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BUSINESS AUGUST 3, 1998 VOL. 152 NO. 5

A Legal Press In Texas

A state court targets self-help publisher Nolo Press for making it too easy to bypass lawyers


Can a book or a software program impersonate a lawyer? You might not think so, but a panel supervised by the Texas supreme court is hauling in the most prominent U.S. publisher of self-help legal aids to determine if its products are doing just that. The possible culprit, Nolo Press, is a cheeky Berkeley, Calif., publisher whose logo depicts lawyers as briefcase-toting sharks with neckties. But Nolo's real crime may be putting the law into the hands of laypeople for $15 to $45 a pop.

That's what has Texas steamed. A closed-door panel will hold hearings next month on whether Nolo, whose 150 titles cover topics from writing wills to applying for patents, has been practicing law without a license.

The company (projected 1998 revenues: $9.5 million) has sold 7 million books and software packages since 1971. "Every public library in America, almost without exception, stocks our books," says co-founder Ralph Warner. So do institutions like the University of Michigan, where law-library director Margaret Leary says of Nolo publications, "We consider them the best books about law for laypeople."

Critics view the Texas action as a naked attempt to shield the state's lawyers--who charge as much as $400 an hour for such fill-in-the-blanks legal services as drawing up standard wills or simple divorce papers--from off-the-shelf competition. "These are cookie-cutter tasks," says Steven Gillers, a New York University law professor who specializes in legal ethics. "When you realize how routinized legal work is, and how much information you can pack into an interactive CD-ROM, then you recognize how easy it is to substitute a computer for a lawyer. That's the threat."

The growing popularity of do-it-yourself legal aid certainly seems to have caught the eyes of Texas. The court panel, which enforces a statute against the unauthorized practice of law, initially won a 1992 ban against a manual that contained forms and instructions for creating a will. More recently, the committee sued Parsons Technology, an Iowa company that markets Quicken Family Lawyer software. The case is pending. And in a letter to Nolo last year, the panel expressed concern about the company's Living Trust Maker--2.0 software, which has sold 175,000 copies nationally. Panel chairman Mark Ticer, whose group mostly prosecutes individuals, sees the proceedings as upholding the law, not lawyers. "Ninety-nine percent of the people we deal with should be in jail," he asserts.

Consumer advocates are worried that if Texas prevails, suits in other states will follow. "The truth is that millions of Americans are priced out of the legal system," says attorney James Turner, executive director of HALT (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny), a consumer group that works for the reform of legal practices. "Texas is endangering the rights of its citizens to get accurate, timely information that can help them handle their own legal problems."

In Berkeley, Warner says he has few doubts about winning this battle: "I have confidence in the First Amendment." Indeed, several previous cases support him. Yet, in the ultimate irony, none of Nolo's books will be of much help to the company at the hearing: Texas law requires that it be represented by an attorney.

--By John Greenwald. Reported by Hilary Hylton/Austin and Andrea Sachs/New York

--By John Greenwald. Reported by Hilary Hylton /Austin and Andrea Sachs /New York