the newsroom for Above the Law (which reads like the illegitimate love child of Legal Times and US Weekly), a Web site edited by Lat and owned by Elizabeth Spiers, chic blog-mogul and founder of Gawker Media, that the two say is already getting 15,000 hits a day.
ATL is owned not just by Spiers but by her two co-investors in Dead Horse Media LLC, Carter Burden and Justin Smith. Spiers was the founding editor of the Gawker blog; but Nick Denton would be the founder of Gawker Media, the company. The reference to “15,000 hits a day,” for blogging nerds, should really be “15,000 page views a day.”
Lat’s blog offers a daily dose of rapid-fire minutiae aimed at legal obsessives. It’s fun. It’s cheeky. It’s clearly written by an insider simpatico with lawyers’ trials and tribulations.
More after the jump.
BLOGGER DOESN’T SHOWER, NEEDS HUG, FRIENDS, PETS, ETC.
Lat opens the door with a warm, possibly overly enthusiastic greeting.
It’s 4 p.m., and he’s grooming after finally having showered. The plan, he says, is to put off blogging for a few hours and then meet friends for drinks. At 31, he is short and slight, physically unassuming, though his personality takes over a room.
It’s soon readily apparent that Lat isn’t being fake. He’s high-energy, a salesman who can banter with ease, sliding between legal bromides and pop-culture parlances. “Being a blogger is a lot about self-promotion,” says Alex Pareene, editor of the D.C. political blog Wonkette who was Lat’s co-editor when he worked there earlier this year. “And David is definitely good at that.”
His place is a mess. Dirty dishes, empty soy-milk cartons, and organic cold-medicine packets are strewn around the kitchen. Newspapers and magazines litter the three-room apartment. But upon closer inspection, there is an organization to the chaos. Magazines are lined in Dewey-style rows on the floor. Newspapers are opened and noted if something might prove post-worthy.
A pretty accurate description, for the most part. But room count might vary depending upon your counting methodology. Our 900-square-foot apartment has a bedroom, a bathroom, a den, and a big living / dining / kitchen area.
“I can go 24, 48, 72 hours without human contact. So I now try to make social plans at night,” says Lat, who is meeting up with a few sources later in the evening. “I met [blogger] Andrew Sullivan at an awards dinner. If you know these people, they’re more likely to link to you. I’m a link whore. It’s like any business: It’s who you know.” While he talks, Lat repeats a slightly distracting Fonzie-esque habit of slicking back his hair.
“I’m always working, trying to find something to write about. I never turn it off,” Lat says. “People at parties always pause and ask, ‘Now, wait, is this on the record?’”
The quotation here may be a little imprecise (and Carlile did not tape record our conversations; he took down written notes). Our recollection is that we referred to the general blogospheric practice of “linkwhoring,” but didn’t identify ourselves as linkwhores (although, to be sure, we are).
We plead guilty to fiddling with our hair fairly often. One of our many nervous habits.
If you ever meet us socially, rest assured that our default rule for social interactions is that everything is “off the record.” If you happen to say something juicy that we might want to use, we’ll ask you for permission to write about it first.
JUST ANOTHER MAN ON THE NET PRETENDING TO BE A WOMAN
Lat’s work has been celebrated in legal circles for a few years, but only within the past 11 months has he received credit. In June 2004, while an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey in the appellate division, Lat began moonlighting as Article III Groupie, or A3G — the pseudonymous blogger of Underneath Their Robes. Lat’s blog character effectively channeled the chi of Elle Woods, the California-sun-soaked, Gucci-impaired law student popularized by actress Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. A3G is a booze floozy with an eye for black robes and an ear for motions in limine.
Reading A3G’s musings was a guilty pleasure for court watchers. And the subject matter was fresh terrain: No one had ever bothered to Tiger Beat the wonkish judiciary. “After all, federal judges are people too, with unique personalities, private lives, and peccadilloes, all just waiting to be explored,” explained A3G in the blog’s opening mission statement.
What followed was 18 months of irreverent dishing about the personal idiosyncrasies of Chief Justice William Rehnquist (boxers or briefs?), holding write-in contests for “male superhotties of the federal judiciary,” handicapping the thoroughbred race for Supreme Court clerkships; and coining terms such as “judicial sight-ation” (judges spotted in public), “the Elect” (a nickname for Supreme Court clerks), “Fili-Busted” (female federal bench nominees blocked by filibustering Democrats), and “bench-slap” (reversing a ruling).
We have to correct the parenthetical definition provided for the term “benchslap.” As explained here, a true bench-slap — as distinguished from “a garden-variety reversal” — must be personal, catty, a bit vicious.
SO? THE GUY IN THE OFFICE NEXT TO YOU BILLED 3,000 HOURS
Before he was A3G, Lat attended Harvard College and Yale Law School, where he was vice president of the campus Federalist Society. The ultimate goal was becoming a federal judge. But then, after a series of academic successes, Lat was denied a clerkship with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia upon getting to the interview stage. He instead clerked for Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
Two items. First, “upon getting to the interview stage” should probably read “after interviewing with the justice and his clerks.” The “upon” wording makes it sound like we showed up at One First Street for an interview and had the bronze doors slammed in our face (literally, not just metaphorically).
Second, the last sentence above suggests that a federal appeals court clerkship is a “consolation prize” for a Supreme Court clerkship. Jonathan Miller’s New York Times profile of us conveys the same impression.
But such an impression would be erroneous. Almost all SCOTUS clerks work first for a federal appeals court judge, and then go on to clerk at the Court. (A handful come from federal district court clerkships or state appellate courts.)
“I like to think that my life turned out to be much more interesting as a result of my not getting the Scalia clerkship,” says Lat. “But I’d be lying if I denied that some small part of me still envies my friends who got Supreme Court clerkships and now have high-powered legal jobs. A Supreme Court clerkship is the ultimate credential within the legal profession, and when I didn’t get one, I think, subconsciously, my interest in doing something other than practicing law increased.”
After clerking, Lat joined Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York in late 2000. He worked largely on commercial litigation and mergers and acquisitions. One of his cases involved representing Larry Silverstein in an insurance-payments dispute after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. Lat says he billed a stratospheric 2,700 hours his second year — a grueling yet expected work schedule for an associate with Wachtell. It may have led to burnout.
Tiny quibble: The wording of the second sentence in the second paragraph above could be read as suggesting we did actual M&A work (i.e., corporate or transactional work). We were spared that fate. Instead, we worked on M&A-related litigation — takeover fights, a staple of Wachtell Lipton’s litigation practice.
“I have two aspects [to my personality]. One is serious and substantive; the other is fun and frivolous,” says Lat. “For so many years I indulged the serious, but I wasn’t completely fulfilled.”
In May 2003, after two and a half years at Wachtell, Lat gave the firm notice that he was leaving — for Hollywood. He was going to try his hand as a talent agent. He never made it to California, but for a summer he interned at Creative Arts [sic] Agency’s New York office — in the mail room.
“It’s a bit hard leaving that income to start over completely,” says Lat, who then coincidentally received an offer from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark, N.J. “I figured I’d give law one last shot.”
Two small things: (1) the agency’s name is Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and (2) that last quote may have been garbled a little as well. We were less concerned about the depressingly low income of a talent agency peon than with the depressingly menial nature of tasks involved: coffee-fetching, photocopying, telephone coverage, etc. One summer of such work convinced us that we couldn’t do it for the three to five years required to go from being an assistant to a full-fledged agent. (Think of poor oppressed Lloyd from Entourage.)
THE REAL PARIS HILTON WOULDN’T TALK TO US, SO WE CALLED YOU
It was about eight months into the U.S. attorney gig that Lat started Underneath Their Robes. There wasn’t a grand design, he says. Rather, the blog was a way to “stretch my writing muscles.”
A3G’s debut came with a cursory introduction describing her as attending a prestigious law school, clerking for a federal appellate judge, being a reject for a Supreme Court clerkship, and, currently, working as an associate at a large New York law firm where she “consoles herself through the over-consumption of luxury goods.”
The fictitious lawyer quickly became a blog-world sensation.
“I wasn’t sure if I was amused or put out,” says Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit, who recalls other judges not knowing what to make of A3G. “But then I thought this deserved some sort of approval — that we do know how to poke fun at ourselves.”
Kozinski started a correspondence with A3G, nominating himself as a judicial hottie. “I bear an uncanny resemblance to Moses of Old Testament Fame,” wrote Kozinski to A3G in late June of 2004, citing many of his favorable attributes.
The tacit approval helped legitimize A3G. “It’s like people in the audience not knowing if they should clap,” says Kozinski. “Sometimes you need the people to move in the right direction.”
(Kozinski and Lat’s connection has carried over to Above the Law. A few weeks ago, Kozinski was named the Paris Hilton of the federal judiciary for his “self-promotion.” The gag was in good fun, though Kozinski wasn’t completely thrilled: “I did get a few scattered letters of congratulations. But I’m not a big fan of Paris Hilton. She’s pretty vapid, so I’m not entirely flattered by that award.”)
After reading this, we immediately sent off an apologetic email to Judge Kozinski. In awarding him the “Paris Hilton” award, we did not mean to suggest that Judge Kozinski and Paris Hilton are intellectually comparable in any way — a proposition that is laughable on its face, considering that Judge Kozinski is one of the brighest minds, and sharpest wits, ever to grace the federal bench. Instead, the award merely recognized the fabulosity and larger-than-life quality that Judge Kozinski and Paris Hilton share.
Although self-described as aesthetically anachronistic, Kozinski was apparently familiar with Internet sleuthing. He was the first to tip off A3G that her identity wouldn’t be secret for long if she weren’t more careful. “He sent me an e-mail explaining how someone could trace my URL address to my blog,” says Lat. “So I bought equipment to make it anonymous.”
This sentence should actually read something more like: “He sent me an e-mail explaining how someone could obtain my IP address from my email messages.” And “equipment” should read as “software” — namely, this.
Richard Posner, the legal scholar and federal appeals court judge, echoes Kozinski’s favorable reaction. “Underneath Their Robes was amusingly written but it did have real content, including interviews with judges and a lot of valuable information for applicants for clerkships,” Posner told Legal Times in an e-mail.
JEFFREY TOOBIN TAKES TIME BETWEEN CABLE GIGS TO DESTROY BLOGGER’S LIFE
While gaining a cultlike following — his site was receiving about 2,000 visitors a day — Lat never let on to his friends that he was leading a double life. “He maintained resolute defiance that he was the author, in contrary to the overwhelming evidence,” says William Birdthistle, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law who clerked with Lat for O’Scannlain. Birdthistle says the diction and voice Lat used in e-mails sent among friends were too similar not to be A3G. “He maintained to us a very Clintonian denial: ‘Article Three Groupie is a fictional character; I am not a fictional character,’ ” says Birdthistle.
Two things. First, the subhed, while amusing, is at odds with the text — it implies that the outing was done by Toobin against our will and with disastrous consequences. Second, the “Clintonial denial” was not issued until AFTER the New Yorker piece came out. Prior to that point, it was a flat-out denial. (And, amusingly enough, one of the chief suspects was one of our co-clerks.)
Then Lat outed himself. The charade had gone on long enough. And, admittedly, he wanted a little credit. “I was getting all this notoriety,” says Lat. “But I wasn’t getting the notoriety.”
In the months leading up to revealing his identity, Lat had begun a correspondence with New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin. “I had been a fan of the blog and wrote her saying so. And I thought she might make a good source,” says Toobin. “My general complaint about blogs is that they are too much opinion and not enough facts. You tend not to learn anything other than the blogger’s opinion. But the thing about David is, he finds stuff out — there’s actual content to his blog.”
Eventually, Toobin suggested, through their e-mail exchanges, the two meet for lunch and discuss Lat going public. After a month of debate, Lat acquiesced, though he says he was aware revealing his identity could result in career suicide.
“Law school is the great American default option for smart kids who can’t stand the sight of blood,” says Lat while sitting in a D.C. coffee shop, recounting his decision to leave the profession.
“Funny enough, I still thought he was a woman,” says Toobin of their first visit in the Condé Nast cafeteria in Manhattan. “So I was a little confused when I got a call from the front desk saying ‘David’ is here to see you.”
This is all true. We can still recall the look of genuine surprise on Toobin’s face when he met us in the Conde Nast reception area.
FEDERAL PROSECUTORS REALLY LOVE A LOOSE CANNON
On a Monday morning in November 2005, Lat walked into work knowing The New Yorker had revealed the identity of A3G the night before.
“Maybe I was delusional, but I had convinced myself that it wasn’t going to be a big deal,” say Lat.
It was. And it wasn’t. Lat says his boss, U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie, didn’t respond with cartwheels, but also recognized the skill and effort put into Underneath Their Robes. Lat says he was encouraged by Christie to pursue a blogging career if it was there for him. And if that’s what he wanted.
“There was a story that said he was forced out. That absolutely isn’t true,” says Michael Drewniak, communications director for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “We weren’t totally pleased to learn he was the author of the blog, but that didn’t change our view of David being a very gifted lawyer. He contributed a lot to his division.” In fact, the office made it clear that as long as Christie holds his position, there’s a spot for Lat.
Because we left the U.S. Attorney’s Office on our own accord, and on good terms with the office, we were especially upset by this Wall Street Journal piece by Cameron Stracher.
“I was really proud of him,” says Carmela Guerrero, a classmate of Lat’s at Yale, of his leaving the profession. “Every time you hear a lawyer say they’re going to do something different, they never actually take the plunge.”
Lat resigned from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in December, and within weeks he had an offer from Wonkette owner Nick Denton to move to D.C. and join the blog as co-editor. “I felt like I was confident enough to do it,” says Lat. “I wasn’t going out on a limb and doing something totally different.”
The chronology here is off. We didn’t give notice at the U.S. Attorney’s Office until we had the Wonkette offer in hand. (Sure, we were leaving the practice of law; but we were — and still are — pretty risk-averse.)
Lat says the response he receives to becoming a full-time blogger often depends on the person’s profession. “Lawyers and nonlawyers have very different reactions (to my career change),” says Lat. “Nonlawyers ask how I could have left the profession, the money. Lawyers say something like ‘congrats, good for you, I’m jealous.’”
But what seemed like a great opportunity wasn’t a natural fit. Six months into his job at Wonkette, Spiers recruited him to run a niche legal blog in the same vein as DealBreaker, which barters Wall Street gossip.
“Wonkette already had an identity, a voice,” says Lat. “And I’m not a political nerd. I’m a law nerd.”
That last quote would read more accurately if something along the lines of “I wanted to start something new” or “I wanted to build another blog from the ground up” were interposed in between the two parts of it.
Also, the “Spiers recruited” wording obscures our agency in all of this. We came up with the idea for a legal tabloid and pitched it to Spiers and her co-investors, who then made us an offer.
Okay, enough nitpicking. We don’t really have any major issues with the rest of the piece (which appears below). And we think that that next subheading is hilarious. Enjoy!
BLOGGING TO DOMINATE UNIVERSE, REPLACE SEX, DRUGS, MOTHER
Andy Warhol was wrong: Not everyone will be famous for 15 minutes. This especially applies to the meritocracy-based world of blogging. Although theoretically, blogging gives everyone a shot at getting their name out there, most bloggers die anonymously, their words read only by parents, pets, and lurkers.
The Darwinian struggle for page views is an increasingly structured, and possibly lucrative, survival of the readable. And Lat is readable. His writing voice has remained very close to A3G, despite dropping the feminine pretenses (he uses the “royal we” although flanked by only an occasional intern, something he says is a satirical nod to keeping the writing light).
Bob Thompson, a media professor at Syracuse University, says blogs, like other moneymakers, will eventually be a less volatile medium. “The stuff getting major distribution has to rely on a high degree of professionalism and promotionalism,” says Thompson. “It won’t be long until you have networked structuring.” Considering Lat’s one-year contract comes with health care coverage, that may already be happening.
Above the Law is different from Underneath Their Robes in that federal judges are only part of Lat’s universe. Much more space is given to the gossip and lives surrounding D.C. and New York law firms.
Unlike newspapers or magazines, there’s irrefutable proof with blogs — a count of page views — that shows what gets read and what doesn’t. “As long as traffic is good and I’m hitting my post count, I’m left alone,” says Lat about his relationship with Spiers. The blog, he says, is getting about 105,000 views a week — three times the anticipated count. His expected postings are between 10 and 12 a day. “She really does allow me to use my better judgment,” Lat says.
That judgment has recently included running a contest for law-dean hotties, recounting interview horror stories for law school students, and anonymous whispers of associate salaries. (For his part, Lat declines saying what he’s paid: “I make a lot closer to the average journalist than I did at Wachtell.”)
“What we’re doing is a fairly standard media model,” says Spiers. “We’re basically filling content and selling ads.”
GUERRILLA JOURNALISM REDUCED TO MARKETING BUZZWORDS
“Lawyers are a tough audience,” says Lat. “They think they can do it better than you. They take nothing as a given. It’s all part of having a lawyerly mind. Writing for lawyers is like putting on a Broadway show in New York or opening a restaurant in Paris.” [Ed. note: Yes, bitchy commenters, I’m thinking of you.]
The challenge is part of the appeal. After walking a narrow path, having associated peer and parental approval with scholastic and professional achievement, he’s conflating work with play. “I don’t miss the grind,” says Lat.
Which isn’t to say he isn’t working hard. Lat doesn’t know how else to operate. And the more he talks, the more the blogger stereotype doesn’t fit. Despite declaring he doesn’t want to be part of the “MSM” (as bloggers refer to the mainstream media) because he has complete creative control and isn’t constrained by the rules of professional journalism, there’s little denying that his original reporting and general worldview are that of a journalist.
“What I’m trying to do is create a community. There’s a feeling like you and your readers are interactively contributing to the buzz,” says Lat. “The idea is to have the law community huddled around one giant water cooler.”
Both Lat and Spiers foresee Above the Law evolving into an on-line magazine, with feature articles placed alongside the daily nuggets.
“We recognized David’s marketability,” says Spiers. “As more people get into the market, there’s a higher premium on content. In order to differentiate, you have to have original content and break news.”
Lat would also like to start writing a book in the near future, à la Ana Marie Cox (to whom Lat probably owes a debt of gratitude), though the subject has yet to be determined.
The coffee is finished and Lat has a party to hit. His name is now a brand.
But if this doesn’t last — and if, eventually, Lat’s story becomes just the familiar cautionary tale about a federal prosecutor who poses as a woman to post gossip on the Internet only to be exposed by a New Yorker writer and sign a lucrative blogging deal — he says things will still be OK.
“I’m sure someone will give me a job. But no worries. People are always trying to find what feels right,” says Lat. “You tack to the left, tack to the right. What I’m doing right now just feels right.”
David Lat Takes on the Legal World One Post at a Time: Blogger and Ex-Lawyer Takes No Prisoners
The Bench: SCOTUS Watch [New Yorker]
He Fought the Law. They Both Won. [New York Times]
Earlier: Some Fun Weekend Reading