Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How to be a Blogger: An Interview with David Lat

What is legal blogging, and why don't law students do more of it? This is a question that has been on my mind over the past few weeks (and really, months). Is blogging merely a hobby? A form of broadcast for the average person? For us, it has practically become a lifestyle. However, this wasn’t always the case; Blackbook Legal was actually conceived over a cup of chili at Potbelly's. Given our whimsical entrance into the blogosphere, I thought it best to seek an “expert opinion” on these important questions. I caught up with one of the legal profession's most notable and distinguished media personalities: David Lat of Breaking Media. David was very generous with his time, and I was grateful to speak with him both about his experiences and blogging in general.

Like many students, David had no clear sense of why he wanted to go to law school, and similarly, did not initially know he was interested in journalism. As he reflected, "I did do some journalistic work in college for the Harvard Crimson, but nothing in law school other than law journal." He first became interested in blogging when he was a Assistant United States Attorney ("AUSA"). Around this time he started Underneath their Robes:
In the U.S. Attorney's Office, I was doing a lot of legal writing on appellate briefs, and I wanted to have an outlet for non-legal writing. Blogs, at the time, weren’t ubiquitous so I thought it would be fun. Further, I knew a lot about judges, so it made sense to write about them. And of course, they are basically celebrities at Yale, so it was a natural fit for me.
Working as an AUSA is quite a demanding job, so he managed the blog more heavily during evenings and early mornings:
People who write books have a day job--they have to wake up really early or stay up really late. Writing a blog is similar. It was difficult because my day job was very demanding, and it was hard to find the time to do it but it had to be done. So I made it work.
Of course, at least in the legal profession, David Lat is also well-known for his affiliation with Above the Law. I asked him what his goal was in starting the addictively popular site:
I felt there was a market need that wasn’t being filled. When I created the site, I was working for Wonkette, and wondering why there wasn’t a site like Gawker that covered similar types of issues in the legal profession. In other words, there wasn’t a blog that covered legal topics in a fun and irreverent way.
He was right about the concealed demand, and Above the Law has been quite successful. In fact, David notes that the already-massive daily traffic continues to grow. But as we've noted before, Professor Kerr at Volokh has opined that law student blogging has progressively declined over the past few years. One reason may be the effect blogging has on one’s legal career--many students with whom I’ve spoken have expressed concern that blogging could harm their ability to practice law. After all, a blogger’s words are permanently cached in the public eye, and subject to considerable scrutiny. David still practices, however, and sees no reason why he wouldn’t be able to do so on a full-time basis in the future if he so desired:
I effectively act as in-house counsel for Breaking Media. In this capacity, I deal with routine legal issues that arise, but this takes up only a small amount of time. Primarily, my functions are writing and editing. Though I enjoy blogging more than practice, I certainly don’t rule anything out. I do enjoy being a lawyer, and could certainly go back to it full-time one day. Blogging is fun, but it is nice to also have a law degree in the journalism industry.
Finally, he gave some general advice to law students and practitioners interested in blogging:
Just do it and stick with it. Many blogs fail within first year of operation. If you're getting good traffic, it can be addicting, but if not it becomes hard. Keep expectations reasonable. It’s tough to be heard above the noise, and equally tough to get hits. Starting from scratch is especially hard, and it can take a long time to gain consistent traffic.
Truer words have never been spoken, and the insight provides what I submit is one of the key answers to the question I posed: blogging is about captivating your readers. We hope we can continue to do just that for all of you.

6 comments:

  1. Crazy. I didn't know lat was In-house counsel at ATL.

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  2. Interesting that he hired someone else to handle that Professor Jones' lawsuit if that's the case. Maybe he only deals with perfunctory items as inhouse?

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  3. I didn't know he was an AUSA...why did he never clerk SCOTUS?

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  4. I don't think the fact that Lat is in-house counsel for Breaking Media allays the underlying fears law students have about blogging.

    There's a world of difference between getting an in-house gig with a small on-line publisher you already write for, and actually trying to get a job out of law school. Having published opinions floating around could eliminate a lot of potential employers. Especially opinions that happen to clash with those of the hiring partner...

    A relatively viewpoint-neutral blog of legal issues in a specific area of practice probably would not hurt future employment potential, I suppose. But no half-bright law student could possibly do what ATL does and believe it wouldn't negatively affect their professional reputation.

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  5. 5:56 is correct and the site policy link you have on your own blog is a case in point: If you believe student blogging is not an impediment in the job market, why include a thousand disclaimers and refuse to talk about other topics altoghether?

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