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David Lat: Former Federal Prosecutor and Wachtell Lipton Associate Turned Celebrity Blogger

AbovethelawTalk about a fascinating career trajectory. After graduating from Yale Law School, David Lat has moved from a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals clerkship to associate at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (billing 2,700 hours/year) to talent agent intern at Creative Artists Agency to federal prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, N.J., and (simultaneously) anonymous publisher of Underneath Their Robes - a gossipy blog exploring the personalities and quirks of well known jurists.

Which brings us to Lat's current position: editor of Above the Law, a blog that bills itself as a "behind-the-scenes look at the world of law [that] . . . provides news and gossip about the profession’s most colorful personalities and powerful institutions, as well as original commentary on breaking legal developments."

We recently wrote a post about Lat after he was profiled on (see earlier post here). Despite his busy schedule (10-12 posts/day), he was thereafter kind enough to give us an interview, which you can read below.

JD Bliss (JDB):  In just a half-dozen years since you got your J.D. degree from Yale Law School, you’ve had a career arc that few people match in a lifetime:  associate at a top New York law firm, assistant federal prosecutor, fledgling talent agent, and author of several highly regarded (and highly publicized) blogs about the legal profession.  Let’s start at the beginning – what motivated you to attend law school?

David Lat:  After I graduated from Harvard College, I really had no clear idea of what my career path should be.  Law school was attractive because I enjoy intellectual challenge and I like writing and speaking – all of which seemed essential to a legal career.  I greatly enjoyed my time at Yale Law School.  After graduating, I spent a year clerking for Judge O'Scannlain, on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  I applied to clerk on the Supreme Court after my circuit court clerkship, and I interviewed for a clerkship with Justice Scalia, but I didn't get the job in the end.

JDB:  After clerking you joined Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz in 2000.  Wachtell is renowned for being perhaps the most successful and grueling firm in the country.  What did you find satisfying and dissatisfying about your time there?

Lat:  I was at Wachtell for two and a half years, learned a lot there, and made many friends that I still have today.  My focus was on M&A litigation, and yes it was grueling – my second year there was my busiest, and I billed 2,700 hours.  The responsibility and stress were just as challenging as the time demands.  Big firm life is definitely not easy, and people who do well in that environment really have to want it.  There is a serious side of me that found it worthwhile, but it wasn’t fulfilling for my creative and fun side.

JDB:  Does that explain your departure to try life as a talent agent? And if so, why did you return to law by joining the U.S. Attorney’s office in Newark?

Lat:  When I left Wachtell in May of 2003, I knew I wasn’t completely satisfied with my life, but was confused about what direction to take.  I’ve had a long-time interest in film and television, and the industry’s glamour factor appealed to me as well, so I planned to go to the West Coast and pursue a career as a talent agent.  Before taking such a big step, I accepted the opportunity to sample the life by doing a summer internship at the New York office of Creative Artists Agency, one of the biggest firms in the business.  The experience brought home to me how hard it would be to leave the law and start all over again. As an intern, I was doing the kind of menial work that I’d be faced with for several years as a talent agent in training.  Before I began the agency stint I had been interviewing with the U.S. Attorney’s office in case things didn’t work out, and they made me an offer at just the right time.  So I decided to give the legal profession one more shot.

JDB:  Life as a federal prosecutor had to be much different than being a Wall Street lawyer.  Did you enjoy it?

Lat:  I was doing criminal appellate work that as a lawyer I found fulfilling, and I was basically happy there.  Yet I again felt like I was lacking a creative outlet, so after less than a year – in June of 2004 – I started blogging as a new and different way to write and express myself.  I’m interested in people rather than abstract concepts, and I found the federal judges I worked with to be fascinating subjects.  They also represented uncharted territory, because nobody ever really commented on their unique personalities and quirks.  I called the blog “Underneath Their Robes,” and to avoid any potential problems while still being at the U.S. Attorney’s office, the blog was written in the voice of “Article III Groupie,” or A3G – Article III being the part of the Constitution devoted to the judiciary.  I analyzed and speculated about federal judges, and tried to convey worthwhile information about the world of the federal bench, through the A3G persona, who had my professional background, but was portrayed along the lines of Reese Witherspoon’s character Elle Woods in Legally Blonde.

JDB:  How difficult was it to manage the blog – from the standpoints of time, content, technology and the interaction with your day job?

Lat:  Time wasn’t a problem because I typically work late anyway, so I did most of the blogging late at night or in the early morning hours.  As for content, I basically started out writing about interesting gossip about judges that I picked up.  The great thing about the blogosphere is that once you put material out there, people are going to find it and add to it, so a network of “tipsters” who enjoyed the content and added their own information grew organically along with the blog.  I really thought through the technology angle because I wanted to handle the whole blog myself, so I needed software that was quick and easy to use.  I settled on Typepad, and taught myself to use it.  I learned that the more you do, the easier it gets.

JDB:  “Underneath Their Robes” built a tremendous following in the legal profession, all while you continued working in the prosecutor’s office.  How did you handle that kind of double life, and where did it lead you?

Lat:  It definitely was a double life, because I remained anonymous as A3G and even bought special software to disguise my IP address when emailing.  It became harder to stay under the radar as the blog grew in popularity, because it sounded enough like me that some people who knew me speculated that I was the author.  It reached the point of getting several thousand visitors a day, with two big growth spurts.  The first was after A3G announced a contest to identify “judicial hotties,” and Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit – who was a fan of the blog and who is a brilliant, witty and larger-than-life person – nominated himself.  Then, when A3G began speculating on who would be named to the Supreme Court vacancies in the summer of 2005, it gave readership another boost.   With that kind of popularity I decided that the charade had gone on long enough, and frankly I was ready for a little recognition for what I was doing.  When a writer for the New Yorker who was a fan of the blog contacted A3G and wanted an interview, I decided he should meet the real A3G – me.  He wrote about it in November of 2005.   My supervisor at the U.S. Attorney’s office wasn’t thrilled to find that I was the person doing “Underneath Their Robes,” but he made it clear that I was welcome to stay.  He also encouraged me to pursue a blogging career if it was there for me.  By then I decided that it was there, and I made the decision to leave.  It was on very good terms, and not because I was dissatisfied with the law.

JDB:  You say that a blogging career had materialized for you.  What was it, and how did you develop it?

Lat:  When the New Yorker article came out I was prepared to take my blog down.  It just so happened that at exactly the same time I was contacted by the well-known political blog Wonkette, through a law school classmate of mine.  They offered me a job blogging at Wonkette, and I accepted.  I didn’t leave the U.S. Attorney’s office until I had the Wonkette offer in hand.  Ultimately, I consider myself to be pretty risk averse.

JDB:  Did becoming a full-time blogger meet your expectations?

Lat:  I was with Wonkette for about six months and I learned a lot more about blogging there.  But ultimately it wasn’t a good fit.  The blog already had a voice and identity, and it was focused on politics rather than legal affairs.  I wanted to pursue something new and different that focused on the law.  What I had in mind was a blog that would be a legal tabloid – something with the tone and credibility of The American Lawyer, but more free-form and with more gossip.  In mid-2005, I pitched my idea to Dead Horse Media, which also owns the Wall Street online tabloid DealBreaker. My blog idea became “Above the Law” (, which is a legal tabloid much like I envisioned.  We have hard news, opinion and gossip about the profession.  I write it in a voice much like A3G, but this time it’s really me.  It’s a place where lawyers can bring their gripes and frustrations, and others in the profession can relate to them.  For example, we’ve been running an interview horror stories series where people relate the worst things that were ever done to them, or that they did.  I do 10 to 12 postings a day and we’ve already had great readership, with about 15,000 page views on a typical weekday.

JDB:  In one sense you’ve come a long way from being a practicing lawyer, yet in another you’re still active in the profession.  Are you pleased with how things have worked out?

Lat:  I’m very comfortable with where I am now and I’m having a great time.  I don’t have any plans to change what I’m doing in the foreseeable future, although I’m supplementing it by doing some freelance writing for publications like the New York Observer and Washingtonian magazine.  I don’t have any regrets about leaving active practice, but I still maintain my bar dues and keep up with my Continuing Legal Education requirements.  It lends credibility to what I do, and keeps me a participant rather than just an observer in the profession.

JDB:  Given your success at career transitions, what advice would you give other attorneys who may not be satisfied with legal practice but are uncertain about what direction to take?

Lat:  Lawyers and nonlawyers have very different reactions to my career change.  Nonlawyers ask how I could have left such a prestigious and lucrative profession.  Lawyers say something like “congrats, good for you, I’m jealous.”  I feel fortunate that what I started as a hobby has turned out to be something I do for a living, and to me that shows the importance of exploring all your different options to the extent that you can.  Keep on going until you find something that fits.  Practicing lawyers have the skills to be a small business owner or a freelance writer, or any other option that appeals to them.  It takes time and flexibility, but if one alternative doesn’t have the appeal you thought it would, try another that’s just as feasible.  The perfect gig doesn’t happen all at once – make adjustments as you go along, and learn more about what you really want to do.

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