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Law firms expand digital skills plans as Big Tech sheds staff

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A wave of lay-offs at big technology companies could help US law firms add to their growing roster of data scientists and technologists, according to senior executives seeking to hire the best tech talent.

Law firms have historically struggled to lure tech talent from — or heading to — Silicon Valley start-ups. But a technology sector slowdown and a surge of new data-focus­ed roles are helping to shift the balance.

In recent weeks, Meta has sacked 11,000 workers — 13 per cent of its workforce; Twitter’s new owner Elon Musk is aiming to halve the group’s headcount; and Amazon plans to cut about 10,000 jobs.

“The war for technical talent is changing as a result of the current economic headwinds,” says Michael Shea, chief information officer at McDermott Will & Emery, which is creating digital analytics and intelligence teams to sit alongside finance, human resources and marketing.

“The competition has changed in recent months as a result of the lay-offs . . . We’ve seen a very large reduction in recruitment activity in general, and we have lower-than-normal attrition,” says Shea. “Twitter, Facebook, you name it, they’re having pretty big lay-offs . . . It’s an opportunity for stronger firms to acquire good talent.”

The legal jobs market has cooled significantly this year after a frantic two years of recruiting, and the war for talent has shifted in focus towards data experts and technologists.

The biggest US law firms are now adding roles such as chief information officers, as well as “storytel­lers”, who analyse commercial data to present to staff in a more digestible way, and even anthropologists — all to leverage data and use behavioural science to improve their processes.

One lawyer says the midpoint of the market for data scientist salaries stands at about $250,000 to $300,000 but notes that big technology groups would pay more, with broad ranges based on experience.

Last year, US law firms were battling to recruit associates and partners in a fiercely competitive hiring market triggered by a record-breaking surge in corporate merger and acquisition deals during the Covid-19 pandemic. Government stimulus measures led to rising deal volumes, and law firms, including big outfits such as Kirkland & Ellis, threw money at lawyers in the form of six-figure bonuses and higher salaries to lure or retain top talent.

However, firms are now less flush in a slower market for fundraisings and M&A, but continue to hire selectively in areas such as data science, IT and technology. Bob Bratt, chief operating officer at DLA Piper, says: “You’ve got to be more selective in what you’re doing . . . If you know you’re heading into a challenging environment, you don’t want to bring people in who won’t be busy.”

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McDermott Will & Emery is hiring data scientists, data modellers and business intelligence developers. Similarly, Reed Smith, which turned over $1.44bn last year in its best-ever results, is hiring three storytellers to bolster an innovation lab. The firm launched the unit this year after hiring anthropologist and former KPMG innovation lab chief Madeline Boyer.

During her time at the University of Pennsylvania, Boyer conducted ethno­graphic re­s­earch on co-working spaces and virtual and hybrid communities. The new hub was devised by Reed Smith’s new chief innovation officer, David Cunningham, who joined last year, will look at improv­ing processes in particular practice areas.

“We’re trying to study how people act and how we change and evolve,” Cunningham says. The new story­tellers will scour the firm’s mass of data to better explain it to staff.

“We have tonnes of data, and we can analyse and produce lots of charts and graphs,” he adds. “But that’s not [necessarily] the way a partner learns . . . We need to say: ‘What’s all this data telling me and what are the actions I need to change? How do I make it actionable?’”

Law firms are not only using data and technology to overhaul the way they work; they are also using these tools to protect against the risk of cyber hacks and security breaches.

A survey of law firm leaders, published in November by Thomson Reuters in partnership with the Center on Ethics and the Legal Profession at the Georgetown University Law Center, confirms this. It found that firms were increasingly worried about economic pressure and threats such as security breaches, hacks, ransomware demands and data loss.

More than three-quarters of law firm business leaders said they planned to use more technology.

The primary technologies firms plan to purchase, that they are not currently using, include legal research, contract management, and litigation tools that are driven by artificial intelligence.

In the past, law firms have struggled to persuade the best talent in areas such as technology that they should choose law over a start-up. Now, though, some believe it is changing.

“It’s a sell job for sure,” says Bratt at DLA Piper. “But it shouldn’t be. This is an environment of very smart, driven people.”

Cunningham agrees: “There is a perception [that tech people don’t want to go to law firms] but, fortunately, we’re doing so many projects, and pushing boundaries also, that the retention in my team is high.

“I’m finding that, sometimes, a person works for a [start-up] because it seems more exciting than a ‘boring’ law firm but, once they’ve helped with some of our projects, they think: ‘I’ll help you guys’.”

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