Nov 01, 2007

Self-Help Law Comes of Age

Once upon a time, in nineteenth century America, a perennial best seller was Every Man His Own Lawyer, by John G. Wells. By the time the twentieth century rolled around the lawyers had taken over and the very idea of handling one's own case in court was decried as a foolish and dangerous act -- as in "he who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer."

In 1971, Nolo Press published the first edition of How to Do Your Own Divorce in California, now in its 30th edition. After a rocky start, the Sacramento Bar Association put Nolo on the map by warning would-be consumers against using a book to do their divorce -- as in "doing your own divorce is like doing your own brain surgery."

Well, not quite. The attack alerted the public to the existence of an alternative to hiring a lawyer and the book flew off the shelves. Even then lawyers had priced themselves out of the vast market of working men and women, many charging in excess of $100 an hour .

While there were a few other self-help law publishing precedents -- How to Avoid Probate, by Norman Dacey comes to mind -- only Nolo Press in Berkeley, led by owners Ralph Warner and Toni Ihara, went on to create a publishing firm dedicated to self-help law. In my humble opinion, the Nolo Press imprint is one of the great law-related inventions of the twentieth century and it was--and is--a great privilege to be a part of it.

As the idea of self-help law grew through Nolo's publications on wide variety of legal subjects, so did the imaginations of court innovators. In the early 1990s, the Maricopa County Superior Court (think Phoenix) opened up the nation's first courthouse self-help law center, an entire floor of the courthouse dedicated to people handling their own family law cases. Over the next several years, court administrators and presiding judges from all over the country were invited to the Center to attend two- day trainings on how to create self-help law centers.

Today, the result is clear. Virtually all states now have self-help law centers in some or all of their courts. And an entire page of one website dedicated to lawyers and court officials who want to further the self-help law movement lists a dizzying variety of resources addressed to the needs of the self-represented litigant.

We can now see the day when courts will be as comfortable servicing self-represented litigants as they are servicing lawyers. While this will be a huge jump forward, there will still be the artifacts of the past that will have to be dealt with--such as unnecessarily complex rules of court and appellate practice, unauthorized practice of law barriers against skilled paralegal practice, and a court system that favors litigation over mediation and conciliation.