From Lawyer to Journalist

Adam Liptak took the long way around.  Between his entry level job as a copy boy at the New York Times and his first full time job as a journalist there, Adam got his JD from Yale Law School and then practiced law for 14 years.  He’s now the New York Times’ Supreme Court correspondent and one of the country’s most respected journalists.

When I spoke with Adam on the eve of the First Monday in October, he seemed remarkably calm.  But when Howell Raines, then editor of the Times, offered Adam the position of national legal correspondent ten years ago, he was terrified.  “It was my dream job,” he told me, but he had never worked as a journalist for a national publication before.  One of his colleagues told him, “We know you can write well.  Now we’ll see if you can write fast.”

Adam landed the copy boy job immediately after getting his BA from Yale.  Why didn’t he just stay there?  Although he had always wanted to be a reporter, he decided to go to law school in part because he thought he’d never get promoted at the Times.  That first job involved getting coffee for other people and doing a lot of other things that bore little resemblance to the work he wanted to do. Given the choice between working for a less prestigious newspaper where he might work his way up, and going to Yale Law School, Adam chose Yale.

After law school, Adam went to Cahill Gordon & Reindel.  As so often happens, his glorious summer associate experience working on libel cases alongside Floyd Abrams did not carry over into his full time assignment, and he ended up working on asbestos cases.  He always enjoyed writing briefs, however, and remained in touch with contacts at the Times.  After four years in private practice, he moved into the Times legal department and stayed there for another decade before becoming the Times’ national legal correspondent.

Adam’s advice to lawyers who want to become journalists is this: write as often as you can, and get published as widely as you can.  While Adam was working in the Times’ legal department, he wrote for the Week in Review and the Book Review whenever he could.  He occasionally wrote for other publications as well, including the New Yorker.  When he had the opportunity to move, he had already demonstrated that he could write well, so the transition was less of a risk for his editors than it might have been.  He also cautions against getting too used to law firm salaries, which bear little resemblance to those of even the best reporters.

What did you love before you went to law school?  Should you – and can you – find your way back to it?

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