Career Considerations for Lawyers During a Turbulent Market with David Lat
In this episode of On Record PR. We’re going on record with David Lat, managing director of Lateral Link. David is also the founding editor of Above the Law, an award-winning website about the legal profession that reaches more than one million unique visitors a month.
More About David Lat
David’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post among other publications. Prior to Above the Law, he launched Underneath Their Robes, a blog about federal judges. David’s first book, “Supreme Ambitions,” a novel, was published in 2014. In 2019, David left full-time journalism to enter legal recruiting. Today, he works as managing director in the New York office of Lateral Link, a leading legal search firm. Before entering media and recruiting, David worked as a federal prosecutor in Newark, New Jersey, as a litigation associate at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York, and as a law clerk to Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. David graduated from Harvard College and Yale Law School where he served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal. Today, he lives in New York City with his husband and their two-year-old son.
This episode was recorded in late May and heading into June, 2020. We’re still in the coronavirus pandemic. We thought this was going to be over by now. It’s not. And in fact you have been a victim of COVID-19.
David Lat: Yes, that’s right.
I don’t want to spend the whole time with you talking what you’ve told so many other media outlets, but I do want to set the stage for and be empathetic to what you’ve been through. So can you tell us a little bit about where you were and where you are today as it relates to coronavirus?
In early March, I started to get symptoms of COVID-19. I wasn’t sure it was COVID-19 at the time. It was still early March, and most of the media reports were focused on cases in the West coast, particularly Washington state. There were maybe just 50 or so confirmed cases in New York, by the time I started feeling a bit of fatigue fever and chills. As that first week wore on, I started to get shortness of breath and a dry cough, which were also symptoms of COVID-19, and I began to think that maybe I did have the coronavirus. I went to my local emergency room. I was tested, and it turned out I was positive with COVID-19. I ended up spending about 17 days in the hospital. For the first few days I was fairly stable, but on the Friday of my hospital stay I started to take a turn for the worse.
My oxygen levels dropped, my lungs filled with fluid, and I had to be put on a ventilator. I was on the ventilator in critical condition in the ICU for about six days. Fortunately, I came off the ventilator, and I was able to breathe on my own, which isn’t always the case for folks who go on ventilators. About a week later after I was able to breathe again on my own, I was discharged from the hospital. That was on April 1. A little more than two months later and I’m doing a lot better. I haven’t fully recovered. My voice is still a little bit hoarse from damage to my vocal chords from the ventilator. I still have a little cough, I still have a little shortness of breath, but the symptoms are getting better each week, and I am definitely on the med. It is very good to be here.
Well, thank God. You were in my prayers and the prayers of many that I know, and especially in the legal community, you’re very well-known. Early on you founded Above the Law and that’s really a huge accomplishment. Tell us a little bit about why you founded it, what it was about and where it is today.
I launched Above the Law in 2006, the summer of 2006, which was 14 years ago. My goal in launching above the law was to bring greater transparency to the often opaque legal profession. My first blog, Underneath their Robes, was about demystifying the federal judiciary. With above the law, I wanted to do that writ large, so talking about law firms, law schools, and also continuing to talk about the judiciary. The site has grown over the years in terms of both staff and leadership. And now thanks to recent events, which has really thrown the legal profession into turmoil, it’s actually getting its highest traffic ever. Now it’s more like one and a half million unique visitors a month. A lot of people both inside the legal profession and outside of it do turn to Above the Law for information and analysis of what is going on.
But there’s something very specific with Above the Law. It really seems to be one of the outlets that has caused the industry to have to be more transparent in the way they communicate externally. Would you agree with that?
Absolutely. I think that one thing we did at Above the Law was give a voice to the many people who work inside large law firms. For example, many of our sources, associates and staff who work at large firms report to us on what’s going on inside their workplaces, and their voices weren’t always heard. A lot of the time when a law firm is featured, there other quotes from the managing partner that are shared but not necessarily the people who are more rank in file. At Above the Law, we wanted to give voice to those folks and let them share their stories of what is truly going on inside their firms.
When you were there and getting pitched all the time, what was one of your favorite pitches? What was something that would grab your attention?
I think one thing that people should understand about the site is it is very much a site by lawyers. All the writers are pretty much lawyers by training. For lawyers and about lawyers. So, there are stories that might not be big enough to fit into a New York Times or Wall Street Journal story, but they fit very comfortably into the pages of Above the Law.
Here’s one example. This is a story I actually wrote back in December. I had already left Above the Law full time, but I still write for the site. I write a column as editor emeritus every two weeks. This was a story looking at lawyer Miles Ruthberg, who is a long-time litigation partner at Latham. He’s now of counsel as of January of this year.
It was about his retirement. He’s a beloved figure within Latham and within litigation circles, and he’s been a very successful litigator over his multi-decade career. But it was essentially using the occasion of his retirement as a lens through which to analyze how Latham and the world of large law firms, a.k.a. big law, and the world of litigation has evolved over the past 30 or so years. That’s not necessarily a story that would be something that would fit into a national news outlet because they would say, “This is just some partner-to big-firm return. What is the deal here?” But, I think for Above the Law, it really resonated with a lot of people because they could see him as a role model. They could get advice from the success of his career, and they could see how law firms, litigation, and the business of law changed over this 30 to 40-year time span. That’s the kind of story that we like to do.
Gina Rubel: Oftentimes, we’ll be asked to pitch a story about someone retiring thinking the New York times should run this, but they’re not going to run that story. It’s a challenge in managing the expectations of the attorneys, as well as getting those stories in the right place.
What are some of the do’s and don’ts that you would share with lawyers and communicators alike when it comes to pitching the media in general or pitching Above the Law?
First, I would say we come in peace. I think early in the site’s history, especially before we had relationships with firms, we would be irreverent. I still think there is an authenticity and honesty in the pages that readers appreciate. But I think in the early years, firms were a little scared of us. “Oh gosh, Above the Law is going to write something negative about us.” Now, I think the site is much more balanced. We do write negative things when firms do need to be called out for certain things like mistreatment of lawyers or staff, bad internal communication, or a poor record on diversity. But at the same time, we’re happy to celebrate firms as well. The piece I wrote about Latham and Miles was a very positive piece. We talked about law firms that have a strong record of hiring and promoting women. We write about pro bono victories. We even write fluffy stories about new gorgeous law firm offices because there’s been a lot of progression in terms of how law firms configure its space. My first tip would be: Don’t be afraid to pitch us. We are happy to take pitches. A lot of time, the firms don’t think of pitching Above the Law when they should.
Second, know the outlet. Know the audience. Sometimes, we’ll get pitches for things that are totally unrelated like pitches for a beauty brand. We don’t really cover that. If you were the general counsel of a beauty company, that might be interesting, but if it’s about the launch of a new mascara product, that doesn’t really resonate with us. So know your outlet.
Third, flattery will take you far. If you reach out to a reporter or an editor and say, “I think that Above the Law, the American Lawyer, and the ABA journal at Bloomberg has been doing great coverage of X. Then, you can single out the reporter or writer and say, “You wrote a really amazing story about Y.” Next, you connect it to your pitch by saying, “Related to that, perhaps you’d be interested in this story.” A little flattery will take you far. The reporter is more likely to read a pitch if it shows that sender of the pitch is actually familiar with the outlet and even the reporter.
You are now in communications fields essentially. You’re in recruiting, as well as writing for Above the Law. Can you tell us about Lateral Link?
Lateral Link is actually Above the Law’s first advertiser. I’ve worked with Lateral Link and its Founder, Mike Allen, for pretty much 12 to 13 years and most of the duration of Above the Law. When I moved over to Lateral Link last year to enter legal recruiting, it was almost like I was going over to a client. It was like a lawyer to law firm going in house. I was going to a company that I’d worked with for a long time. Lateral Link is a nationwide legal search firm. There are about 40 recruiters across the country, as well as major legal markets and also some recruiters abroad. Our focus is on helping top law firms, leading boutiques, and in-house legal departments find great talent.
One thing I learned over my time as a lawyer and legal journalist is this business is all about the talent. It’s not necessarily about fancy technology, although that helps. Your brand is very important, but the brand depends on the talent and brands can change. I think talent is really the lifeblood of the legal profession. We are really focused at Lateral Link on helping legal employers find the best talent for their needs. Going back to the issue of being a good fit, you could be a great lawyer, but maybe you’re not a great lawyer for this particular firm.
How do you determine fit in terms of the individual or the group of lawyers, and the culture of the firm that’s looking to bring in new talent?
I think a lot of it involves knowledge. You have to understand the market and understand the firms. That takes a lot of research. In addition to reading the media reading reports, we’re also talking to lawyers who aren’t even necessarily looking to move, but we’re counseling them about their own careers. And then, we’re gathering information about their firms and their practices. For example, a firm might have a more formal culture, and that might be very good for some lawyers, whereas other lawyers might prefer something more freewheeling. It might be a very large firm and some lawyers might like that big platform. On the other hand, some lawyers might prefer a more intimate environment. It really depends again on knowing your audience and knowing what firms and what lawyers mesh well together. Of course, there are also practical considerations like practice areas and billing rates. But I think culture should not be underestimated.
Gina Rubel: A bank CEO once said to me, “Hire for culture first. Make sure they’re the right fit with your team.” We’re a small agency of 10 employees, so any one person whose culture doesn’t fit or they’re not meeting the expectations of the team and vice versa, it becomes a cog in the wheel. I always found that to be very important. I have found that in my experience over 18 years with this company working with law firms that culture really matters. It’s important to the success of any attorney.
David Lat: Yes, and it’s not necessarily that one culture is better than the other. They may just be different. I was talking about formality versus informality. I was talking about large size versus intimacy. A lot of the time, you have to figure out for yourself what works best for you.
Gina Rubel: Culture also ties knowledge of emotional intelligence and ethnicity. Like you being of Filipino descent, I’ve been to the Philippines and learning that people will address you as ma’am Gina, and that was very new to me. But I have noticed even working with different firms throughout the United States that it’s very important for me as a PR executive to understand their culture. If I’m walking into a New York law firm, I’m usually in a black suit. If I’m walking into a client in Portland or Seattle, I’m going to be a little more casual. Understanding each culture and respecting it is what makes them comfortable.
David Lat: There’s a lot of cultural difference here, and I think in this increasingly global world we need to be aware of it, whether we’re lawyers, journalists, or PR professionals. We just need to understand.
How has the profession changed as a result of these last few months with COVID-19?
I think there have been a lot of positive changes actually. I think we all know the negative ones in terms of law firms laying off or furloughing employees, freezing or cutting salaries, and delaying or reducing partner draws. I think we know all about that. But in terms of the positives, lawyers are discovering the benefits and the ease of working remotely. Law can be a little bit FaceTime oriented, and I do believe it’s important to meet face to face. I think lawyers are actually becoming more receptive to working remotely and seeing that it’s not this complicated thing.
I also think that could be very good in helping law firms with diversity because a lot of the people who appreciate working remotely are people with other responsibilities. They might have responsibilities for childcare or elder care. Often, women bear the brunt of that. I think flexible arrangements are really going to help law firms address its diversity gap.
A second positive thing related to that is it’s also encouraging lawyers and law firms to adopt technology, whereas historically or stereotypically, law firms have been seen as tech averse. Many of us went to law school because we weren’t STEM science and math people, but I think we’re all now discovering that there’s some amazing technology tools that can help us communicate and connect and work very productively.
What do you think is going to happen in the legal industry in the months to come?
If I had to predict, I think we will see more of the same in terms of more firms announcing austerity or cost cutting measures. More firms being cautious in terms of their business strategies. I think we will probably also see more firms getting comfortable with online or virtual recruiting. It’s taken a little while, but firms are getting comfortable with it now just out of necessity because you can put a hiring freeze in place for a couple of weeks or maybe even a couple of months. But law firms are all about the talent and you can’t just indefinitely say you’re not going to bring in new talent. I’ve had candidates who have been interviewed remotely. I even have one candidate who was hired remotely and has already started at the firm since late March and has never set foot in the physical offices of the firm. So I think firms are going to make their peace with that out of necessity if this continues.
Gina Rubel: I agree with that. There’s also going to be a change in the practice areas that are in demand in the coming months and years. Firms need to hire the right talent to help either fill the gaps, expand the practices, and make sure they have what their clients need.
What are you telling lawyers who are either looking to move, looking to make change today, or have been laid off or furloughed, and are looking for future opportunities? What are you telling them do to stay in the game?
One thing I think that is generally helpful is to stay active and to stay engaged. Also, find some work even if it’s not necessarily your dream work. At Lateral Link, we have a new program called the Bridge Program where we try to connect laid off or furloughed lawyers with temporary assignments at law firms or in-house employers that are looking for temporary help in times like this. Temporary help actually becomes quite attractive because it can often be more cost effective than hiring a full-time employee, and there’s less of a commitment. We’ve been trying to match up the temporary needs of the law firms and companies we work with and this talent pool that is now suddenly in need of a home. My first recommendation would be to try to stay engaged. Don’t just go home and watch Netflix all the time. Try to find something to do with your talents.
Second, you have to be adaptable. You never know the direction your career is going to take. It’s really like rolling with the punches. My own career has unfolded very organically. I did not have any grand five or 10-year plan. I just tried to follow the things that I found interesting, engaging and fun, and I’ve really had a very fulfilling career because of it. You just have to be adaptable.
I like to tell lawyers to take your current skills, take the hand you’ve been dealt, and see what you can turn it into. See what you might be able to find within the law or maybe even beyond it that draws on the knowledge, contacts and skills that you’ve developed to this point.
Gina Rubel: Along with staying engaged, you should continue developing your network and your online presence. Attorneys are sometimes reluctant to do that.
What is your experience as both a member of the media, as well as a legal recruiter, as it relates to how attorneys should be engaging on social media and where?
I do think that lawyers at large firms are a little more cautious than lawyers who have their own shops or work at boutiques. That’s understandable because with large firms, you have more clients, which means you have more people who could potentially be offended by something. But I think lawyers are now getting more comfortable with social media, especially LinkedIn because it is so business focused. It’s not about something that is controversial like politics.
I’m very fond of Twitter right now, but I think that may just be because of the world that you and I inhabit: Media, journalism, communications, and PR, because a lot of the so-called influencers are active on Twitter.
If you want to see what’s going to be in the paper the next day, you can often go on Twitter the day before. So I happen to like Twitter a lot. I think lawyers are getting more comfortable with these platforms. Now, lawyers are always worried about some errant tweet that is going to get them in trouble. It’s all about judgment at the end of the day, and lawyers are paid by a lot of money by their clients to exercise judgment.
I think you can be on these platforms and still not cause yourself or your firm any permanent damage. You just have to be a little more restrained. There may be times when you want to mix it up about impeachment or the Mueller report, but maybe you’re going to hold your tongue or save it for private conversations because that could get you in hot water. But I think talking about issues in the news to demonstrate your insight and thought leadership is all good.
Have you ever found a news source to quote in an article or story from Twitter?
Absolutely. All the time. I am actually working on a piece right now for Slate about the economics of COVID-19 for patients, hospitals and health insurers, using my own experience as somebody who ran up a big bill in the hospital. I connected with a bunch of sources, and I am going to be quoting their tweets in the article because they had different experiences with different illnesses. It’s just interesting to compare. It happens all the time. On Facebook I also found a lot of sources. Sometimes they’re friends of friends who work at a particular firm, and I connect with them through the mutual friend. Then, if I want insight into that firm, I can reach out to this person, somebody I’ve probably never met in real life, and just say, “Hey, it’s Dave Lat. I hear X is going on. Can you, can you shed some light on this?”
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our listeners, whether it be about Lateral Link, COVID-19, Above the Law, working with the media, any, or any tips you’d like to share?
I think one thing I would just encourage people to do is keep calm and carry on. I think these are really turbulent times and very stressful times, but we are going to make it through. One thing I’ve really appreciated about Above the Law and Lateral Link is seeing how small the legal world actually is. There are a million plus lawyers in the United States, but you’d be surprised at how small a world it is, and how many people know other people, and how people can turn to each other. Lawyers can turn to each other in times of trouble and really find a lot of support and a lot of encouragement. We are going to go through this together.
Do you have any questions for me?
David Lat: I was always curious just from how things look on the other side. What is your general strategy or advice when you have a client or a law firm that is in some kind of crisis? Maybe it’s a bunch of partner defections, or maybe it’s a lawsuit against the firm, but something about the firm as opposed to current events. Do you have like a headline that you’d like to lead with in terms of leading clients through some kind of big patch of trouble?
Gina Rubel: Every situation is different, and when we have the opportunity to be that real partner to the client, where we can ask the right questions and really understand what a situation looks like, we can help them to be as transparent as possible, without saying things that would compromise any potential litigation in violation of any of the ethics rules. On one side there’s the lawyer conservative saying, “Let’s be careful about how we approach this,” and the PR person who’s saying we need to be transparent, forthcoming, immediate and timely. I think that’s been where we have found so much success because we can reason with our clients.
The other thing is understanding that we were able to go to Above the Law and say, “ This is how all these other firms have gotten covered because they didn’t want to tell anyone. With anything that we say internally, also expect it to be external.” There is no confidentiality anymore. There’s no such thing as privacy.
Whenever possible, we try to avail our clients to the media in a way that is respectful. If there’s something that can’t be answered, there’s a way to say that without making it be that. We have no statement hiding. It’s more about saying, “We respect that you are interested in this story. We’re not able to give you that information yet because we don’t have it.” Or in litigation, “We’re unable to disclose X, Y and Z, but stay in touch with us.”
It’s about the relationship side. When we have that relationship with our clients, we can foster those relationships with the media. You have to build relationships that are founded on mutual respect of one another. That’s the best way a crisis can be handled is with that relationship.
Also, one of my predictions is that law firms will be much more available and willing to do crisis planning and scenario testing as a result of COVID-19 because the clients we work with that were hit by hurricane Katrina or earthquakes were prepared to work from home.
David, I’m so happy we could talk today, and I’ve really enjoyed our discussion. How can people get in touch with you if they’re interested in a lateral move?
I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.laterallink.com. You can go to my personal website, https://davidlat.com/, and there’s an email response form there. I’m also very active on social media. @DavidLat is my Twitter handle. I’m also on Facebook, and I’m on Instagram as @DavidBenjaminLLat. As I mentioned, I’m also on LinkedIn. I’m very easy to find, and I love hearing from and building relationships with readers, lawyers, and law students.
We’ve been talking with David Lat, managing director of Lateral Link. Thank you, David.
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