What is Original Jurisdiction?

Original Jurisdiction aspires to be a source of incisive, fair-minded, and occasionally entertaining commentary about law and the legal profession. Given the undeniable importance of law and the legal profession in American society and politics, for better or worse, and as the legal industry continues to expand in size and scope, for better or worse, it’s more important than ever to have outlets offering insight into these often insular and mysterious worlds.

As I analyze complex and controversial legal issues and delve deep into the latest trends and events in the legal profession, I don’t pretend to be objective; like everyone else, I have my biases. But I always strive to be fair-minded, acknowledging the different sides to an argument or controversy. And I always strive to be civil, treating other perspectives and understandings with respect.

Who are you?

My name is David Lat, and I’m a longtime writer and commentator on the legal profession. I’m best known as the founder of Above the Law (“ATL”), one of the largest legal news websites in the country as well as the world, which receives more than 1.5 million unique visitors per month. I served as managing editor of ATL from 2004 until 2017, during which time the site received multiple awards, including recognition by the Weblog Awards (Best Law Blog), the ABA Journal Blawg 100 (Best News Blog), and the Webby Awards.

I stepped down as an editor of ATL in 2019, but I continue to write about law and legal affairs for other publications, as I have done for many years. My writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. I have been interviewed or quoted as a legal expert by a wide range of broadcast, print, and online media outlets, including ABC News, the Associated Press, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

I have also written fiction, publishing a novel set in the legal world, Supreme Ambitions (Ankerwycke 2014). According to the New York Times, “for an elite niche — consisting largely of federal judges and their clerks — Supreme Ambitions has become the most buzzed-about novel of the year.”

Are you a lawyer? Do you have any legal education or experience?

Yes. Before I entered media and journalism, I practiced law. I acquired broad experience, engaging in trial and appellate work, civil and criminal work, and government and private practice.

After graduating from Harvard College (1996) and Yale Law School (1999), I clerked for Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (1999-2000). From 2000 to 2003, I worked as a litigation associate at the New York law firm of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen, & Katz. From 2003 to 2006, I worked as a federal prosecutor, or assistant U.S. attorney, in Newark, New Jersey.

I am a member of the New York bar, licensed to practice law in the State of New York since 2001. But I no longer practice, instead focusing on my writing. If you are seeking legal representation, I recommend that you consult your local lawyer referral service.

How did you transition from practicing law to writing about it?

I first entered journalism through blogging. In 2004, I started a blog called Underneath Their Robes (“UTR”), offering “news, gossip, and colorful commentary about the federal judiciary.” UTR was sometimes mildly snarky about judges, some of whom I was appearing before as a prosecutor, so I wrote under a pseudonym — “Article III Groupie,” named after Article III of the Constitution, which establishes the judiciary — and pretended to be a young, female lawyer obsessed with the federal judiciary.

UTR developed a small but loyal following, consisting largely of federal judges and their clerks (including Supreme Court justices and their clerks). In November 2005, I revealed myself as the blogger behind UTR, in an interview with the New Yorker magazine. A few months later, I left the U.S. Attorney’s Office to write and blog full-time.

In August 2006, on behalf of a company now known as Breaking Media, I launched Above the Law (“ATL”), which was similar to UTR but broader in its scope of coverage — covering not just the judiciary, but also law firms, especially large law firms (aka “Biglaw”), and law schools. With ATL, I tried to offer honest, authentic, occasionally irreverent takes on lawyers and the legal profession, and I tried to bring greater transparency to the (often opaque) legal world.

When I started ATL, I had no idea that it would go on to become one of the largest legal news websites in the United States, as well as the world. Today ATL hosts some 1.5 million unique visitors a month, earns millions of dollars in annual revenue, and employs a full-time staff of around a dozen, plus several dozen outside columnists. 

But as ATL grew, I found myself enjoying my work less. Instead of focusing on my true passion of writing, I found myself spending most of my time editing, managing, and dealing with administrative issues. I also found ATL less representative of my voice and my vision — not surprising, since my share of the content on the site became smaller and smaller over time, as new contributors with differing viewpoints joined the team.    

In 2019, seeking a new challenge, I left Above the Law to enter the world of legal recruiting, joining Lateral Link, a leading legal search firm (and ATL’s first advertiser). I continued to write on a freelance basis about law and the legal profession, for newspapers and magazines and also for ATL, in a column appearing every other week.

In March 2020, in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, I came down with a very severe case of Covid-19. I spent 17 days in the hospital, including about a week in critical condition in the ICU, hooked up to a ventilator. I ran up a $320,000 hospital bill (which I thankfully did not have to pay).

As I recovered from that near-death experience, I found myself reflecting more and more about my life and career — and I realized I wanted to return to writing, in an outlet under my sole control. So in December 2020, I launched Original Jurisdiction.

After working on Original Jurisdiction as a “side hustle” for a few months, I realized how much I enjoyed doing it — and how I wanted to focus on it full-time. In May 2021, I left Lateral Link and legal recruiting to return to writing and to commit myself to Original Jurisdiction.

How does Original Jurisdiction compare to UTR and ATL?

In many ways, Original Jurisdiction is more like UTR than ATL. Like UTR, it is written for a fairly small audience of (actual or aspiring) insiders in the legal world. Because of the subscription-based model of Substack, I don’t need to generate millions of pageviews from millions of readers in order to make a living. Instead, all I need is a small but loyal audience that values my writing and thinking enough to pay a modest amount for it each month. As of this writing (May 2021), I’m charging $5 a month or $50 a year — promotional rates that I plan to raise, but if you subscribe now, you’ll lock in that low rate indefinitely (because, under current Substack policy, you’ll be “grandfathered in” as to future rate increases).

Like UTR in its early days, and unlike ATL, Original Jurisdiction will not have any annoying banner ads or intrusive pop-up ads. So I won’t have to engage in any of the behaviors, such as sensationalism and partisanship, that advertising- and traffic-based models tend to reward. (I might have occasional, unobtrusive shoutouts to sponsors, if I find any, but that’s not my current monetization plan.)

Also like UTR, and unlike ATL, Original Jurisdiction has one writer: me. I do not accept guest posts. Everything in these pages has been written by me. I own all my mistakes. I will not blame anything you read here on a wayward or intemperate colleague. If it appears in the pages of Original Jurisdiction, I wrote it. If there’s a mistake in it, it’s my mistake.

Original Jurisdiction is more like ATL than UTR in terms of what it covers. UTR focused strictly on the judiciary, specifically the federal judiciary, while ATL covered everything from courts to law firms to law schools. In Original Jurisdiction, I will not limit myself to the judiciary, but will instead write broadly about law and the legal profession.

It will be more serious and less snarky than both UTR and ATL, and it will have a generally positive outlook (which is why one alternative name I considered was “Positive Law”). There’s no shortage of negativity and criticism in today’s media environment, and I feel no particular need or desire to add to it.

Although I might make a stray negative comment here or there in the course of analyzing some news development, I’m not trying to be negative; if anything, I’m trying to be positive, in an atonement of sorts for my negativity from years past. I might occasionally engage in gentle ribbing or mild mockery, which can be effective as rhetorical techniques, but I will refrain from true nastiness. If you’re looking for scathing attacks, partisan diatribes, or vicious takedowns, then you’ve come to the wrong place.

I also won’t do much in the way of investigative reporting. That type of journalism, while extremely important, is time- and resource-intensive, so it’s hard to do as just one person with a variety of other professional and personal commitments.

And because investigative journalism is often negative and hard-hitting, it gives rise to litigation risk. As I know from my time at ATL, aggrieved lawyers often like to file lawsuits alleging defamation, invasion of privacy, or other torts — and even a meritless lawsuit can be costly to get dismissed, as well as stressful and distracting.

What can I expect to find here?

As of now, here are a few examples of things you might come across at Original Jurisdiction:

  • colorful commentary on current legal issues, including but not limited to noteworthy judicial rulings;

  • candid interviews with prominent lawyers and judges in the news;

  • deep dives into important trends in the legal world, including but not limited to the world of large law firms, aka “Biglaw,” and law schools and legal academia;

  • detailed analyses of federal judicial nominations, including but not limited to Supreme Court nominations;

  • profiles of interesting or inspiring members of the legal profession;

  • notable hiring news in the legal profession, including lateral moves in the law firm world, Supreme Court law clerk hiring, and fellowship hiring (e.g., Bristow and Skadden Fellows);

  • roundups or reviews of new law-related books; and

  • occasional law-related humor pieces.

Of course, Original Jurisdiction is a work in progress, and I welcome your thoughts on what you would like to see in these pages. Please email me: davidlat@substack.com.

Where does the name come from?

“Original jurisdiction” is a technical legal term referring to “a court’s power to hear and decide a matter before any other court can review the matter,” according to Black’s Law Dictionary (10th ed.). “Jurisdiction” more generally refers to a court’s power to make legal decisions — or to “say what the law is,” from the Latin “juris,” meaning law, and “diction,” meaning “saying.”

My goal here is to offer original analysis that accurately states what the law is. So “Original Jurisdiction” seemed apropos.

What else should I know?

As a lawyer writing about other lawyers, of course I have some disclaimers and disclosures.

First, as someone who has been in the legal profession for more than 20 years, with many friends (plus a spouse) who are lawyers as well, I have numerous relationships with others in the profession — most of them good (or so I like to think), and a few of them more complicated. These relationships play an important role in my work as a writer, giving me access to information and insight that an outsider would not enjoy.

It would not be feasible for me to disclose all of my relationships every time I mention someone who might be a friend, acquaintance, enemy, or “frenemy.” It would also run the risk of sounding like a lot of obnoxious, self-aggrandizing name-dropping. So I won’t attempt such disclosures. Instead, as a reader of Original Jurisdiction, you should understand at the outset that my writing might be affected by some of my personal relationships, in some way or another.

Second, as mentioned earlier, I worked full-time as a legal recruiter from May 2019 until May 2021. This means that I received compensation in the past from law firms or corporate legal departments. In addition, as of this writing (May 2021), I am waiting to be paid on certain placements previously made and finishing up a few final recruiting projects, which could generate additional income for me from firms or companies for me in the future. My work as a recruiter is confidential, so I am not at liberty to disclose it (and any information I share in these pages is either information not gleaned from my recruiting or information I have been authorized to share by the relevant parties). But I have received compensation from law firms and companies in the past and might receive additional compensation in the future, in connection with my recruiting work, and readers should understand this. (This compensation should decline over time as my recruiting career recedes farther into the past.)

Finally, I occasionally give paid speeches to law firms, companies, and other organizations. If I discuss in these pages any firm, company, or other organization that has paid me at some point within the 12 months preceding the mention, I will disclose the fact that the entity in question has paid me. (I am excluding from this disclosure de minimis, passing mentions, as well as any entities that are simply paying subscribers to Original Jurisdiction, on the same terms as any other subscribers.)

How can I reach you?

You can email me at davidlat@substack.com. Please note that because of the volume of emails I receive, I cannot respond to every message.

Please feel free to follow up once if I don’t respond to your initial email after a few days or a week. But if I don’t respond to that follow-up, then it is possible that I am not able to or inclined to respond.

Please know, however, that I’m grateful for (almost) all correspondence, whether I respond or not. Writers write to be read, and receiving correspondence is generally a sign that something I wrote resonated in some way.

Thank you for your readership, and thank you for reading Original Jurisdiction. I will try my level best to produce a publication that is worthy of your readership and support.

David Lat

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