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ANALYSIS: Futurist for Hire — Alt-Legal Jobs React to Recession

Sept. 18, 2020, 4:42 PM

Thanks to changes in the industry, lawyers are filling more new and different types of “alternative legal” jobs than ever. But those jobs have taken a hit in this downturn and may be difficult to find, when compared to the apparent boom times of 2019.

Despite this, there are still opportunities for lawyers willing to go outside of traditional practice in areas including e-Discovery, legal operations, project management, compliance and privacy.

This piece addresses current trends in the lateral hiring market for J.D.-advantaged full-time permanent positions. Data on law student hiring post-Covid-19 from the National Association for Law Placement is not yet available.

Fewer Legal Ops Jobs, But Role Has New Importance

While legal operations and legal project management roles were hot last year, the number of jobs in these sectors seems to have taken a nosedive. But demand for management skills remains high.

“Legal ops was definitely having a big exciting moment,” Eliza Stoker, executive director of in-house counsel recruiting at Major, Lindsey & Africa, told me. “Right now, it is not the hottest hiring trend. Most of the legal roles that we’re seeing are at the top level: general counsel or chief legal officer or divisional general counsel. Other types of roles, employers are choosing to live without.”

“From an employment perspective, generally, legal ops has been hit the hardest of all the alternate legal pathways,” Jared Coseglia, founder and CEO of Tru Staffing, an e-Discovery, cybersecurity, and privacy staffing firm, told me.

A search of legal jobs website Law Crossing shows a precipitous drop in postings for legal project manager, legal operations, and legal risk manager roles. Of course, this data is just a snapshot of job listings available on two particular days on Law Crossing, which lists legal jobs in several categories, including non-practicing attorney positions.

This is not necessarily a reflection that legal operations roles are less important within organizations. It’s possible that many organizations already hired legal ops professionals during the boom and are now leaning on them more heavily. After all, if a department or firm is functioning more smoothly and efficiently, it can substantially increase its output, effectively increasing headcount without increasing the payroll budget.

Although organizations might be less likely to take on new staff, skilled managers remain in demand.

“The challenge that legal departments were facing prior to Covid and the challenges that have intensified throughout and post-Covid aren’t much different; it’s the exigency of the circumstances,” Mark Yacano, managing director with Major, Lindsey & Africa’s Transform Advisory Services team, told me. Yacano thinks legal operations roles are “more imperative than ever.”

E-Discovery Takes a Dip

E-Discovery jobs, which have been a safety net for displaced lawyers since the Great Recession because they allow such lawyers to stay connected to legal practice as they wait for their preferred roles to become available, have been suffering as a result of stalled litigation due to court closures.

Nonetheless, e-Discovery is “a very stable, lucrative, competitive space where being a lawyer is advantageous,” Coseglia said. He believes hiring in this sector will pick up again as litigation resumes.

As of Sept. 17, Law Crossing listed 258 e-Discovery roles, 108 of which are identified as practicing attorney roles and 28 as positions for non-practicing attorneys.

Privacy Roles Trending

For those with the experience and willingness to obtain privacy certifications, data privacy professionals are in high demand, according to Coseglia.

“When we look at the biggest businesses in our culture — Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook — these are the businesses that are capitalizing on the availability and usage of all of our data,” Coseglia said. “There’s great opportunity to make a lot of money on people’s information. And corporations are engaging privacy professionals not only to help them stay compliant, but to help them measure the business opportunity against the legal risk and have a voice in the business.”

Privacy roles were fairly abundant on Law Crossing: 803 job listings as of Sept. 15. Of those, about 13% were non-practicing attorney roles.

The Covid-19 crisis’s mixing of health care data with technology data (for example, through contact tracing apps) has “quickly spiraled into job opportunities for all sorts of people in all sorts of different segments,” Coseglia said. “Technology has been huge for privacy professionals. Health care has been good for privacy professionals. That intersection of both has been an incredibly hot area, and a lot of these people are lawyers.”

Coseglia said his firm tracked more than 300 privacy openings in Q2 2020.

Experience Required

As in last year’s look at the shape of the hiring market, jobs are most plentiful for those with two to seven years of experience. Organizations that are hiring for legal operations or other strategy-focused roles are increasingly looking for candidates with meaningful experience as they grapple with the pandemic environment.

“If you analogize it to the lateral law firm recruiting market, folks who are at companies in a legal operations role who have gained experience and have a track record of managing all different types of efficiency and cost-saving initiatives are in demand and fairly mobile,” Yacano said. “Similar to the idea that lawyers with books of business are always mobile.”

Coseglia says he has seen more hiring for high-level roles, particularly in privacy, as organizations rethink their leadership post-pandemic.

Salaries Hold Steady

Though roles may be fewer, salaries seem to be generally holding steady in the alt-legal space, which could be attributable to the temporary nature of the pandemic economy or the unique nature of the legal industry.

It could be that downward pressure on alt-legal salaries just hasn’t happened yet. The 150,000 lawyers who lost jobs earlier this year may be reluctant to enter non-practicing roles and may be holding out for more traditional positions, given the difficulty of getting back into legal practice once one has exited. If the downturn continues, the supply of attorneys seeking roles may result in lower salaries for law-adjacent roles.

Staffing firm Robert Half tracks salaries in both traditional legal career paths and other roles, such as compliance, contract administration, and e-Discovery.

Legal operations salaries also haven’t shifted much, despite the downturn, according to Stoker.

“The salary expectations seem to be remaining the same. It is still a competitive market for candidates. So if you’re going to hire someone to fill a large legal ops role, you’re going to have to pay what you would have paid before the pandemic,” Stoker said.

Salaries remaining steady for other alt-legal roles may also be a residual result of the talent crunch pre-pandemic. Organizations may realize that if they are going to hire, they need to pay more for top talent.

Further Afield: Legal Tech Startups

For those willing to really get creative and forgo the stability of traditional law firms and corporations (assuming they are stable, in this economic environment), there are jobs in the legal tech startup sector. Even if you don’t have a friend who created a new legal tech platform out of his garage, the hiring market at legal tech startups appears to be worth exploring. And startups may offer opportunities to a lawyer that they would not find in a traditional environment, such as the ability to take a hands-on role in creating new products or services.

As of Sept. 15, AngelList’s jobs site for startups listed 1,504 jobs in legal and legal tech startup companies, 1,330 of which are full time roles.

Filtering out roles in engineering, design, data science, and user experience (which presumably require technical skills that most lawyers don’t have), AngelList had 1,345 Product, Operations, Sales, Marketing, Management, Business Analysis, Project Management, and Attorney roles, 1,182 of them full time. And 284 of those had salaries listed or estimated at $100k or above.

Sure, working for a legal tech startup is perhaps risky and not for everyone. And the legal tech sector, in terms of investment volume and staffing needs, has been impacted adversely by the downturn.

But roles in startups and law companies are becoming a more common pathway for lawyers who want to explore a broader array of roles outside of traditional legal practice.

Free Your Mind, And the Rest Will Follow

Whether you call them “alternative legal,” “legal-adjacent,” “new” law jobs, or, more democratically — and more accurately — just law jobs, the current slate of roles for attorneys can be muddy, amorphous, and difficult to navigate. And therein lies the opportunity.

The biggest hurdle for many leaving the practice of law will not be the economy but their own thinking. For many attorneys, it is still a stretch to envision giving up the private office, secretary, and prestige of doing “real” legal work. (Though, post-Covid, it may be less likely that attorneys enjoy office space or dedicated support staff long-term, anyway.)

But for those dedicated to transitioning away from the conventional law-firm or in-house track, diligence in seeking out opportunities and skills training will be crucial.

It will also help for lawyers to have a paired skill, like lawyer/data scientist, lawyer/project manager, lawyer/marketer, or lawyer/product strategist. While some paired skills are difficult to attain, requiring advanced degrees, others may have been developed during those years of traditional practice — such as management skills — and can be supported with certifications, and others still may be developed through training programs.

Bottom line: If you want to do something interesting and dynamic with your law degree, increasingly, you can. Regardless of the downturn, there is one thing that lawyers who are willing to try something different have going for them: options.

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