Earlier today, Rick Georges posted about a newspaper article that focused on the recent opening of several We the People document preparation stores in the Tampa Bay area. See “DIY stores walk fine line between law help, outlaw: They can offer document prep but not advice,” St. Petersburg Times, by Carrie Weiner, March 19, 2007. For my money, you can get a more well-rounded picture of We the People USA by reading two additional articles: ”Moving In on New York Lawyers” (New York Times, Feb. 15, 2004; discussed at f/k/a); and “First Kill the Lawyers… … on the price for basic legal paperwork” (Money/CNN.com, April, 1, 2004).
- For example: The St. Pete Times tells us that “The company has been the target of multiple lawsuits by lawyers, state bar associations and disgruntled customers who said its documents didn’t pass legal muster.” The NYT article also states that We the People has been the “target of 29 lawsuits by lawyers, state bar associations and other critics.” However, NYT adds the relevant fact not found in the SPT article: “Twenty-six of the  lawsuits have been dismissed or have been won by We the People.”
My main focus in this post, however, is on the section of the St. Pete Times piece concerning the Florida Bar:
“Those looking to save money can already find a variety of resources, said Bruce Lamb, chairman of the Bar’s committee on the unlicensed practice of law.
“Organizations such as Legal Aid can provide low-cost advice from an attorney, Lamb said. Those who want to represent themselves can get most of the documents offered by We the People at courthouses or through the Florida Bar for free, he said.
” ‘The value of these places, when you look at it, is pretty low,’ Lamb said.”
It’s no secret that I am at times suspicious of the motives of the organized bar — especially when it comes to new sources of competition from outside (or even inside) the profession, and to the growth of the self-help law movement. See, e.g., our post “a guide or a guild: where does your bar group stand?” (Sept. 8, 2006). So, I was not very impressed by the Florida Bar’s UPL chairman’s suggestion that those who need “to save money” can get help from Legal Aid. As you know, only a small portion of the total population who cannot afford lawyers (see prior post) is poor enough to be eligible for Legal Aid; and, of course, only a relatively small percentage of the eligible actually get a lawyer from Legal Aid.
Even bar groups deserve the benefit of the doubt, however. So, I thought I’d follow up on Mr. Lamb’s apparent endorsement of pro se litigants using the legal documents that are available at “courthouses or through the Florida Bar for free.” I was especially optimistic, because (as we noted in “getting self-help help“), the Florida State Courts have a nice little Self-Help Program, that focuses on Family Court matters (e.g., divorce, custody, child support, paternity) — with many forms created with the pro se litigant in mind, and a network of local self-help centers that provide a variety of onsite services.
Just as a Florida resident who read the SPT article and wants to save money might do, I went to the Florida Bar website, to find out how to obtain and intelligently use the available forms to represent myself. Here’s what I found [warning: it isn't pretty]:
- there is nothing on the homepage about court forms or self-help
- there is nothing on the Public Information page about court forms or self-help
- there is nothing on the Consumer Information page about court forms or self-help
- the Court Links page says nothing about self-help or court forms, but we are told to ”See our Directory/Links page for links to all of the court web sites available in Florida.” Nevertheless,
- although the Directory & Links list is very long, it makes no mention at all of forms or self-help centers
- you can however find the Consumer Information pamphlet Protecting Yourself Against The Unlicensed Practice Of Law, in which you are told that ”The Florida Bar is the gold-standard for protecting the public.”
Note: I was pleased to see, however, that you can find the online Consumer Information pamplet Limited Representation – A Guide for the Client (and a guide for attorneys, too) on the Consumer Information page.
All this reminded me of an excerpt from the Money/CNN article that is mentioned above:
“State bars, Ira Distenfield [CEO of We the People USA] says, will eventually lose the battle. ‘They’re trade associations,’ he says. ‘Their job is to protect the interest of their dues-paying members. When a new industry is born, that’s going to take some business away from their protected turf.’ (emphasis added)
“Eventually” can be a long time. As usual, I urge readers to demand that their state governments do more to help the public take back their justice system; and I urge lawyers to get active in creating self-help centers and materials. Meanwhile, Floridians can:
- click here for the Florida Courts Self-Help Website, which states: “Among other information, you will be able to access information for local self-help centers, free and low-cost legal aid, and family law forms for use in dissolution, paternity, child support, name change, and grandparent visitation cases. The forms are up-to-date, in engrossed (ready to use) format, with all amendments incorporated. All forms are provided free of charge by the Florida Supreme Court.”
- go here for the Florida Family Court forms page, which says “The family forms below are designed for use by everyone, but are especially helpful to individuals who wish to represent themselves (pro se) in court matters related to family law. If you have a question about the content of the forms, or you can’t find the one you are looking for, please contact the Self-Help Center nearest you.”
- go here to find and find out about local self-help centers and
- go here for information on Legal Aid in Florida
As we wrote in January in a posting about the unauthorized practice of law in the context of will-making software: For more background on the long battle between UPL and self-help materials, and on efforts to define the practice of law in a consumer-friendly way, see:
- “Nolo v. Texas — Self-Help Law and First Amendment Rights Protected” (Oct. 1, 1999). This press release contains a brief summary of the battle between Nolo.com and the Texas bar — when Texas lawyers tried unsuccesfully a decade ago to ban Nolo’s publications from being sold or distributed in the state, claiming they amounted to the unauthorized practice of law. [See Comment 2, below, for more details about Nolo v. Texas, as well as the battle over the ground-breaking bestseller How to Avoid Probate!, by Norman Dacey.]
- HALT’s UPL Project (where the legal reform group explains why the “unauthorized practice of law” should be limited to saying you are a lawyer when you are not.)
- The approach of the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice to defining the practic of law — Remarks to the ABA (2002)
- The postings and materials that are linked to f/k/a’s Unauthorized Practice page.
p.s. On paper, Florida has the best ethics rules in the nation to protect clients entering into contingency fee contracts in personal injury cases. Through Rule 4-1.5(f) of the Rules Regulating the Florida Bar, clients have a Statement of Client’s Rights for Contingency Fees stating, among other things, that there is no set percentage fee and that the client has the right to negotiate the fee level. They also enjoy a 3-day “cooling off” period to reconsider after signing an agreement, and step-down maximum fee levels as the amount awarded increases. (see compilation at f/k/a) Now, click on over to the Florida Bar’s Attorney’s Fees pamphlet for consumers. Despite the length of the contingency fee discussion, I dare you to point out where the right to negotiate fee levels is mentioned, much less explained.