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Partner: Committee Now Vets Memos Knowing They Could Be Blogged

Posted Mar 4, 2009 5:08 PM CDT
By Terry Carter

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Big law firms are being more careful with staff-wide memos these days. They ought to. Anything that might prove juicy if stuck with a fork is likely to be leaked—as a matter of fact, Above The Law has fast become the venue of choice for lawyers whose loyalties don’t run as deep as their self-interest.

ATL unpretentiously bills itself as a “legal tabloid” for gossip and news. The blog has quickly gained street cred and sources since it was launched in 2006 by David Lat.

Lat outed himself in 2005 as being behind Underneath Their Robes, a now-defunct blog that gossiped about the federal bench. Once the truth was out, somehow the role didn’t mesh with his day job as a federal prosecutor. ATL and other Breaking Media blogs are his day job.

Such was ATL’s fast rise that, rather than being scorned, Lat was the jokester and the joked about Tuesday at a symposium concerning empirical research on the legal profession. He appeared on a panel discussing the media and the legal profession at the Georgetown Law Center symposium on Empirical Research on the Legal Profession: Insights from Theory and Practice.

Beside Lat sat Aric Press, editor-in-chief of American Lawyer magazine, offering measured and thoughtful discourse on the role of news media, as well as on the microblogging platform Twitter—about which many know nothing and thus don’t give a tweet.

In true typecasting form to counter Press’ style, Lat offered this when pressed with various concerns about information overload: “Maybe the unexamined life is worth living in this age of important issues.”

Where American Lawyer long has offered lengthy, inside stories of law firms and law as a business, Lat’s ATL is the go-to source for leaking and for learning the most immediate inside skinny—often with pertinent documents and e-mails.

ATL is now the authority for chronicling developments in law firm layoffs.

One big-firm leader, Carol Clayton, assistant managing partner of WilmerHale, noted that a committee now vets firmwide memos, knowing that “it could be on a blog. It makes us careful.”

Not that the legal profession is unable to sometimes take advantage of the media’s maw.

“Cases are tried in the court of public opinion as much as they are in court,” says Michele D. Beardslee, who recently finished a research fellowship at Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession. She presented a paper on the topic at the symposium that will be published in the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics.

Helping guide and form public opinion is a real part of the justice system in this age of 24/7 news via myriad media, Beardslee says. During her research, general counsel told her that litigation and strategies are now developed with an eye toward public opinion.

And thus in-house lawyers and their outside counsel need to work that other court. One interviewee told her: “The house could be burned down before you even smell smoke.”

Now for the tough part: Beardslee says lawyers must be “socially responsible” in their spinning.

She made that statement in Washington, D.C.

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