Drop-in legal centers draw lawyers' ire

Unlicensed chains offer cheap advice, but critics say they could harm consumers.

When Rocco Routhe and his wife decided to split, they each hired lawyers and began the process. After nearly a year, with the divorce still languishing in court and their legal bills nearing $40,000, they both fired their lawyers.

Mr. Routhe then answered a newspaper ad for a low-cost legal center called We The People. He and his wife each filled out a "workbook," and within days the company gave them completed forms to take to court, where they represented themselves. Within a month the divorce was final. The combined bill for both: $350.

"I can't believe how simple the whole thing was once we decided to do it ourselves," says Routhe, who owns a manufacturing company in a Chicago suburb.

Routhe and his wife are in the vanguard of a new movement: consumers who are using low-cost legal centers to aid in representing themselves in court. The centers are highly controversial, however, and the legal establishment is coming down on them like a hammered gavel.

Some states have banned them; others have encouraged them. The Illinois bar association is promoting a law that would all but drive them out of business and has filed suit against them for deceptive advertising, fraud, and practicing law without a license.

At the heart of the debate is whether legal centers are a boon for consumers - offering inexpensive advice for relatively uncomplicated cases like bankruptcy, divorce, or wills - or whether they're shady businesses that dispense information only true lawyers are qualified to give.

One of the leading crusaders for legal self-management is Ira Distenfield, founder of We The People, a national chain that opened its first office in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1994.

He's grown the company into 110 branch offices in 10 states, with strongholds in Florida and California. According to Mr. Distenfield, We The People prepared documents for some 12,000 bankruptcies, 15,000 divorces, and 18,000 wills last year, usually for 10 percent or less of what a lawyer might charge.

"We're not lawyers and we don't pretend to be," says Distenfield, past president of the Port of Los Angeles. In his old life he worked frequently with lawyers and was often bothered that law firms charged him the same high rate, whether he was talking to a partner or having paperwork typed by a secretary. He says his company retains a supervising attorney, who is a member of the bar, in each state in which it operates. They often help with complicated cases.

While legal centers view themselves as the equivalent of H&R Block in accounting or Charles Schwab in investing - a low-cost, customer-friendly alternative to traditional firms - the legal establishment sees them as cookie-cutter dispensers of quasi-legal advice.

It takes a lawyer

"They say they're only filling out forms and not acting as lawyers, but the forms have to come from somewhere," says Dennis Rendleman, general counsel for the Illinois State Bar Association. "There are no forms in Illinois for the types of services that they are marketing." He says that even in areas of Illinois law such as immigration and naturalization, where multiple forms are in fact available, just the choice of which form to use is a legal decision.

"If our only interest here were economic," adds Rendleman, "we'd let these entities proliferate all over the state, because the way they screw things up it creates more business for lawyers."

But Distenfield says the only opposition his firm has ever faced comes from state bar associations, never consumer groups. He says the points of contention are purely territorial and economic.

Rendleman, however, insists the Illinois bar's interest is the protection of consumers. He compares low-cost legal centers to driving without a license. "If you don't have a driver's license, it doesn't mean you're not capable of driving. It means we as a society have agreed that people should have a driver's license before they are allowed to use the road. The same thing is true of the practice of law."

Nationwide, states seem to be conflicted when it comes to regulating the burgeoning industry. Thirteen states do not allow legal centers to operate at all.

California, on the other hand, two years ago passed the Legal Document Assistance Act, which essentially sanctions the centers. According to Distenfield, some 30 states are now in various stages of considering similar legislation.

Spectrum of self-help law

Legal centers like We The People are just one segment of the emerging self-help spectrum. Nolo.com, based in Berkeley, Calif., simply provides bare-bones legal forms, without paralegals in storefronts to fill them out. And some are looking to a future in which a client seeking, say, bankruptcy protection, could engage a large law firm for strategic advice, but use a less-expensive legal center down the street to execute the documents.

"The way civil law has evolved over the years discounts the intelligence and involvement of the consumer," says Distenfield, "in contrast to other fields, like medicine, where people, aware of the risks they face and the choices they have, are increasingly managing their own healthcare. Why shouldn't people control their own destiny when it comes to legal issues?"

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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