self-help law: February 2008 Archives

February 20, 2008

Launch of New Website by HALT Featuring Works of Fred Rodell

[Here is the text of an email circulated by HALT, the nation's leading law reform organization, announcing a new website and blog featuring the works of Fred Rodell, a Yale Professor who debunked the legal profession and accompanying myths.]

Sixty-nine years ago, a young Yale law professor rocked the legal establishment with a scathing indictment of the American civil justice system entitled Woe unto You, Lawyers! Almost overnight, Fred Rodell became the nation's leading debunker of legal myths, and the target of untold ire from thin-skinned lawyers. And his provocative observations are as accurate today as they were seven decades ago. Here is just a sampling.

Rodell's 1936 article Goodbye to Law Reviews opens by explaining: "There are two things wrong with almost all legal writing. One is its style. The other is its content. That, I think, about covers the ground." The article proceeds to take on the entire profession: "[I]t is pretty hard to find a group less concerned with serving society and more concerned with serving themselves than the lawyers."

In Woe, Rodell's critique is cultural: "In TRIBAL TIMES, there were the medicine-men. In the Middle Ages, there were the priests. Today there are the lawyers." But the effect of the mystifying process is to exclude ordinary people from the legal process: "[L]aw deals almost exclusively with the ordinary facts and occurrences of everyday business and government and living. But it deals with them in a jargon which completely baffles and befoozles the ordinary literate man."

Finally, Rodell points out the basic hypocrisy of the Law: "The last thing any court will ever admit, even when it is being quite practical about what it decides, is that practical considerations have anything to do with the decision."

As a leader in the legal realist movement, Fred Rodell stuck to his guns for the next four decades (including a stint on HALT's Advisory Board), arguing that we should simplify, demystify and open up our civil justice system. Rodell was a true pioneer of the legal reform movement, one of the first to identify the structural failures of our civil justice system and to stridently challenge the legal establishment. But since his death in 1980, his thinking has not received the serious consideration that it deserves, and his key writings have disappeared from print.

That is why we at HALT were so excited to begin working with San Francisco legal reform advocate Alex Kline and Fred Rodell's family to revive these visionary legal reform lessons on the Internet. In addition to introducing Rodell to a new generation, we want to provide a meeting place for those who share an appreciation of his ideals, criticisms and reform objectives. We want to provide a forum where they can put their heads together and work to implement his ideas in practical ways. Rodell taught at Yale Law for over forty years, and we hope that his students will find their way to this site and use it as a place to re-connect, brainstorm, and formulate action plans to bring about the changes he advocated.

Today we are launching to make Woe and Goodbye available to all, along with, a forum for renewed critique, debate and thinking.

Let the fun begin.

James C. Turner
Executive Director, HALT, Inc.

February 17, 2008

Routine Legal Services: The Internet is Fast Replacing Lawyers

[This article was written by guest blogger Ralph Warner, founder and CEO of Nolo. He is also the author of the blogs Retire Happy and The Legal Humor Blog.]

In JFK's America, if you had a legal problem, you either hired a lawyer or went without help. Because the majority of middle-class people couldn't afford lawyers' pricey hourly rates, for the most part, lawyers represented the wealthy, the upper-middle class, and business interests. Things began to change in the mid-1960s when, as part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, federally funded legal services (legal aid) programs were established for the very poor. Now it was just the 100 million people in the middle who were legally disenfranchised. In the early 1970s, this huge unmet legal need helped produce companies like Nolo -- publishers who produced step-by-step workbooks designed to allow self-helpers to accomplish routine legal tasks at a fraction of the fees charged by lawyers. Especially in California and other states populous enough to support state-specific publishing ventures, the educated and energetic could now affordably do their own divorces, guardianships, deeds, wills, and even form a corporation or a non-profit.

But self-help law books were far from a comprehensive solution to America's legal access gap. They didn't hold hands, give fact-specific advice, and were difficult to use for people without good language and form-drafting skills. Part of this self-help law gap was filled by independent paralegals (legal document preparers). These non-lawyer entrepreneurs typically rely on self-help law books like Nolo's to help their customers prepare paperwork for routine legal actions for about 25% of the fee charged by most lawyers. But, because of the aggressive turf-protection tactics of the legal profession (enforcing archaic statutes that make it illegal without a license, as one example), non-lawyer providers have been kept out of many markets, and forced to operate on the margins in others. The result was that even ten years ago millions of Americans still had little, or at best spotty, access to affordable legal services.

Enter software.

Starting with tax preparation and will-making products published by companies such as Intuit, H&R Block, and Nolo, software successfully married legal expert systems to the personal computer. By first prompting the user to answer basic screening questions (Are you married?, Do you have minor children?, etc.) and then following up with queries that met the user's situation, software could both greatly simplify and expedite routine legal paperwork, and then print out the result, ready to file.

More recently, legal software has become widely available online. Now companies with national reach, such as Legal Zoom, Nolo and The Company Corporation, offer to help consumers complete an extensive menu of legal tasks, such as making a will or living trust, filing for divorce, or forming a corporation or LLC for far less than what lawyers typically charge. And when you combine low prices with the fact that web-based software is increasingly well-designed, online help is excellent, and trained back-office people are standing by to help with technical glitches, it's easy to see why the online law business is taking off -- so much so that my educated guess is that upwards of 250,000 legal tasks will be accomplished online this year. And assuming that, as compared to hiring a lawyer, the consumer saves $1,000 per transaction, this amounts to consumer savings of $250 million.

And, interestingly, the migration of basic legal tasks from lawyers to internet-based corporations is still at an early stage. Provisional patents, trademarks, copyrights, deeds, living trusts, and divorces are just starting to be offered by affordable online services -- and many more such as bankruptcy, and many types of business contracts are in the pipeline, something which almost guarantees that online legal providers will experience at least a decade of rapid growth in the process of becoming a billion-dollar industry.

But what of lawyers who offer personal legal services? Are they about to become an endangered species? Hardly. In large part that's because, as discussed, since lawyers never found a way to affordably meet the needs of America's middle class, it wasn't their business to lose. Or, put another way, millions of Americans can now afford to draft legal documents who even 40 years ago would have gone without. And then there are two other key lawyer-friendly trends. First, the world of American business has become ever more rule-bound. 50 years ago, your average Main Street business, Mom & Pop real estate investor, or small non-profit could get by with occasional legal advice. Today, the plethora of employment, intellectual property, landlord-tenant, and other laws mean they are all but tethered to a lawyer.

Second, the increasing size and affluence of the upper-middle and wealthy classes in America has meant that far more people can afford the hand-holding and customized advice lawyers offer. The result is that large numbers of people who learn about their legal task from a book, or even do basic drafting online, also consult a lawyer. (Nolo has designed its lawyer directory specifically to meet this need.) So, especially as lawyers learn to charge fixed fees for the review of documents created online, internet legal providers and lawyers may yet learn to happily co-exist.