“Sixty percent of bankruptcies and seventy-five percent of divorces in California are done without lawyers,” according to Do It Yourself Documents, a self-help legal book and kit retailer. With the availability of so many quality self-help legal resources today, it has never been easier to handle your own legal matter. I will tell you what self-help resources are available and how to use them.
Although the information I am about to give you is based on research and experience, always remember that only a lawyer is qualified to give you sound legal advice. I am not a lawyer, but I have worked extensively in this field. Use any of the products and services I mention here at your own risk.
You have several choices when trying to handle a legal matter without a lawyer. You can do the matter entirely on your own with a self-help book or kit; you can handle the matter with aid from an independent paralegal or legal assistance program; you can handle the matter through a program such as Pre-Paid Legal Services.
SELF-HELP BOOKS AND KITS
The market is saturated with self-help legal books and kits. Which ones can you trust? HALT, an organization of Americans for legal reform, has reviewed many popular self-help guides. On their website, you can find their “Do It Yourself” section, which has helpful product reviews. In general, I will save you time and tell you HALT repeatedly recommends products from Nolo Press. All of Nolo’s books and software are created by lawyers and are updated constantly. I also recommend products from Alpha Publications. I do not recommend products from Info America or similar publishers.
Kits and books you want to stay away from are those that are not updated frequently and not written by experts. Make sure the book or kit has a help-line from the publisher you can call if you need assistance. Also, does the kit/book include the forms you need? Does the kit/book have a CD-Rom so you can type the forms on your computer? Remember, you get what you pay for.
Before you buy anything, however, I recommend you check your state court system’s website because many states provide both forms and basic instructions for free. For a complete list of state-specific resources, try DoItYourselfDocuments.com. On the left side of their homepage, find your state on the drop down menu, then scroll to the bottom of the page for your state.
If there is a state-specific version of the kit or book you want, buy that one. For example, there are many national divorce kits intended for use in all 50 states. I have never seen one of these books or kits that was useful.
INDEPENDENT PARALEGALS AND LEGAL ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS
Independent paralegals are paralegals that do not work under the supervision of attorneys. In California, independent paralegals are licensed, bonded, and use the title “Legal Document Assistants.” Currently, California is the only state to regulate independent paralegals. For the California Association of Legal Document Assistants, visit their website at http://www.calda.org
An independent paralegal can provide you with the forms you need for many routine legal matters and assist you with filing your documents. Typically, independent paralegals are knowledgeable about local court rules and other nuisances you may not find in a self-help book or kit. The price? Usually, 1/3 of what you’d pay for an attorney.
If you live outside of California, be sure you hire an independent paralegal with a paralegal certificate from an American Bar Association approved school. Many times, independent paralegals with 15 years of experience or more do not have these certificates because they were not needed years ago. You may want to ask the independent paralegal what, if any, continuing education s/he obtains over the course of a year to stay up-to-date on training. Also, how long, if at all, s/he worked under the supervision of an attorney to gain the required knowledge to assist you. Finally, ask if the independent paralegal is a member of a professional association or has any special certifications.
There is only one national independent paralegal franchise to my knowledge, and that is We The People. We The People does not require their owners or operators to have paralegal certificates; however, they do provide in-depth training from the company on all the types of legal matters that they cover. We The People has been in business for over 20 years.
Like the independent paralegals described above, there are also “attorney assisted” independent paralegals. These attorney-assisted paralegals typically perform the same services as traditional independent paralegals but have an attorney proofread their documents or oversee their work in some way. Prices are typically about the same or slightly higher than traditional independent paralegals.
As for legal assistance programs, most states have “paperwork helpers” in the courthouse to assist you. In California, these are called Family Law Facilitators. These programs are free to everybody; they are not legal aid, which is only available to people with low incomes. There are also occasionally programs through local civic groups, such as the YMCA, that provide similar assistance.
There are many types of legal insurance, but the most established is Pre-Paid Legal Services ( http://www.prepaidlegal.com ) For about $25-$30 a month, you can call a “provider law firm” and get legal advice on any matter. If you decide to use the “provider law firm” to handle a legal matter on your behalf, you typically receive some kind of discount. Some programs include free preparation of a Last Will and Testament for you and your spouse. Like any insurance, you can cancel your membership at any time.
If you wanted to do a more complex legal matter on your own, you could obtain a pre-paid legal membership and call your provider law firm any time you had a concern. If desired, cancel your membership when your legal matter was resolved. Be very sure that each time you call your provider law firm, you make it clear that you are not calling about the same thing you previously called about. They will charge you if you do. Be very specific and say, “I have called about this issue before, but I have a new concern…” Be prepared to wait a day or two for the provider law firm to call you back with your requested advice or information.
Many employers offer pre-paid legal insurance as a benefit. Before you sign up, be sure to check with your employer–it may be completely free to you.