Rent-a-lawyer: Upstart grows by helping law firms fill staffing needs

Four hundred rejection letters forced Karl Schieneman to think differently about his law career — and the legal industry overall.

Schieneman, who graduated with honors from the University of Pittsburgh law school in 1992, came away from an exhaustive job search empty-handed.

The ordeal forced him to get creative in order to find a job: He worked first at an accounting firm and then as a contract attorney before he found a permanent job as a lawyer. The experience also made him think twice about how law firms cope with economic downturns: What could they do differently in order to survive tough times and thrive in better times?

A decade later, Schieneman not only remains preoccupied with the question, but he’s also making a living trying to answer it. Six years ago, he co-founded and serves as managing director of Legal Network, a Downtown placement service and temporary employment firm for attorneys that helps law firms and companies fill staffing gaps. More recently, he’s developed a software program that he says will help law firms better run their businesses — and, he hopes, result in more work for his firm.

Promoting contract attorney services is an approach that has proved successful so far for Legal Networks and Schieneman.

Late last year the company, which has four full-time and two part-time staff members and 2,300 lawyers on call, landed a spot on Inc. magazine’s list of the nation’s 500 fastest-growing companies, with four-year revenue growth of 1,500 percent to $3.3 million. It also formed partnerships with both the Allegheny Bar Association and the Philadelphia legal consulting firm Altman Weil — moves that are expected to bring in a lot more business.

But Schieneman isn’t comfortable resting on laurels. He hasn’t forgotten the recession of a decade ago that cowed even the mightiest law firms and left him jobless.

“I had 400 rejection letters coming from law firms up and down the East Coast. That made me realize you can’t protect against market risk.”

That’s a key reason he came up with his firm’s new software, StaffRite. Schieneman said the software should help diversify and buffer his business against tough times, while at the same time helping law firms that may be struggling in this tougher economic environment.

StaffRite helps law firms do a quick analysis of the economics of hiring full-time workers vs. contract attorneys. Industry trends suggest more local law firms — perhaps timid about adding staff during the recession and seeking ways to compete nationally — are using temporary legal services such as Legal Network, said David Blaner, executive director of the Allegheny County Bar Association.

“I’ve seen an increased use of independent contract attorneys in the past three years,” he said. By allowing law firms to add workers as needed — and also let them go when a big project is finished — contract attorneys help law firms adapt to fluctuations in project loads, he said.

“And the independent contract attorney gets a chance to show his or her skills, and in some cases, it has resulted in offers for permanent employment,” said Blaner.

With StaffRite, law firms can compare their workers’ performances, using such measures as the number of workers or hours necessary to complete a project, against what it would take to perform that same task using contract attorneys. The savings for law firms can be in the tens of thousands of dollars, said Schieneman.

Of course, it’s understandable why Schieneman would draw such a conclusion — his firm could benefit enormously from such a finding. But Schieneman insists law firms that use the software benefit, too, because they translate those savings into lower bids that could win business from potential clients.

The program will be offered free to clients in Pittsburgh first, and, eventually, Schieneman hopes to sell it nationwide.

It might seem odd that a legal services firm is moving into peddling software. But Schieneman, who has a master’s in business administration from Carnegie Mellon University, said it’s really not that much of a stretch.

His business studies at CMU focused on operations and efficiency, so, “I’ve been able to take those concepts and apply them to a law firm environment.”

Developed with the aid of neighbor Jim Gephart, an information systems specialist, StaffRite also “ties into my CMU geek side that has been a bit undernourished,” Schieneman said.