David Lat would gladly split his time between the Harvard Law Review and US Weekly. Here’s how he made those dueling interests into a career.
Question: How did you come to found a blog about the legal profession?
David Lat: Truth of why I moved from law to media, it was a little bit accidental, actually. I had always been interested in journalism. I had been involved in journalism in high school and college, where I worked on the school newspaper at Harvard, at The Harvard Crimson. And I then, after a number of legal jobs – I clerked for a judge; I worked at a law firm and then I went to the U.S. Attorney's Office. I found myself wanting to get back into non-legal writing. And so kind of on a lark, I started a blog anonymously because I didn't really know how it would affect my day job. I started a blog called Underneath Their Robes, which was kind of like a People or Us Weekly, but focused on federal judges, oddly enough.
So that, essentially, is how I first made the transition. I mean, I was doing that while balancing my day job as a prosecutor. And then eventually that blog developed a following and that was essentially my entry point into media.
I’m glad I made the move from law to media. I still practice a little bit because the blogging company that my site, Above the Law, is a part of, Breaking Media, has me as its in-house council. So I do a little bit of legal practice, but it's really five or ten percent of my time as opposed to 100 percent of it. And for me – everyone is different – for me, I just enjoy the day-to-day work of being a blogger more than the day-to-day work of being a practicing lawyer. But everyone's different. Some people tell me, "Oh, I would never want your job."
Question: What was your fascination with gossip about judges?
David Lat: In terms of Underneath Their Robes, I think that that blend of law and gossip reflected two aspects of my personality. On the one hand, I can happily sit down with an issue of The Harvard Law Review. On the other hand, I can happily sit down with Us Weekly. So I think it reflected my own bifurcated personality in a way, these twin interests that I had.
The other thought that I had about it was people love to talk about judges within legal circles. When they're appearing before a judge, they want to know what the judge is like. People also look at judges a little bit like celebrities of their legal world. These are the people who are making the big decisions, who are affecting the lives of millions. And at the time that Underneath the Robes was started, certainly there wasn't a lot of attention paid to judges as people. People would examine their rulings, for instance, or their jurist prudence, but they wouldn't really examine them much as people.
One thing I think that has changed since I started Underneath Their Robes in 2004 and today is we have been through three Supreme Court confirmation hearings—Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito and Justice Sotomayor. And I think now people are much more attuned to the personal narratives of judges for better or worse. But at the time that I started Underneath Their Robes, this was a little bit of a backwater. [0:03:26.03]
Question: Is now a good time to start a blog?
David Lat: It's a tough time, I think, to start blogs. When I first started Underneath Their Robes in 2004 and then when I launched Above the Law in 2006, there were many fewer blogs than there are now. Now, everyone and their mother has a blog. Every news organization has dozens of blogs. And one of the challenges is to be heard above the noise. And there is definitely a first-mover advantage, too. So there are a lot of blogs that people go to. Not necessarily because they are in some abstract sense better than the rest, but because they've bookmarked them or they've put them in their RSS reader. And just by force of habit, they go to blogs.
So, in terms of when I started Above the Law – that was in 2006 – I had been working at Wonkette, the political blog. That was my first fulltime blogging job after I left the U.S. Attorney's Office. And I came up with the idea for Above the Law because I thought it was nothing like a Wonkette or a Gawker-type site for the law. At the time, there were a couple of blogs that focused on substantive legal developments like The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog, which focused on law and business cases, or How Appealing, which is a blog by Howard Bashman, which focused a lot on appellate developments, or SCOTUSBlog, which focused on the Supreme Court. But that wasn't a blog out there that offered a bit of fun and humor about the profession, as well as industry news and gossip. And so I thought that there was an opening there, that there was a need in the market that wasn't being filled, and so that's when I came up with the idea for Above the Law.
Recorded on November 6, 2009