David Lat has his escape plan mapped out: He’s stashing $1,000 in cash under his mattress and if the legal business implodes, taking his infamous blog, Above The Law, with it, he’s taking off to the Philippines.
“Reading all of this can give you an anxiety attack, but this is the world we are living in,” he said. He recounted what he told a questioner at the D.C. NALP conference last week who complained his blog was giving her anxiety attacks: “What kind of rock are you living under with just you and Above the Law? If people are panicked, it’s because there are reasons to panic.”
Reasons to panic include salary deflation. The good news compares lawyers to vermin and recommends yoga … after the jump.
Lat, a former Wachtell associate and assistant U.S. attorney, is the founding editor of ATL, a blog that is one of those Web 2.0 phenomena that exploded because it filled a niche spot for a niche audience (that suddenly had plenty of time on its hands) that no one else was filling.
ATL’s bread and butter is anonymous tips, mostly from associates, but increasingly from partners (according to Lat on Tuesday), and consequently, it has been the breaking news source for most of the mass layoffs in the industry in recent months. Stories can generate hundreds of comments from throughout the country, many juvenile, some hilarious. (Lat said dealing with commenters is like playing Whac-a-Mole, and called the comment section the site’s best and worst feature.)
The site’s doing a lot better than the big firms: 2009 first quarter revenues were up 25 percent over first quarter 2008. A year and a half ago, ATL could hardly get anyone to call them back. Now, firms are realizing it’s here to stay, so they “might as well cooperate,” he said.
For those with anxiety, Lat suggested yoga, and then moved on to a succinct five-point lecture on the terrifying state of the legal industry that channeled everyone from Steve Brill (founder of American Lawyer Magazine) to Eisenhower. He swears he must have a form of “undiagnosed ADD” — he talked fast enough to cover dozens of topics in a 45-minute time slot, and was both depressing and extremely jovial at the same time.
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Summarized, his points go like this: 1) BigLaw can’t hide what it’s doing anymore: Blogs and the Internet have made it a different world. 2) If associates and students still think they’re going to pay off their loans in a jiffy, think again: Salary deflation will happen. 3) The billable hour may endure, but we’ll start to see some erosion “on the edges.” 4) The lockstep system is weakening: “This kind of one-size-fits-all mentality is on its way out.” And 5) The golden age of the legal profession may be over: The current positive feedback system of high tuition and high salaries at big firms is an “education-industrial complex.”
“Something’s got to break in that model,” he said.
He took some pointed questions from the student audience. For instance, “How much of what’s said on ATL is indicative of the whole legal market, as opposed to one high-profile subsector [associates at big firms]?”
Lat said the question made a good point, admitted he was a “prestige whore” for the first part of his career, and added, “That’s kind of a ridiculous way to live your life.”
That somehow segued into his conclusion: Despite the doom and gloom, he is optimistic! The legal profession and lawyers will survive in some way, shape or form.
“At the end of the day, lawyers, we are like cockroaches. You can’t kill us.”
— Amanda Royal