Catering to do-it-yourself clients

Representation: An Annapolis lawyer's resource center stocks books and court forms for customers handling legal matters on their own.

July 10, 2005|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

An Annapolis lawyer has converted part of his law office into a small legal resource center, aimed at the burgeoning number of consumers who are forgoing an attorney and handling their own legal matters.

Street Legal sells self-help books on law as well as stocks Maryland court forms, and offers a work station and Internet access. The business provides information on the law and some resources but not legal advice.

"If people want advice, that's different," said owner David A. Simison.

Simison said he opened his business last week for people who don't need a lawyer for a simple matter, for people who can't afford full-service legal representation and for people who want to take legal matters into their own hands.

Legal experts say that is a mushrooming number - mostly people who cannot afford a lawyer.

The last decade has seen an increase in the number of people who represent themselves, typically because they cannot afford to pay an attorney.

The Legal Aid Bureau and other agencies that serve the indigent population estimate that they tackle the cases of only a fraction of the people who turn to them, often referring them to clinics where they can get help completing forms that may get them into court but not help in court.

The state court system, which is pressing attorneys to take on reduced-fee and free clients, has ordered lawyers to report how much time they devote to services to the poor.

Do-it-yourself legal centers have sprouted around the country in recent years, including the We The People document preparation and review franchise that has several branches in Maryland.

A large amount of do-it-yourself law is available online, with some sites selling such items as will packages.

The Maryland Peoples Law Library, a cooperative project among nonprofit legal services agencies, offers information and forms.

And around the corner from Simison's coffeehouse-atmosphere office is the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, where the law library stocks some of the same information and legal forms.

Simison said he hopes that Street Legal customers will be better prepared to deal with legal issues, whether it's beating a traffic ticket or deciding too much is at stake for them to risk not having a lawyer.

"It helps them also as attorney consumers," he said. "Attorneys are very scary - it's the feeling I get when I'm in a cab and see the meter going."

Simison said eventually he wants to expand the book offerings, feature legal software and hold how-to seminars on such topics as how to present a case in small claims court.

For a fee, customers can turn to him or lawyer Joseph Bruce, who shares office space there - or a lawyer elsewhere - for legal advice, document review and consultation.

Retired Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge James C. Cawood Jr. said that forms and a do-it-yourself approach works best for uncomplicated legal matters, uncontested matters and similar issues. He said people take care of legal matters for themselves all the time - including signing contracts - without a hitch, but need to distinguish between what they can handle on their own and when to seek legal advice that goes beyond a how-to book or Web site.

"One of the difficulties is to know when the widget is going to blow up if you turn it two clicks to the right," he said. "The court system is complex, and to get through it is complex."

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