TRU Trends April 2022: ESI FOMO | Association of Certified E-Discovery Specialists (ACEDS)

The Window is Closing for ESI Project Managers to Take Advantage of the Hottest Job Market in 20 Years

Experienced ediscovery professionals, such as project managers, analytics specialists, and broadly litigation support professionals, are on top of the world right now. This industry demographic group can currently cherry-pick new job offers from an abundance of available opportunities and, as part of that hiring process, are commanding previously unheard-of top-dollar salaries.

However, as with all things in life, what goes up must come down. Or in this case – level out. In 2021, the average increase in ESI base salaries at the hire point for these mid-market professionals was 22%. In Q1 2022, that has grown to almost 30%. This astonishing trend is unsustainable and potentially destabilizing for the greater ediscovery ecosystem. It is also a signal to those still hungry for financial mobility that the window of opportunity to take advantage of the hottest ESI job market in 20 years in closing.

High Expectations = Higher Salaries = Higher Costs to Everyone (well, almost everyone ()

What these salaries ultimately mean for the end customer is that prices are going up for ediscovery services billed by the hour. The cost of hiring talent has gone up too much for it not to trigger vendors and law firm litigation support departments increasing their pricing if they intend to continue to provide the high caliber of service necessary to fulfill client demands. And client demands are increasing too – in terms of quality, caliber, and volume of talent needed.

However, the resolute population of ESI hiring managers are not going to succumb to inflation and do not intend to pass the increased cost of labor onto their customers; instead, these hiring managers will embrace much longer hiring cycles in favor of less experienced (or very underpaid) talent that meet the pre-pandemic compensation ranges in the industry.

The problem those hiring managers are having, most of whom work at law firms and corporations, is that in addition to holding the line on compensation ceilings, they are also requiring talent to come into an office. This requirement exacerbates the length of the search process as two out of three active ESI job seekers are looking for either totally virtual employment or complete control over when they go into an office. Return-to-office and vaccine mandates are the number one reason job seekers pass on ESI opportunities. In recent weeks, law firms seem to be more willing to bend on the vax mandate than the return-to-office. Candidates – not so much.

Firm vs Vendor: The Compensation & QOL Gap is Closing

Law firms are hiring fewer mid-market ESI professionals into full-time jobs than vendors at a rate of nearly 1: 8, but when they do, they tend to hire on the more experienced end of the talent spectrum. This subset of talent within law firms, frequently referred to as “Senior Project Managers (PMs)” or “ESI Consultants”, tends to be direct competitors to external vendors and therefore firms are vying for the same talent pool as vendors. Ten, even five, years ago – law firm Senior PM talent often exceeded their vendor counterparts in experience, compensation, prestige, and authority with corporate clients. No more. Post-pandemic, vendors are rising to meet law firm compensations, or come very close to them, making money (as well as prestige and customer buy-in) less of a reason to accept law firm jobs.

One selling point that is quickly losing steam for law firm hiring managers is, “But we pay overtime, so you’ll make more here!” For some, this is exciting, but for most ESI job seekers this signals an extremely low quality of life when value is placed on time rather than results. “They want me working harder, not smarter – and they want to have eyes on me doing it in the office,” one candidate said when comparing a particular vendor role to a law firm role at a similar base pay. “Yeah, I’ll make 20K more at the firm, but I probably won’t see my kids as much.” Furthermore, for the job seeker who is attracted to paid overtime, the wealth of short and long-term contract ESI opportunities for professionals in this category is vast, and likely just as lucrative (and far less restrictive on controlling their time) than a full -time position. The combination of vendor adoption to using contract and remote talent resources is closing the QOL gap between employer categories, law firm versus vendor.

One Solution: Farm, Don’t Hunt

There is an immediate need to temper the salary inflation situation by restructuring how the ediscovery industry operates. ESI programs must consider diversifying ediscovery staffing practices by adding a “farming layer” into a group’s hiring practices. Farming systems are sorely needed in ediscovery. A farming system is a program that hires high-quality individuals for roles they are not yet proficient in and trains / mentors them over a period of months to become billable resources at a lower cost. This group includes recent law school grads, or industry-changers like law enforcement, who have peripheral knowledge of ediscovery methods, particularly forensics; paralegals; or just plain smart people looking for a career change.

Currently, TRU Staffing Partners has only a few clients that are bringing in talent with little to no ediscovery experience. The total percentage of entry-level job orders that TRU received over the last 15 months in ediscovery is less than 2% of our job pool. Everyone else wants ESI PMs at a higher caliber who have specific subject matter expertise and can walk in the door and immediately produce billable hours. If the only thing that an organization does is bring people in at an upper-middle range, they are going to continue to pay more inflated rates for these people and eventually pass that cost on to their customers.

The Final Window is Now

For those project managers in ESI who did not make job moves in the last 24 months (or who made the wrong job move) and are having FOMO about a big career bump in responsibility and compensation, TRU estimates you have another two to three months to get on the market before the bulk of opportunities left are the ones that have been open for months… ones that require you to come in-office and / or pay 20-30% less than the rest of their competitors.

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