"I felt there was an opening for a digital media property to cover the legal world
in a way that was both expansive and entertaining."
David Lat, YLS '99, is the Founder and Managing Editor of popular law blog, AboveTheLaw.com. We asked David to tell us what inspired him to create the site, how he grew its readership, and how his days at Yale prepared him for his success.
How did the idea for your business come about?
The idea for Above the Law (“ATL”) came about like the ideas for many other businesses: I saw an unfilled need in the market. Back in 2006, there were very few online news outlets covering the legal profession, and those that did tended to be highly specialized, very serious, or both. I felt there was an opening for a digital media property to cover the legal world in a way that was both expansive and entertaining. There already were sites doing this for other fields at the time – Gawker for media, and Wonkette (where I worked back then) for politics – but no such site for law. And so I decided to create one: AboveTheLaw.com.
How do you find people to bring into your organization?
Most of our hires have been people who started off working for us on a freelance basis and succeeded in their roles. We like this hiring model because it gives us a good sense of what people are like and the kind of work they’re capable of doing. The most creative way we’ve hired someone was the “ATL Idol” contest we used to hire Elie Mystal, the second writer on the site after me. I selected six applicants based on their résumés and writing samples, and then had the six write stories for our audience over the course of three weeks. Each week, one or two writers would be eliminated, “American Idol”-style, according to a vote of the readers. Like the temp-to-perm model, it also allowed us to hire based on the quality of the person’s work, as opposed to résumé items and interview chitchat.
Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding have become a huge part of our lives. How has this affected your work?
Crowdsourcing lies at the heart of Above the Law. We get many of our story ideas from our readers, and as we report those stories, we get much of our information from our readers. For example, when we cover law firm bonuses every fall, most of that information is crowdsourced. Crowdsourcing is an invaluable tool for journalists and online writers today.
How do you define professional success?
I have a fairly modest definition for professional success: having a job that you find fulfilling and that lets you pay your bills. You don’t need to be a millionaire or on the cover of magazines (although I have nothing against material success or fame, and congratulate those individuals who enjoy them).
What role has NYC or Yale played in your success?
I owe much of my success to Yale, and specifically, Yale Law School. YLS is a wonderful institution that has produced some of the nation’s finest practicing lawyers – David Boies, arguably the greatest living litigator, is a Yale Law grad – but it also produces graduates who excel in many different fields, some of them within the legal profession and some of them outside it. I'm grateful to Yale Law School and its graduates for showing me that there are many, many paths to success and fulfillment after getting a law degree, and not all of them involve working at a large law firm or even practicing law.
Excluding yours, what company or business do you admire the most?
I have a great deal of admiration for the New York Times (disclosure: a publication I occasionally write for). Media is not an easy business, but the Times has managed to adapt to changing times, growing its digital revenue to offset declines on the print side. This hasn't been easy, and I’m writing this not long after the Times announced a new round of employee buyouts, which could be followed by layoffs. Despite the numerous challenges in the media space, the Times has managed to hang in there as a media company, continuing to produce excellent journalism and keeping in mind that it isn’t just a business, but also an important part of our civil society.
How did you obtain investors/funding for your venture?
Most of our investors come from networking and family and friends. For example, I met one of our first investors – Justin Smith, then at The Week, now at Bloomberg – at a party in Washington, D.C. We have not had to take venture capital funding (which might have served us well, given the strings that are often attached to VC money).
Who is your audience and do you have plans to grow that?
Our audience consists almost entirely of lawyers and law students. When we started, our readership skewed young – a typical reader might be a junior associate, in her mid-twenties, working at a large law firm. Over the past 11 years, however, we have grown – and continue to grow – our audience. We have expanded beyond large law firms (aka “Biglaw”) to reach lawyers at smaller firms and in-house counsel. And we have expanded the age range of our audience, which now includes pre-laws – they follow our law school rankings closely – and senior members of the profession, including law firm hiring and managing partners and state and federal judges.
Did a liberal arts curriculum affect how you approach your business?
I would never have launched my business if not for my background as an English major. I got into this business because of my love of writing, which I cultivated during these years. I still consider myself a writer and editor at heart, despite my exposure to the business aspects of media.
How have your entrepreneurial motivations changed since you first started?
When my fellow investors and I started Above the Law more than a decade ago, we had the idea that we would exit through a sale after a few years. But today, some eleven years later, I still enjoy working on Above the Law, and the site continues to thrive in terms of both revenue and traffic. So while we would still consider selling if the right opportunity came along, I think we are quite happy running a business that produces profits, generates jobs, and brings greater transparency and accountability to the often opaque legal profession.
What is your best advice for recent grads?
Keep yourself open to new experiences; you never know where life will lead you.