Longtime legal industry chronicler David Lat, who founded the website Above the Law in 2006, announced Monday that he would join the recruitment firm Lateral Link as a managing director. Meanwhile, he will serve at editor emeritus of Above the Law, which sees roughly 8 million page views a month.
He spoke with The American Lawyer about the website’s effect on the industry, his motivations for the move and his plans (and pay) as a recruiter. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Looking back at your time at Above the Law, what kind of impact has the website made?
I think the main effect of Above the Law on the legal profession, law firms, law schools and the judiciary is adding transparency. Whether it’s explaining how law firm compensation works, whether it’s talking about law firm culture, whether it’s talking about issues people don’t want to think about, like diversity, we have tried to be a voice for transparency and reform.
I am mindful of the good and bad possible consequences of news coverage. When a law firm raises pay, Above the Law reports it. This causes a pay raise that would take months to spread throughout the profession when I graduated law school to now spread through the profession in weeks or days. It’s beneficial for the associates to get a pay raise earlier rather than later. But what’s a bad example? Back in 2009 and 2010, Above the Law covered law firm layoffs extensively. In some ways, the coverage gave [other firms] a kind of political cover to undertake similar moves. On the other hand, I think a lot of those moves would have happened anyway. Journalists have a lot of influence, as you know, but we don’t force people to do anything.
Can you recap your motivation to move to legal recruiting?
Legal recruiting is something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, partly because as a journalist, recruiters were some of my sources. Recruiters are just extremely knowledgeable about what’s happening in large law firms. And then, after doing Above the Law for almost 13 years. I was ready for a change. I talked to a number of different recruiting firms and decided to go with Lateral Link. They were a natural fit. Also, as I mentioned in the post, it’s an exciting time to go into legal recruiting. I feel like a sportscaster who has donned a jersey and hopped onto the field. I felt, in a way, that they were having too much fun and I wanted to be a part of this.
Did Lateral Link approach you, or did you approach them?
More the latter. I took a journalistic approach to recruiting. I researched it almost as if I were writing a magazine feature article. I interviewed lots of top recruiters at lots of different firms on an informational basis. I put it all in a Google document that ended up being 20,000 or 30,000 words. Mike Allen, the founder of Lateral Link, was the recruiter who was probably the most proactive in trying to get [me] on board. When that informational discussion evolved into the possibility of my working for them, I was very receptive. It was really not a very formal application process.
What does your managing director role mean at Lateral Link and what will be your specialty?
Titles in the recruiting world aren’t as fixed as titles in the law firm world. There is some flexibility at Lateral Link. The highest title is principal. One title below is managing director. My domain will be media, social media and public relations and trying to get favorable media for Lateral Link, both earned and working on trying to get paid content. But my main focus will be on placements.
I expect to do a mix of partner and associate placements because I have ties to both partners and associates, and I will focus on New York and D.C. Fortunately, at Lateral Link, I have colleagues in a dozen or so legal markets, so I may partner with them from time to time.
Can you talk about the pay raise, going from writing to recruiting? Was that a factor?
I’ve been very well-treated by Above the Law and [its corporate parent] Breaking Media over the years. I think by journalism standards, I was very well-compensated, but it’s true that good legal recruiters can make multiples of what good journalists can. It wasn’t my only motivation or primary motivation, but as the father of a pretty young kid, certainly, economics are in the picture. One thing to note about recruiting, though, is that even more than Big Law, it is a total eat-what-you-kill environment. You can have some years where you are making as much as your law school classmates who are law firm partners, and you can have some years where you’re making less than a paralegal.
How will you be paid?
I will make my living from commission. So I encourage people to contact me. [Laughs.]
In the industry, the recruiting firm is paid a fee that is a percentage of the lawyer’s anticipated first-year compensation. So, for example, say you move a third-year associate, base salary $220,000, the standard commission is 25%, If you work for a recruiting firm, that fee is then split between the individual recruiter and the recruiting firm, or “the house,” and the splits will vary from firm to firm. I won’t reveal the Lateral Link split, but I will say the industry default is around 50-50.
Say you move a group of partners. Sometimes the fee agreements for the recruiting firms and the law firms may have a cap, say, no fee in excess of $1.5 million.
These fee agreements are all negotiated with the law firms, so a recruiting firm like Lateral Link has standing fee agreements with much of the Am Law 200.
Your post said you would still give paid speeches. Do you have other business interests? For example, what is Lat Legal Advisors LLC, which is mentioned on your website?
That’s a company I set up pretty recently. I used to do things as a sole proprietorship, David Lat, but I thought, you know, especially with this Trump pass-through deduction, there are sometimes tax benefits to having your own personal services business. I do have a small ownership stake in Breaking Media dating back to the exercise of options some years ago, but it’s very—I don’t even know what total it is, but it’s very small.
As a recruiter, you will be trusted with lawyers’ confidences. As an editor emeritus who will still be writing a biweekly column on the website, part of your role is making confidences public. How do you square these two roles?
This is a good opportunity to explain to folks how this will work. So it’s funny, I think people think of me and Above the Law as spilling secrets. But as you probably know, as a journalist, journalists have to keep more secrets than they share [in terms of confidential sources and off-record conversations]. Over the years at Above the Law, I have kept more confidences than I’ve revealed. I have kept the confidences of hundreds, if not thousands, of sources.
I will be writing a column for Above the Law every two weeks. Most of that writing is going to be in the nature of analysis and commentary, not breaking news. So, like many recruiters, I might be writing about trends in lateral recruitment, but I will not be writing about deals I’m working on. I expect that a lot of my column will be about the Supreme Court [and other courts]. Now, that said, the legal profession is a small world. I might write about people going into private practice.
Will your column be different from Lateral Link’s sponsored content on Above the Law?
My column will be treated like a standard editorial column. It will not be reviewed by Lateral Link beforehand, and it will be edited by an in-house Above the Law editor. I have a day job and work like a freelancer, like the 50 or so columnists Above the Law already has. Lateral Link has a sponsored column that runs every Friday, and I will help with that column. I think I will be the point person on that, but I won’t write all of them, or even many of them.
You stepped down from Above the Law’s management in 2017 and Elie Mystal has run the site since then, but now that you are taking another full-time job, should readers expect a change?
I think if they were going to see a change, they’d have seen it back in 2017 when I left as managing editor [and became editor-at-large]. Above the Law never really had a strong, overarching point-of-view. We would have disagreements in our pages. I tend to be a little right-of-center and Elie is most definitely not right of anything. In a lot of ways, there was a lot of editorial freedom on the site, and I don’t think there will be a change in terms of that.