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A Departure Memo, From David Lat
I’m proud of Above the Law, grateful to my readers and colleagues, and excited to begin the next chapter of my career.
By David Lat
May 6, 2019 at 3:00 PM
Years ago, when I left Wachtell Lipton as a fourth-year associate, I had an unusual plan: to move to Los Angeles and become a Hollywood talent agent. I can’t recall how this got into my head — no, I wasn’t inspired by fellow gaysian Lloyd Lee of Entourage, which hadn’t aired yet — but this was my announced intention. It puzzled my colleagues, but at the same time, they knew that Biglaw wasn’t for me.
I never ended up moving to Tinseltown. Before upending my life and trading coasts, I decided to give myself a taste of what it would be like to toil in an agency mailroom and work my way up the ranks, the traditional path to becoming an agent. I was lucky enough to land an internship in the New York office of Creative Artists Agency — and after a summer spent fetching coffee and making photocopies for minimum wage, I realized I didn’t have the stomach for years of low-paid apprenticeship at CAA or any other agency.
Fortunately, I had been interviewing around the same time with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, where I had spent a great summer interning after my first year of law school. So when then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie offered me a position as an assistant U.S. attorney, I shelved my Hollywood plan and jumped at the opportunity.
The rest of my story has been recounted elsewhere. The abridged version: I started writing a saucy judicial gossip blog called Underneath Their Robes (under a pseudonym, since I was still working as an AUSA); the site grew popular, and I revealed my identity as its author in an interview with Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker; and in the summer of 2006, I left the practice of law and launched Above the Law, which has grown over the years into one of the largest legal news websites in the country.
But now, years after my departure from Wachtell Lipton, I’ve come full circle. I’m becoming a talent agent after all — for lawyers.
Today I’m pleased to announce that I’m joining Lateral Link, one of the world’s leading legal search firms, as a managing director in the New York office. I will represent and place top associates, partners, and partner groups into preeminent law firms around the country, and I will use my experience and expertise as a journalist to assist Lateral Link with media and public relations, including social media and content marketing. (For more details, see this press release.)
Why legal recruiting? As readers of Above the Law know, lateral movement by lawyers is at record levels, with an estimated $17.1 billion in business moving with lateral partners over the past five years. Being a recruiter represents a chance to participate in this process, one of the most important forces shaping the legal industry today.
Some worry about the consequences of lateral movement for firm culture and collegiality, but movement is actually a good thing. As labor economists will tell you, a fluid and dynamic talent market is a positive, allocating human capital more efficiently — and in the business of law, human capital is the most important capital there is. It’s worth noting that the past few years, marked by record lateral movement, have also seen Biglaw revenue and profitability reach record highs.
In less abstract and more personal terms, legal recruiters help lawyers become… happy! Or at least less unhappy.
I can’t tell you how many young lawyers I’ve met over the years who were miserable in their jobs, especially their first jobs out of law school as Biglaw associates, and thought about leaving the legal profession entirely. There’s a reason why “associate attorney” was once voted the unhappiest job in America, and why the pages of Above the Law contain many tales of Biglaw woe (along with advice and resources for coping).
But I also know many young lawyers who decided to give law another chance — by moving to a boutique firm, an in-house position, a government post, or a Biglaw firm with a different culture. And many of these attorneys are glad they did, going on to fulfilling, successful, and long-lasting legal careers.
Whether the story turns out to have a happy ending, however, depends in large part on the quality of the career choices the lawyer makes. While you can’t completely remove risk from any process, you can reduce the risk associated with a job move, by conducting careful due diligence and getting wise counsel from knowledgeable advisers.
So I view legal recruiting as an extension of my work over the years at Above the Law: providing people with more and better information, both positive and negative, and helping them make sounder decisions. I believe my two decades as a lawyer and legal journalist have prepared me well for my new role as a recruiter, providing me with industry experience, knowledge, and contacts that will benefit my clients and candidates.
Why Lateral Link? First, it’s one of a few top-tier, national legal recruiting firms (most of them ATL advertisers).
Second, I happen to have the longest relationship with Lateral Link, which in 2007 became Above the Law’s first advertiser and has worked with ATL ever since. As both recruiters and rainmakers will tell you, the length of a relationship matters.
(Of course, I’m grateful to all of the other superb recruiters who were kind enough to speak with me over the past few months. As legal recruiting has grown and matured, the industry has attracted increasingly impressive individuals, many of them former practicing lawyers, and I definitely noticed this during my due diligence.)
Although I’m no longer a full-time editor of Above the Law, I will remain involved with the site as “editor emeritus.” I will write a column (to appear every other week on Tuesdays), attend and participate in ATL events, and assist with select editorial and sponsored projects. Beyond Above the Law, I will continue to write for other publications and speak at law firms, at firm-wide retreats, partner retreats, summer associate events, and diversity initiatives.
I will miss Above the Law as a workplace.
But I know that ATL will continue to thrive under the ownership of Breaking Media, the leading publisher of websites and social-media channels for influential, affluent business communities. This isn’t the first time I’ve adjusted my involvement with Above the Law.
In 2017, after my husband and I had our son, I stepped down as managing editor and spent a year and a half “leaning out” (i.e., hanging out with my baby, going to the gym a lot, and trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life). I turned over leadership of ATL to my longtime colleague, Elie Mystal.
The result? In 2018, the site enjoyed record traffic and revenue.
I will have more detailed reflections on my time at Above the Law in my first column as editor emeritus, which will appear tomorrow. For now, I’d just like to thank everyone — terrific colleagues, readers, sources, sponsors — and urge all of you to please stay in touch.
 There are important differences between talent agents and legal recruiters. Talent agents work for the “talent” — actors, writers, directors — and get paid a percentage commission from the talent’s earnings (setting aside the complex and controversial issue of packaging fees).
Legal recruiters, on the other hand, get paid by law firms, who are their actual “clients”; the individual lawyers who get placed are “candidates.” So the gist of this ATL post by columnist Steven Chung is accurate — “Recruiters Exist To Help Employers, Not Job Seekers” — and you shouldn’t take it personally if you reach out to a recruiter and don’t hear back (or if you hear back and the recruiter explains why you aren’t a fit).
If you’re an associate at a top firm or a partner with a sizable book of business, then you can probably benefit from the services of a recruiter (and if you already get lots of cold calls and emails from recruiters, that’s a good sign).
If not, though, then working with a recruiter might actually be to your detriment, by making you more expensive to hire (because the law firm must pay the recruiter’s placement fee on top of your salary). So you might be better off applying to firms on your own, especially if you have a connection like a friend or law school classmate who already works at the firm and can flag your application.
Lateral Link Expands in New York with Addition of Legal Journalist David Lat, the founding editor of Above the Law, is a writer, speaker, and legal recruiter at Lateral Link, where he is a managing director in the New York office. His book Supreme Ambitions: A Novel (2014) was described by the New York Times as “the most buzzed-about novel of the year” among legal elites. David previously worked as a federal prosecutor, a litigation associate at Wachtell Lipton, and a law clerk to Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. You can connect with David on Twitter (@DavidLat), LinkedIn, and Facebook, and you can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.