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Friday, February 02, 2007

An Online Experiment: Take the Legal World, Add Gossip, Shake

David Lat's new media outlet, Above the Law, has had quite a run lately.  In a series of ongoing posts, entitled "Skaddenfreude," he documents the wave of pay increases that is sweeping across the pool of associates in New York and, to a more mixed degree, D.C.  He is running an ongoing series on a DOJ section chief, chronicling (from lawsuits and anonymous sources) her allegedly abusive treatment of her underlings.  And he is perhaps the best source for news and gossip on Aaron Charney, a Sullivan and Cromwell associate who is suing the firm for sexual orientation discrimination.

In watching all this, I have to think that the subjects of his reporting don't really know what hit them.  For the most part, the legal world has been immune from media-reported gossip.  Sure, the Raoul Felders of the world get written about in the N.Y. Post and New York Magazine, but they have consciously entered the larger world of celebrity-driven media.  For the most part, Lat's subjects have never been subjected to this type of scrutiny.  No matter how diva-like, a federal judge or a DOJ section chief is not going to be gossiped about in People magazine.  And while there is always gossip in any culture, putting that gossip into print dramatically changes the game.  Things that previously were just whispered from person to person become labels and "facts" that are open for general discussion.

So ATL and David Lat will have to struggle with the perils of gossip in a world not accustomed to it.  He already has gotten one taste of the blowback this week, when a story about Ninth Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon incited a critical letter from fellow Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski.  Kozinski laments: "It is very easy -- probably too easy -- to ruin a fine reputation, and cause personal suffering, by posting unfounded allegations from anonymous sources as if they were the Gospel Truth."  Indeed.  And Lat himself seemed chastened to learn that Judge Berzon's brother had died unexpectedly earlier that week.  At some point, he may risk wider opprobrium or even a lawsuit -- those are the perils of the gossip trade.  And unlike other gossip-oriented media outlets, he may arguably be dealing with non-public figures.

For the most part, law profs do not seem to matter that much to ATL.  Sure, there were the photos of the Prawfsblawg-Concurring Opinions party, but the commentary was generally innocuous.  Two profs have been singled out for the star treatment: Noah Feldman and Jeannie Suk, or "Feldsuk."  (For an explanation, see this series of posts.)  And Lat seems to be quite consciously working to make them celebrities.  As he explained in one post, entitled "You're Sick of Feldsuk.  We Don't Care.":

The whole point of being a mono-monikered celebrity entity is that you get covered, and covered, and covered by the media. This coverage continues, long after the public claims to be sick of you and cries out for mercy.

But the Feldsuk gossip has been largely adulatory, even if somewhat invasive.  (Photos and the price of a house recently purchased by the couple were posted on the site.)

Thus far, law professor blogs have pretty much shied completely away from law professor gossip.  There are a lot of really good reasons for this.  Liability concerns may be a factor, but I think they're a small part.  No law prof yet has been willing to go on record as the mouthpiece for gossip.  And why should they?  Being a gossip conduit is costly to one's reputation.  It's trivial.  It's non-scholarly.  It's hurtful to others.  And besides -- if you already know the gossip, what good does it do you to bring others in on the secret?

But -- undeniably -- folks like gossip.  I read ATL, and I think David Lat is an excellent writer with a sharp sense of what the legal world will find interesting.  Despite the somewhat trivial nature of the gossip about Judge Berzon, several commenters were led to paroxysms of joy.  It's only a matter of time before nationwide, online, high-level law-prof gossip comes to town.  And I don't think we'll be quite ready for it when it does.

Posted by Matt Bodie on February 2, 2007 at 01:44 PM in Culture | Permalink


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Thank you fro bringing such nice posts. Your blog is always fascinating to read.

Posted by: Janet | May 12, 2007 4:16:39 AM

That's a very nice house.

Posted by: a | Feb 2, 2007 2:29:18 PM

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