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Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Unfulfilled Potential of "Above the Law"

"Above the Law" has been disappointing.  Like a lot of other law professors, I would guess, I'm uncomfortable with some of the anti-law-school rhetoric that Elie Mystal and others have been trading in there.   But that's not the disappointing part -- in fact, I think Elie has been largely responsible in his vitriol.  (And there have sadly been many deserving targets.)  Instead, I'm disappointed that ATL has not fulfilled its promise of being the go-to site for news about lawyers and law schools.  Instead, it's been a useful site for *links* to news about lawyers and law schools.

What's the difference?  ATL has almost no original content, at least in terms of news.  There's a lot of opinion, yes, and that opinion can be entertaining and informative.  But most of the time, the opinion is: "Hey, did you see this?  Wow!  LOL!"  I cannot remember any time--any time--where ATL broke a news story.  Maybe they have, and I'm forgetting.  All the stories I remember start with a brief overview, a link, opinion, a block quote from the original source, and then further opinion.  It's like I'm reading Yahoo.

So here's my plea -- do some original journalism!  Yes, journalism is expensive.  But how many people are working over there?  Can't you assign three folks out of j-school or law school each to a "beat" -- law schools, Big Law, and other lawyers and judges -- and set them loose with a modest expense account and time to dig?  There's news out there -- do some actual reporting!  I suppose it's not the Gawker way, perhaps, but seriously -- how much better would ATL be if it actually broke some of its own stories?  It would depend on the quality of the stories, of course.  But ATL could make itself into a "farm team" for folks looking to work at the New Yorker, NY Mag, VF, the Atlantic, the Awl, or Grantland.  I'd prefer some long-form pieces -- send somebody to X law firm or Y law school to actually do some digging and provide a deeper perspective. But short "Page Six" items would be entertaining as well! 

I give ATL credit for its rankings, which were a thoughtful attempt to reconstruct the formula with more emphasis on jobs and alumni rankings.  (Full disclosure: SLU placed 47th.)  But it's not the investigative journalism that ATL seemed poised to provide when it started.  With the proliferation of blogs, there is so much opinion out there.  ATL is now a group blog, with some smart folks and smart opinions but just links, not news.  I had thought it had the chance to be something a little different.

Posted by Matt Bodie on March 6, 2014 at 10:31 AM in Current Affairs, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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It's a small point, but re the comment on lawyerly lairs, why "Cambridge?" I thought it was Elizabeth Warren that had the expensive house in Cambridge, and Todd who had the expensive house (if it is) in and around the DC area.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Mar 7, 2014 11:22:38 AM

They did some amazing reporting on the day to day of the meltdown at Dewey. I remember the suspense of the loss of worker health coverage because Dewey wasn't paying its company premiums on time. It was harrowing stuff. But you're right. Most of their stories aren't like that. And all their reporting depends on someone emailing them.

Posted by: anon, good nurse | Mar 6, 2014 9:18:08 PM

Also, note the ideological bias there. When a law prof gets paid "nearly $1.3 million in compensation since 2007" from Wall Street:


You'd think that maybe that would merit a "lawyerly lairs" column. How big a Cambridge house does that buy? Did he make it to Fayerweather Street? But Lat's a big Federalist Society kingpin, so the embarrassing stories about pro-corporate people are downplayed.

Instead, they focus like a laser on the hippie-dippy liberal law profs. Maybe they'll get invited to Cato with Tamanaha and Campos, soon...I'm sure it would be a dream come true for them.

Posted by: Anon | Mar 6, 2014 6:57:38 PM

I go to ATL every time I want to hear another pun about defunct firms like Dewey and Howrey.

Posted by: Kinw | Mar 6, 2014 5:36:41 PM

As a gossip blog, I suspect that they are more likely to be the JV team for Gawker, et al. rather than the New Yorker, et al.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Mar 6, 2014 4:11:54 PM

IIRC, they also broke the Pathways to Practice story. In that little fiasco, the Dean attempted to reduce benefits from $15/hour to $10/hour. I honestly think the bad publicity that ATL brought about caused the school to rethink the idea.


Posted by: BoredJD | Mar 6, 2014 3:40:43 PM

They tend to break more news re: Big Law. Every Spring and Winter, they announce Big Law bonuses, so it brings some transparency to that process. They also break stories on Big Law layoffs, and were one of the first to report on the collapse of Dewey, et. al.

Posted by: DJF | Mar 6, 2014 1:10:18 PM

I hate the posts that cover a memo (sent in by a reader) circulated at a law firm/law school. Look, my mentor suggested I not put my hands in my pockets when giving a presentation! Jerk! Look, due to HVAC problems, the library will be closed this week! How about I supposed to study! Look, there was a typo in our exam!

Posted by: Christine Hurt | Mar 6, 2014 11:26:25 AM

The quality of ATL's content does seem to have declined over the years. I rarely visit the website anymore. As you note, ATL is now overrun with rants and links.

At least when I was in practice, however, they did break a number of their own stories, including those about law firm salaries/bonuses, summer associate scandals, and attorney departure e-mails. Also, I believe David Lat still compiles a list of the SCOTUS clerks each year.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Mar 6, 2014 11:23:54 AM

I missed the Judge Tinder news -- and that is, in fact, breaking news. As to the collapse of law schools, not sure what you mean. Have they broken any original news on that? Elie has had some smart and scathing commentary, but I don't know of any news that they have broken. But maybe I'm missing something, like I missed the Judge Tinder story.

Posted by: Matt Bodie | Mar 6, 2014 11:20:25 AM

3 days ago ATL broke the news that Judge Tinder is leaving the Seventh Circuit.

They've also been all over the collapse of the law schools.

Posted by: Jojo | Mar 6, 2014 10:52:21 AM

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