David Lat is a name familiar to many. David is a managing director in the New York office of Lateral Link, a leading legal recruiting firm, where he focuses his efforts on placing top associates, partners, and in-house counsel into preeminent law firms and corporate legal departments around the country. David also writes about legal affairs for national publications and speaks for law firms at events such as firm-wide retreats, partner retreats, summer associate gatherings, and diversity initiatives.
Prior to joining Lateral Link, David founded and served as managing editor (2006-2017) of Above the Law (“ATL”), a widely read and award-winning website about the legal profession that reaches more than 1.5 million unique visitors a month. David continues to write a semimonthly column for ATL and also contributes to other publications, including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. Prior to ATL, he launched Underneath Their Robes, a popular and buzz-generating blog about federal judges that he wrote under a pseudonym.
Before entering the media world, David worked as a federal prosecutor, a litigation associate at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz in New York, and a law clerk to Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
David is also a published author. His first book, Supreme Ambitions: A Novel, was published in 2014. According to the New York Times, “for an elite niche — consisting largely of federal judges and their clerks — Supreme Ambitions has become the most buzzed-about novel of the year.”
You’ve had a somewhat unusual career. Please tell me about your career and how you made the choices that you did with respect to it. Somewhat unusual is right! It’s a long story, so I’ll give the abridged version.I went straight through from college to law school without any grand plan. I didn’t have a sense of what it was like to be a lawyer; going to law school just seemed like a natural thing to do for someone like me with an interest in writing and speaking. Many of my colleagues at the college newspaper or debate team were also going, or had already gone, to law school. So off I went.
My first few years after law school were fairly conventional. I clerked on the Ninth Circuit, for the (wonderful) Judge O’Scannlain in Portland, then returned to the New York area to work as a litigation associate at the (superb) law firm of Wachtell Lipton. After a few years, I moved over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey. I had interned in that office during my 1L summer and loved it, and I had always thought I might go back.
While I was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, my career took an unusual turn. I had always loved writing, going back to my days as a columnist for the Harvard Crimson and my time as editor-in-chief of my high school opinion journal, and although I did a lot of legal writing as an assistant U.S. attorney, I wasn’t really doing any writing that didn’t involve Bluebooking. I was looking for a way to do engage in some non-legal writing.
It was 2004, and this thing called “blogging” was on the rise. So I started a blog called “Underneath Their Robes” (UTR), which offered “news, gossip, and colorful commentary about the federal judiciary” — a subject of longstanding interest to me, dating back to law school. Because I was occasionally irreverent about federal judges, including some judges I appeared before as a prosecutor, I pretended to be a judiciary-obsessed woman and wrote under a pseudonym, “Article III Groupie” (after Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the judiciary).
The blog did well and developed a nice (albeit niche) following. In November 2005, in an interview with the New Yorker, I revealed myself as the author of Underneath Their Robes. A few weeks later, I left the U.S. Attorney’s Office to blog full-time.
What was the impetus behind Above the Law? How and why has it evolved over time?
The impetus behind Above the Law (ATL) was like the impetus behind Underneath Their Robes: to bring greater transparency to an often opaque, occasionally confusing world — the judiciary for UTR, and the legal profession writ large for ATL. I also wanted to offer some humor and entertainment, two things that are sorely needed in the rather serious legal profession.
ATL started off with a lot of gossip and humor, but as time went on, we found there was a real hunger for certain news and analysis in the legal profession that wasn’t being provided by existing outlets — for example, detailed information about salaries and bonuses at law firms, or an alternative to the U.S. News rankings for law schools. So we started to fill that gap in the market. It was still about increasing transparency, but with the more specific mission of helping people make better decisions — e.g., which law school should I attend, or which law firm should I work for.
In recent years, ATL has also been a strong voice for increasing diversity in the legal profession, and I’m proud of ATL’s work on that issue — which started well before the current focus on diversity and inclusion.
You’re now in the recruiting world. What are your current thoughts on the legal recruiting world?
I have many thoughts on this very interesting world, but in the interest of not being overlong, I’ll offer just two. First, recruiting is much harder than many people realize; so many pieces need to fall into place in order for a recruiter to make a “placement,” i.e., to get a lawyer hired by a particular employer (which is what recruiters get paid for, by the employers).
Second, on the bright side, recruiting is holding up much better than one might expect in the midst of a pandemic and a recession. We are surprisingly busy at Lateral Link, the recruiting firm I work for, despite all the uncertainty in the world right now.
What have been some of the biggest unexpected lessons you’ve learned over the course of your career so far and why?
I’m not sure this is “unexpected,” but I would say that over the course of my career, I’ve learned that the old saying — “it’s not what you know, but who you know” — is very true, especially in the legal profession. So much in this profession, from landing a coveted clerkship to signing a major client, depends on relationships. When I speak at law schools, I advise law students to focus not just on doing good work, which is of course critical, but also on making friends and contacts, which will be extremely valuable to them over the course of their careers.
The legal world has seemed to struggle somewhat with adapting to the reality of Covid-19. What would be your advice to legal leaders with respect to delivering legal services during and after the time of Covid-19?
Eventually, the coronavirus pandemic will be behind us, but I hope that legal leaders don’t forget some of the lessons learned during this challenging time. Here are two.
First, technology is an amazing tool for lawyers, and lawyers should embrace rather than fear it. Too many lawyers are still leery of technology, perhaps because many of us are not “STEM” people — but as we’ve learned during the pandemic, using tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, technology allows us to work so much more efficiently, effectively, and flexibly.
Second, and very much related to the first point, “face time” is greatly overrated — and law firms should therefore be more tolerant of their employees working remotely. Don’t get me wrong: I believe there are certain benefits to meeting face to face that can’t be replicated, even by great technological tools like Zoom, and I look forward to when we can return to gathering in person. But what legal employers have learned during the pandemic is that their employees can be very productive outside the office — and sometimes even more productive, since they’re saving on the commute time. I hope this realization isn’t lost when life returns to normal (or whatever “new normal” we end up with).
You had a long and brutal battle with Covid-19. What has been the biggest lesson that you learned from your extended fight?
Picking up on what I was just saying about relationships, the biggest lesson I learned from my harrowing experience with Covid is just the importance of friends and family. During my struggle, I received so much support from so many people, and I don’t know that I would have made it through my Covid ordeal without it.
I was especially touched by all the support I received from within the legal community. Contrary to stereotype, so many lawyers in the world are caring and compassionate, and I benefited from their prayers, good thoughts, and other support during one of the darkest periods of my life.
So, to all of them reading this, I’d just like to say this once again: thank you.