Self Defense

Do-it-yourself law firms


If Shakespeare's famous line, "Let's kill all the lawyers," were acted on, there'd still be plenty of people left to provide legal services. Self-help law franchises and paralegal offices are on the rise, and so are the numbers of people using them. Lawyers' organizations aren't too happy about the trend.

Since the mid-'80s the number of paralegals offering assistance with such legal matters as bankruptcies, wills, divorces, and adoptions has climbed from several hundred to more than 7,000. Price is a major factor: A paralegal's charge for a personal bankruptcy might start at $200 or $300. A lawyer handling the same case would likely charge more than $1,000.

Another variation in the do-it-yourself law business are companies such as Barbara Shea's Court Coach. Shea, an attorney, provides her clients with legal advice and coaches them to represent themselves. Court Coach clients cut their costs by filing their own papers in court and doing their own photocopying.

But groups such as the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys are calling for legislation that would put many self-help legal offices out of business. A bill currently before Congress would prohibit paralegal services from using legal or paralegal in their company name and restrict them from getting paid for any services other than typing.

While opponents of the self-help law business say they want to protect clients, its supporters suggest the lawyers just want the paralegals' business. They argue that it is the working poor, who can't afford a regular attorney, who use the paralegals and other self-help law services.

"I don't think I'm hurting anybody's pocketbook," Lois Isenberg, president of the California Association of Independent Paralegals, told the Los Angeles Reader. "I think there is a need for different levels of legal access."