This Week in the Mayonnaise Clinic: Is Law School a Good Path to Becoming a Journalist?
Plus: Why are New York's streets constantly covered in garbage?
Welcome to the Mayonnaise Clinic! One of this week’s questions is about my favorite topic — me — and the other is about garbage.
Let’s get to the mail.
I'm currently a second-year law student and will be going to a Big Law firm after graduation to work in their white-collar crime and internal investigations group.
While I find law fascinating, I truly see myself in 5-10 years wanting to report on legal matters, with the goal of explaining complicated and nuanced legal issues to viewers in a digestible way that they can clearly understand. Basically, I want to do what you do.
With that in mind, do you have any advice on breaking into this field? How do I start to get my foot in the door so that a future transition is possible?
Jon, I’m pleased to hear that you’re already following the first piece of advice I usually give people who tell me they want to be journalists: Go do the thing you want to report on so you can develop subject-matter expertise and thereby distinguish yourself when you want to write publicly about the topic. One important advantage of this approach is that it comes with a built-in plan B: If your journalism dream doesn’t work out (and usually, it won’t — it’s a rough industry), you were already building a career in law.
Beyond that, I’d encourage you to think about which areas of law are currently underserved for quality journalism aimed at laypeople.
For example, there used to be nobody writing an entertaining newsletter about securities law, but in 2011, Matt Levine — who had previously been a mergers & acquisitions lawyer at Wachtell Lipton — left his job as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs to write for Dealbreaker and then eventually Bloomberg, and now he writes an informative, funny, and widely read daily newsletter about securities, M&A, and other related areas of law.That may sound like a dry set of subjects, but it happens to be a great frame for writing about Elon Musk, the GameStop bubble, SoftBank, Theranos, and any number of other business subjects that people care a lot about. And only Matt, with his deep subject-matter expertise, could write about it in his exact way.
I don’t know what exact area of law could be your special thing, but I would suggest it’s probably not criminal law. There are a lot of criminal lawyers and ex-criminal lawyers out there already opining as part of the true-crime industrial complex (and, increasingly, as part of political coverage). A lot of them are terrible, so there are opportunities to be better than average, but some of them are already very good, and it’s a crowded space.
So that’s the big question — what’s the Matt Levine-sized hole in the media landscape that you hope to fill, and how can you position yourself to fill it?
Finally, one good thing about law and journalism is that you might be able to dip your toe in the latter without leaving the former. Of course, it depends exactly what you’re doing and where you’re doing it — a Big Law firm won’t let you build a media presence as an associate, and it’s unlikely they would be keen on the idea even if you eventually make partner; plus, if you make partner at a Big Law firm, you’ll be up to your ears in legal work anyway. But my co-host on Serious Trouble, Ken White, is obviously a practicing attorney who is doing some journalism with me on the side, and he has done opinion writing here and there in his areas of expertise. A lot of the lawyers you see on TV are, like Ken, at smaller firms where their names are on the door, so if you can find yourself in that situation at your day job, then you may be able to moonlight in journalism.
But in the meantime, as you build your legal career in your pre-media phase, I’d encourage you to keep one eye on the journalistic relevance of the expertise and contact networks you’re developing — will the work you’re doing now help you say something interesting in the future? — while keeping both eyes on your legal career itself, because, if I had to guess, I’d say you’re more likely to be still practicing law when you turn 40 than working as a journalist.
As a fellow New Yorker, I'm curious about your take on the city's trash problem. Eric Adams just announced a new policy that moves trashtime back four hours to limit how long mountains of crap can sit on the sidewalks for rats to party in.
My question(s) for you:
1) Will this actually do anything?
2) Why all the complicated time schemes when we could just put our trash in receptacles like every other major city in the world?
Yeah, the trash situation here kind of sucks. People from other cities like to give us crap about it, but the way I prefer to think about it is that only the greatest city in the world could get away with having such poor trash management. Who would ever go to Philadelphia if there were giant bags of garbage sitting out on the sidewalks of the central business district all the time? Nobody, that’s who.
As you note, Mayor Eric Adams has announced that buildings will have to wait until 8pm to put trash out for overnight collection, instead of putting it out as early as 4pm. One thing this will definitely do is raise the cost of operating a building in New York City — buildings that are ordinarily unstaffed by 8pm will have to keep staff around longer to put trash out later. I can also see how it will improve quality of life at the margin — there will be fewer hours of the day when you have to dodge giant piles of trash on the sidewalk, and the rats will have fewer hours to eat the trash.
It’s not true that every other major city in the world has containerized trash collection — garbage in Tokyo, for example, also goes out in bags — but that is how most of our peer cities do things, and it would be better for keeping smells and rats in check. Unfortunately, much of New York City is physically unsuited to the approach that you tend to see in other American cities, where buildings have wheeled collection containers they can move out to the curb on trash day. The lack of alleyways and the use of curbs for street parking make this impractical in Manhattan and in much of the outer boroughs. Some master-planned parts of the city, like Roosevelt Island, have pneumatic tube systems for trash collection, but it’s not practical to refit parts of the city with such systems.
There are alternative options the city has been considering — options that are used in foreign jurisdictions, like collective below-grade trash containers buried under the street — but so far the city has mostly produced a lot of memos and requests for proposals. Since everything our city government does costs five times as much as it should, I’m not holding my breath for containerized trash collection to come here in my lifetime.
Of course, piles of trash in New York were a problem long before COVID, but I’ll be back tomorrow with some thoughts on why the government seems to have gotten materially worse at some other key functions in the last three years, and what we can do about it.
Correction: An earlier version of this issue incorrectly said that Matt Levine worked as a lawyer at Goldman Sachs. He was a banker at Goldman Sachs and previously practiced law at Wachtell Lipton.
This New York Times profile of Matt talks about his transition to writing and it also ends with this:
‘When I asked him what he would do if the internet went away tomorrow, he responded quickly. “A tax — I’d be an M&A lawyer,” he said.’
To the 2L: take the job at your firm and make yourself available for writing opportunities. Firms love pumping out memos on new cases and regulations; make it known to the assigning partner that you want to help write them. That’ll give you practice with writing and build up your online resume too. (And give you a shot at paying off your loans.)
Also ask the firm if they would mind if you maintain a blog or use your LinkedIn as a place to riff on legal developments. You’d be surprised, they may see it as positive marketing for them (if you have smart things to say). E.g., there’s an associate at O’Melveny who maintains an extremely popular TikTok account with her husband, talking about the law in laymen’s terms; they haven’t told her to stop.
You can try to find a legal field that isn’t being discussed anywhere yet can be fun to think about in the right hands (Tax? Bankruptcy? Fund formation? I’m already boring myself). But anyway I don’t think the existence of Matt Levine excludes all other writers on matters of corporate and securities law. You just have to write in your own voice and deliver your own take. I’m quite capable of reading Professor Ann Lipton’s blog even after I’ve read Matt’s column. Anyways I think your area of interest, white collar investigations, makes for quite fertile ground. One Bloomberg columnist can’t cover all of it.
For the lawyer who wants to be a journalist, I would suggest trying to get things published sooner rather than later. I went to law school with Jess Bravin, who covers the Supreme Court for the WSJ and this was always his path -- but he was a reporter before he started law school and then he did all kinds of interesting things while a student that helped him make connections (e.g he was a student Regent on the UC Board of Regents and appointed to some Berkeley Commissions).