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Lat Lessons for Solo and Small Firm Lawyers

When you think about influencers in the solo, small firm and law firm startup space, David Lat  — who yesterday announced his departure  from Above the Law, a biglaw-focused publication to take on a director’s position at Lateral Link, a biglaw focused recruiting firm — is hardly the first or even last name to come to mind. After all, David’s  Wikipedia entry  has worker-bee — albeit in the most prestigious of hives — rather than owner or entrepreneur written all over it: federal appellate clerkship, associate at one of the most old school (albeit crazy-successful) law firms in the country, then a position as a U.S. Attorney after he realized that just maybe biglaw life wasn’t for him.

Likewise, David’s next acts following conventional employment  had little to do with solo and small firm practice. David’s once anonymous blog,  Underneath Their Robes focused on the federal judiciary (describing the state courts where many solos and smalls practice as ghetto and icky ) while Above the Law started out with an obsession about everything biglaw. In short, both sites covered a portion of the legal universe off limits to – and therefore, of limited interest to – rank and file solo and small firm lawyers. 

Yet in spite of the chasm separating David’s world and solo/small firm practice, at Above the Law, David showed a real knack for entrepreneurship – and that’s what makes his experience so valuable to lawyers who run solo and small firm practices or dream of doing so. In this post, I’ve summarized the lessons that all of us solo and small firm owners can learn from David Lat’s success. [Side note: lest this piece come across as stalker-ish, I have actually met David several times IRL and written for him at ATL, so my admiration isn’t entirely from afar – though even if it were, David has fan-girled enough celebrities that he deserves a fangirl of his own!].

Lesson 1: If You Can’t Dominate An Existing Market, Create Your Own  Back when David launched Underneath Their Robes sometime around 2005, legal blogging wasn’t as saturated as it is today.  Even so, the appellate space was already dominated by Howard Bashman’s How Appealing  and Tom Goldstein’s SCOTUS Blog, not to mention numerous other attorney and law professor blogs that covered appellate cases.   Yet none of these blogs discussed the salacious side of the federal judiciary – such as which judges were “hotties” or which judge “bench-slapped” a colleague – detailed at Underneath Their Robes (UTR).  In 2006, after David was outed as UTR’s author, he launched Above the Law, copying the same recipe for success as UTR by busting on to a staid and dignified reporting landscape dominated by American Law Media and the ABA Journal with a gossipy, irreverent blog focusing on the seamier side of big law – overbearing partners, overworked associates, the underpaid contract lawyer culture that was grist for the biglaw profit mill and other juicy bits that insiders always knew but no one ever exposed.  In so doing, Lat stumbled upon  a huge untapped audience of young associates and law students who in contrast to their older counterparts were reading news online rather than in glossy publications and who had no interest in glamour pieces on the middle-aged biglaw partners profiled in American Lawyer but eagerly lapped up the gossip that ATL dished out. By targeting an underserved audience, Lat  built  Above the Law into one of the most popular legal news publications online, with a dozen employees and 50 outside columnists all over the world.  

The lesson for solos? Find an unoccupied space in crowded markets and like David Lat, simply own it. 

Lesson 2: Take Yourself Seriously  Above the Law started as a blog – but once David started writing it, he characterized himself as a journalist and an editor more than a blogger.  Back at that time, blogging was still pretty much a labor-of-love exercise – this was only right around the time that folks like Copyblogger or TechCrunch were coming on the scene with bloggers who would eventually make bank.  By positioning himself as an editor and journalist, David sent the message that Above the Law was a serious venture and positioned the site as a bonafide, money-making venture.

Many lawyers who start firms don’t take themselves seriously at the outset. One of my colleagues would always introduce himself as “just a solo.” I’ve observed other new solos explain that they’re just “picking up cases and seeing what will happen.”  Message to new solos and smalls:  you are a law firm owner. Say it. Act it. Believe it even if you don’t feel as if you’re there yet. Because as David’s experience shows, just doing that can set you up for success.

Lesson 3: Don’t Rest on Your Laurels  Above the Law could have done well enough as an irreverent gossip rag that mocked biglaw and devoted all of November and December to talking about big law bonuses – but David turned it into something more.  Above the Law sponsored investigatory pieces and brought on prominent columnists like Mark Hermann (Legal Curmudgeon) to cover the in-house space, Brian Tannebaum to offer his own variety of  old dude wisdom and war stories,  Bob Ambrogi  to cover legal tech — a topic where ATL’s coverage has continued to expand with the acquisition of Evolve the Law.  I was also privileged to write for ATL, bringing  my voice on solo and small firm practice (even getting a national TV appearance out of it as a result ) to a wider audience. Today, ATL is a leader in coverage of the legal tech space – and there isn’t a story on legal matters that Above the Law hasn’t touched – which further drives its growth.

Starting a law firm is hard. Expanding and growing and leaving your comfort zone is surprisingly even harder. But that’s how you stay relevant and find even more success in a fast changing world.

Lesson 4: Love and/or Respect Your Subjects or Your Clients:   For all his digs at the judiciary and big firm partners, I believe that David truly loved and respected lawyers and judges- viewing many of them as talented, smart and even creative. Without David’s genuine (though never blind) admiration for lawyers and the profession, Above the Law would have come off as bitter, petty and mean – which it never did.  The same lesson holds true for successful solos and smalls: at some level, you must love or respect the clients you serve or the principles that you advance by representing them.  Not only does it make your job more enjoyable, but others can tell when you have genuine passion for your work and when you’re just phoning it in.

Lesson 5: Use Your Platform to Lead By Example and Leave a Legacy  To me, the best thing that David – and any solo or small firm owner can do is to walk the walk and leave a legacy. In a profession that is not known for diversity, David walked the walk by assembling a team of a “gay Asian, an African-American, two women and a “token straight white male” as part of the ATL team.

More importantly, much of the work that ATL has done has advanced broader change in the profession. Early on, ATL published damning exist memos by mistreated associates and provided detailed coverage of lawsuits against big firms for discrimination based on gender and race. Back in my day, even a public complaint about  a law firm’s mistreatment was considered the kind of bridge-burning from which a lawyer’s career would never recover. But by exposing these lawsuits, ATL emboldened others to come forward – to the point where lawsuits are common and may actually be one of the factors  that proves more effective that diversity committees and kumbaya moments and leads to real equality at big law and in the profession.  That to me is the real legacy that David Lat leaves behind.

As we solos and smalls build our firms, we likewise have a chance to also be the change that we want to see in the world.  We can stay small and stay quiet, or we can work towards making millions by working 10 hours a week. Or, we can figure out what matters to us and do something to change our world so that like David Lat, we leave it as a better place than when we started.