Lawyers Teach Others to Help Themselves

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN an old factory in Berkeley, Calif., where workers once mass-produced large clocks, a group of dropped-out lawyers are producing law guides for the masses.

``We're trying to do for law what Ford, Levittowns, and Motel 6 did in their industries,'' says Ralph (Jake) Warner, co-founder and publisher of Nolo Press - that is, make the legal system accessible and affordable to millions of Americans.

Nolo is a prominent force in the burgeoning legal self-help movement. The movement includes, besides publishers, various other nonlawyer service- providers who assist people in acting as their own attorneys in common and relatively routine legal matters.

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At Nolo, a staff of about 60 publishes nearly 100 books, tapes, videos, and computer programs to help consumers draft wills, handle divorces and other family disputes, buy property, resolve landlord-tenant problems, form corporations, and file for bankruptcy. Nolo's writer-editors produce eight to 10 new titles a year. The company also publishes Nolo News, a quarterly newspaper filled with legal updates, consumer tips, and lawyer jokes.

Many lawyers have turned up their noses at the legal self-help movement, and bar groups have attempted to put some service providers out of business. A bar-association critic of Nolo's first books claimed that legal self-help was akin to performing surgery on oneself.

Lawyers couch their objections to legal self-help in terms of consumer protection. But turf consciousness and money no doubt enter in.

As a legal-aid lawyer in Richmond, Calif., in the late 1960s, Mr. Warner found that he was turning away more potential clients than he was serving. Many of those who walked in his door weren't poor enough to qualify for legal aid, but they couldn't afford a private lawyer, either. The idea for Nolo Press was born. Trend catches on

With a former partner, Charles Sherman, Warner published two books in 1971: ``How To Do Your Own Divorce in California'' and ``The California Tenants' Handbook.'' Sales were slow at first, but eventually they caught fire.

Mr. Sherman left to form his own company a few years later, but Warner has continued to shepherd Nolo through its years of rapid growth. The company has sold more than 6 million products in its 23 years, Warner says, with current annual revenue of $7.5 million.

The business demands have exceeded Warner's appetite for spreadsheets, and last year he hired an experienced publishing executive, Linda Hanger, to be Nolo's president while he retained the title of publisher.

Needing more space, Nolo just added a second story to the former clock factory, which it has occupied since 1979.

The market for legal publications is fragmented, given the differences in law among various states. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of Nolo's products focus on its biggest market, California. But it has come out with self-help products for New York, Florida, and other large states, and many of its titles now cover all states.

One of its top-selling products is WillMaker, will-drafting software in DOS, MS-Windows, and, starting next month, Macintosh versions.

Like Warner, nearly all of the dozen or so writer-editors (including several outside contract writers) who prepare the material are lawyers with some practice experience. Typical of these is Barbara Kate Repa, who joined Nolo about six years ago. Besides being the editor of Nolo News, Ms. Repa writes and edits books on domestic violence, sexual harassment, and legal issues related to the elderly. Misgivings confirmed

Ms. Repa says that, like most of her lawyer co-workers, she had misgivings about the legal system based on her years in practice. But she ``really got religion'' at Nolo, as she heard numerous stories from readers about their ``terrible experiences'' with lawyers.

Warner, Repa, and their colleagues may not care much for lawyers, but they couldn't do what they're doing without caring and being scrupulous about law. (The writers are ``activists,'' Repa says, but, adds Warner, ``not anarchists.'') They are painstaking in their efforts to be accurate. ``Every book is read seven ways to Sunday before it's published,'' Warner says.

Each book or other product also is reviewed every six months, Repa says. Small legal changes are reported in Nolo News, and new editions of products appear as quickly as warranted. ``Short press runs are not cost-effective,'' Repa says, ``but they're necessary to keep current.''

Warner acknowledges that the products sometimes contain mistakes, but he says that Nolo corrects errors promptly. ``We've never been sued,'' he notes. And he points out that Nolo products frequently warn consumers when they may be getting in over their heads and need a lawyer.

To the idea that legal self-help seems radical, Warner responds: ``It's the people's legal system, and we should be able to handle the 20 or so most common legal problems ourselves. It should be just like paying taxes: Most people can fill out the returns themselves, but if they need or want help, they can use tax software, go to H&R Block, or hire a CPA or a lawyer.''

Warner and Repa say that a number of lawyers buy Nolo products -

especially lawyers starting out or those needing quick information on an unfamiliar area of practice. Asked if this company of lawyer bashers views that fact with chagrin, Repa says with a laugh, ``We don't treat it as a dirty little secret, but lots of our lawyer readers do.''

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