We’re used to the legal sector’s high salaries and the battle to retain talent, but legal tech looks like it is facing its own salary and talent war. Artificial Lawyer explores some of the key issues and hears from industry experts.
First, the situation. Legal tech is growing, not with hyper growth, but it’s on a steady upward trajectory that every year demands more coders and engineers, more sales and marketing people, and many other skilled individuals.
Every time a tech company gets new funding they announce they are planning to hire several dozen new staff, maybe even double their headcount. Every innovation and service delivery group at every major law firm is also looking for ‘legal technologists’ and ‘legal engineers’ as well. Some ALSPs are building their own tech tools. And then there is legal ops and their need for at least some people with some hands-on tech skills.
In short, more organisations are chasing the same kinds of legal tech talent. And many of those organisations want far more of this talent than previously. The end result: rising salaries and a struggle to retain talent.
Here’s a couple of facts about tech talent from a recent Robert Walters report*. In London – a key centre for legal tech – the average time a person stays in a ‘technology’ role is 2.2 years.
Meanwhile the talent pool is estimated to be growing at only 1% per annum. This compares to lawyers where the talent pool in the UK is meant to be growing at 3.4% per annum – yet it is still experiencing a surge in salaries at larger firms.
The survey found that, across all types of employer, the salary range for an NLP engineer in London ranges from £78,000 ($106,000) to £126,000 ($171,000).
Or, if you want someone who can really lead, then a CTO, also as an average across all types of employer, then the range is £120,000 ($163,000) to £200,000 ($272,000).
And a Chief Product Officer in London can demand a salary of £280,000 ($382,000) at the upper end of the scale. And these are just multi-industry averages….in certain niches the figures could be higher. After all, if you want people who have top-tier experience in the legal market already then the pool for talent is even smaller. E.g. you really want someone senior who has helped develop cutting edge KM products specifically for commercial law firms. How large is that talent pool?
Now, a senior associate at a top City law firm may not be impressed by such figures, but imagine you are a legal tech start-up and you’ve just gained £500,000 in Seed funding. On paper it sounds like a lot, but how far is that cash going to go? And then you also need sales and marketing staff, and other roles. And although there is a lot of WFH now, you still need some kind of office, even if it’s just for meeting clients.
As you can appreciate, the cost of running a legal tech business – or tech department in a law firm – is getting quite pricey.
Of course, you could say companies such as Google and Facebook have been paying top-dollar for PhD level coders and AI experts for years now, and that’s true. But perhaps what we are seeing is a general widening of demand for tech capabilities, i.e. where hundreds of businesses are now searching for the same talent because it’s now essential to what they do, and a subset of this growing group are legal tech companies and innovation teams at law firms.
That’s the context. Artificial Lawyer asked a range of experts what they thought. One additional question that this site asked was whether higher operating costs due to pay demands are translating into higher prices for legal tech products? Here is what people said.
Noah Waisberg, CEO, Zuva: ‘Yes, salaries are going up across the board, especially for product-related roles (product management, engineering, design) but really for everything.
‘Presumably, this will end up pushing costs up, though note that very few customer contracts have inflation-price-adjustment mechanisms, (so price changes would have to come with renewal, if allowed; sometimes there are locked in price increases).’
Tim Pullan, ThoughtRiver CEO, added: ‘Across the world there is unprecedented demand for tech and engineering resources. Inevitably legal tech is not immune to this pressure. Certainly in 2021 the labour market tightened up, but we were able to secure some amazing hires over that time without re-writing our budgets. Attracting the best people is as much about opportunity, culture, team and mission. Get in touch if you are interested!’
While Ned Gannon, President, eBrevia in the US, said: ‘Compensation for engineers is rising, though depending on the stage of the business this can take different forms. At the same time, non-monetary factors should not be overlooked in the war for talent as the ability to work remotely, for example, often resonates with engineers and other staff.
‘Many legal tech products set prices based on the value they’re creating for customers rather than specifically tying them to costs incurred. As a result, increased prices are more likely to relate to the release of new features or provision of supplemental services that can be pointed to as a direct additional benefit.’ So, from his perspective, we should not necessarily expect wage-driven price rises, at least not yet.
Back in the UK, James Quinn, CEO, Clarilis, explained: ‘At Clarilis we are seeing significantly heightened salary expectations when recruiting all technical roles. It is most definitely a candidate’s market at the moment. However, high salary expectations are only one element of the package that candidates need in order to move roles.
‘As we know post (or post’ish) pandemic, remote and flexible working are vital to secure the right candidates; together with comfort that they will be working with autonomy and, most importantly, the latest technology stack. Overall, I would say that identifying and retaining top technical talent remains the biggest hurdle to growing a legal tech development team, rather than salary levels.
‘Whether this increase in salaries will feed through to the overall cost of legal tech is less clear, as there isn’t a direct link between the use of a legal tech platform and the cost of development.
‘I wouldn’t anticipate widespread legal tech price increases in line with recent salary inflation. Drivers such as the utility of the product and how much value it is delivering are likely to pay a far greater role in pricing going forward – rather than an increment in the cost of the technical team.’
Meanwhile Michael Grupp, CEO, BRYTER, noted that it’s marketing roles in the US that are seeing the highest increases for his company: ‘Salaries have gone up – especially in the commercial teams (e.g. Sales, SDR, Marketing) and especially in the US.’ In fact, he told this site that US marketing talent was seeing higher wage growth than the technical teams.
And on the law firm side, Tara Waters, Digital Head at Ashurst Advance, noted: ‘With the war for talent raging in the midst of the ‘great resignation’ I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised to see legal tech prices eventually rise accordingly.
‘Although, it’s worth noting that there are two sides to that coin in that whilst in the post-covid world finding great talent will be challenging, legal techs may have greater opportunity to source talent from anywhere. Whether that means there will be a race to the bottom or the top in terms of salaries remains to be seen!’
And that final point about location is where we’ll wrap things up. The reality is that one path to facing higher costs is to search out talent abroad. Legal tech companies have been doing this for some time already, but perhaps that will accelerate now?
For example, Eigen has a base in Portugal, Juro has a pool of talent in the Baltics, and when Seal Software was an independent company they opened a base in Egypt. Meanwhile UK insurance-focused law firm, Kennedys, has a dedicated legal tech development group in India.
Or perhaps you don’t need to go so far, and can focus on building a network of WFH talent across less pricey parts of the home country, e.g. in the UK, perhaps Belfast, or Edinburgh? It will be interesting to see what the staffing strategies are in the years ahead, i.e. more offshore, more inshoring, and/or sticking with a very dispersed employment model with WFH talent dotted all over the country and also the wider world?
We are used to hearing about the high salaries of lawyers, but ever-rising salaries for legal tech talent (and other talent in that space such as marketing) looks like it is here to stay and set to keep rising steadily. Whether this will mean higher prices for the consumers of legal tech remains to be seen, but no business can indefinitely absorb rising operating costs.
Another aspect is what additional benefits legal tech companies will give staff to attract and keep them, e.g. greater share options, and/or more holiday and permanent WFH?
Last thought: maybe those that invest in legal tech companies will have to start handing out much larger funding rounds at an earlier stage? After all, you could very quickly burn through £1m on just the salaries of a relatively small tech team these days.
By Richard Tromans, Founder, Artificial Lawyer – January 2022.
[ Note: * Robert Walters salary figures are for larger companies across London with 250+ headcount. ]