NEW YORK – When Ralph Warner was a young lawyer working with legal aid in California, he was disturbed that he had to turn some people away.
They included the working poor and middle class, too wealthy to qualify for public defense but not wealthy enough to afford private attorneys.
Warner thought there should be a way to help, and his solution was do-it-yourself legal books. When he couldn’t find anyone to publish them, he set up Nolo in 1971.
Headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., Nolo has nearly 300 titles, from tenants’ rights to estate planning and bankruptcy. Fifteen lawyers work as writers and editors, and sales by the privately held company are expected to exceed $14 million this year, Warner said
“The idea was to provide simple, basic information in a book with insight for the middle class that couldn’t afford a lawyer,” said Warner, who goes by the nickname Jake and who is Nolo’s executive publisher.
Warner said the company initially met resistance from some in the legal profession. “Lawyers would hold up our books and say, ‘This is dangerous, don’t use it,’ ” he said.
Today, the legal system is much more accepting of doing it yourself. Legal forms are readily available, courts provide rooms and sometimes coaching for citizen litigants, and there are state-sponsored self-help law centers.
Nolo means “I do not wish to,” as in the Latin phrase “nolo contendere,” which means “I do not wish to contest.” It was chosen as the company’s name, Warner said, because it’s “vaguely legal, catchy and easy to remember.”
Warner recently spoke about his self-help legal publishing house.
Q: Isn’t there an old proverb that says, “A man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client?”
A: “That was probably a bar association or a Madison Avenue slogan. The fact is that if you were being charged with murder one or something else in a contested situation with a whole lot of peril to your money or to your safety, there might be something in that. But 85 percent of the stuff that goes through the American legal system is uncontested. Another big percentage is lightly contested. So there really isn’t anybody on the other side.”
Q: So how can Nolo help?
A: “We provide basic information. Take the executor’s handbook, for example. Whoever is going to do that – cleaning up after the deceased person – has to see to it that their will is carried out, that property is properly divided, that the bills are paid, a million other little details. All of those things have legal dimensions. You could, in the traditional Edwardian sense, turn the whole thing over to the family solicitor. … People are educated and sophisticated enough to handle things, especially if it’s in a nonperilous situation.”
Q: But certainly there are times people do need lawyers.
A: “In every one of our books there’s going to be a ‘see a lawyer’ icon. … Say you’re adopting a stepchild. Stepparent adoption is real common … and generally the former parent is out of the picture. Normally, it would go through completely uncontested. So what happens when the notices go out and the natural father who has been missing for five years shows up with a lawyer, stamping and snorting that he should have custody? That thing just took a highly unusual turn. So there can be times when you’re doing it yourself and you need to bail out.”
Q: You have 22 categories of books, from debt to retirement. Which ones are in greatest demand?
A: “No question, it’s estate planning. … But the best-selling book year after year is David Pressman’s ‘Patent It Yourself.’ We sell 15,000 to 20,000 copies every year, and it’s a $50 book.”
Q: Laws vary greatly from state to state and can change frequently. How do you deal with that?
A: “One good example is tenants’ rights. We do a 50-state tenants’ book. Although tenants’ laws vary quite a bit from state to state, we found that the differences are in 11 principal areas. So we do charts in those areas and just plug them right in. Most of our titles are on an 18-month update schedule, and we have legal researchers working on them all the time.”
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