You can't miss the red, white and blue at the We the People office in Glen Burnie -- the flags, the star wallpaper, even a large Liberty Bell rug. "It's nothing you'll find on Madison Avenue," said Deborah Ramsey, owner of the Glen Burnie franchise.
That's precisely the point. The decor is part of the paralegal company's strategy to distinguish itself from high-priced law firms. As its Web site states: "You pay for the forms and documents, not the expensive law school and wood-paneled offices." Wills here cost $99; bankruptcies, $199; uncontested divorces, $349.
The company's do-it-yourself approach to the law attracted 123,000 customers last year to its 123 franchised offices. This year, with nearly 200 offices expected to be up and running, 200,000 customers are expected to pay nearly $50 million to get help with their legal documents.
For people who can't afford lawyers or simply distrust them, the 11-year-old We the People may be an attractive alternative, one that stems from the self-help legal movement started some 30 years ago.
However, as We the People has grown to become one of the nation's largest paralegal firms, its bare-bones way of dealing with living trusts, uncontested divorces and bankruptcy is drawing a number of legal challenges from law enforcement agencies.
In recent years, the Justice Department's U.S. Trustees office, which oversees the nation's bankruptcy system, has brought approximately 10 enforcement actions against We the People, saying that in some cases it engaged in unfair and deceptive practices that often put customers' assets at risk.
The U.S. Trustee's office in Brooklyn has filed three cases against We the People in the past four months, including one on Thursday, alleging the Forest Hills franchise gave a debtor inaccurate information and prepared incomplete forms that put his Queens co-op apartment at risk. The U.S. Trustee for Brooklyn, Deirdre A. Martini, is seeking a $500 fine and a refund for the customer. In an April enforcement action, Martini said an employee signed a customer's signature several times on her bankruptcy documents. Two months before that, Martini sought an injunction to block many of the company's business practices, including using the word "legal" in its advertisements. Citing four debtors who allegedly received erroneous information that put their property at risk -- three almost lost their homes, another her car -- the complaint said the company gave advice "often detrimental to the debtor." That case is still pending.
We the People's general counsel, Jason Searns, said the company fired the employee who signed the customer's signature, "a stupid, if kind-hearted decision" to speed up the process. That same employee was named in Thursday's action. Searns said the company denies all allegations about providing erroneous and inaccurate information, calling the charges a concerted campaign by lawyers who see their business threatened by the low-cost legal document preparation service. The company is not infallible, Searns said, but the mistakes it makes are small, no more numerous than those made by lawyers.
We the People executives like to compare the franchise to the low-cost, international tax services firm H&R Block Inc. "When H&R Block came out 50 years ago, accountants and CPAs said you can't train someone in six weeks to help do taxes," said Searns. Last year, Block's revenues were $3.8 billion, with 21 million customers from 11 countries. "Every year H&R block gets a number of people come in who shouldn't use them or who get into problems," Searns said. But, he added, no one is trying to shut them down.
We the People is pressing for state and/or federal regulation that would allow its industry to operate without constant challenges, along the lines of rules recently passed in Arizona. "Because we have a new industry with all kinds of concerns, we want to know what the ground rules are," Searns said.
Using H&R Block as a role model, We the People has aggressive expansion plans. The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based franchise with two storefronts in Maryland (the second is in Cockeysville) is looking to team up with a large well-known company to place its services in thousands of outlets in the next few years. Storefront owners, who pay $89,500 for a franchise, get five days of initial training, with periodic refresher courses after that.
Such an idea would once have been thought ludicrous. In 1971, it was considered revolutionary when a new company, Nolo Press, published its first self-help book, "How to Do Your Own Divorce in California." Today, Nolo publishes more than 150 titles and, thanks to the Internet, the consumer has plenty of places other than books to find legal information and forms.
Over the objection of local bar associations, the self-help books helped spawn the paralegal business, at first in California and then gradually in other states, particularly in the West. The result is that more consumers are doing their own legal work. Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode says that consumers now represent themselves in about a quarter of all new civil cases; in divorces, surveys have shown that between 65 and 90 percent of uncontested cases have at least one party appearing without a lawyer, up from 25 percent in 1980.
When the paralegal movement started, it was designed to help consumers who had already done a lot of research on their problems but wanted help filling out the daunting paperwork, said Stephen Elias, a co-author of Nolo's "The Independent Paralegal's Handbook" and "How to File for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy." Today, some have evolved into business ventures that market their low-priced services. We the People, in particular, stands out, in its push to take the do-it-yourself movement national, making it an easier target than other firms for legal challenges, he added.
As the document-preparation offices proliferate, Elias said, he is concerned that customers "aren't really getting the information part, are not working from the self-help law books and may not know what to ask for." And because paralegals are barred from giving advice -- or they will be sued for practicing law without a license -- not knowing what to ask can be detrimental to a consumer's case, Elias said.
His recommendation: "If you're confused and don't know what you're doing, you've got to find a way to find a lawyer. If you're confused, you're going to make mistakes, and sometimes it will be mistakes you wish you didn't make. You could lose a house in bankruptcy or, in a divorce, if you don't claim the right things, you could lose half of a pension."
Glen Burnie residents Michael and Melinda Douglas thought they had asked the right questions when they used We the People in 2002 to file for bankruptcy (at that time, Ramsey was not the owner of or even employed at the Glen Burnie office). According to an enforcement action brought by the U.S. Trustee's Baltimore office seeking to bar the office from practicing law without a license, a We the People employee repeatedly assured the couple that they would not lose their home if they filed a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition. Under Chapter 7, all assets are liquidated to pay off debts.
The Douglases' petition has turned into a long-running nightmare that has yet to end. After trying to represent themselves, they hired a lawyer to redo their bankruptcy petition under Chapter 13, in which debts are reorganized, often reduced and then repaid over several years. It has been two years since the Douglases first filed for bankruptcy protection; their request has yet to be approved, and Melinda Douglas said it could take another two years. "I can't count how many court dates we had, the heartaches we had because of one person telling us something and not knowing the true laws." Until February, they managed to hold on to their home of nearly 10 years. But then they had to move out, after concluding they had to sell it to repay their debts and avoid foreclosure. "We didn't expect to be selling the house; it was such a mess," she said.
Searns, We the People's general counsel, said the employee who worked with the Douglases "was terminated for being out of compliance with our standards," which bar giving advice beyond the printed materials. However, he said, the company will continue to defend its overall customer practices being questioned by the U.S. Trustee.
Despite the handful of problems, Searns said, there are thousands of satisfied customers, such as Nick Martin, a 71-year-old Santa Barbara bar manager who used We the People earlier this year to file for bankruptcy. Martin had run up nearly $25,000 in debt from bad investments and overusing his credit cards. He couldn't afford a lawyer, he said; We the People was "very affordable and the only way I could get help. They explained everything thoroughly," making the process far less stressful than the bankruptcy Martin filed in the late 1980s after a divorce. Then, he said, he paid a lawyer $1,500; this year, he paid $399 -- $199 to We the People and $200 for court filing fees.
When customers decide to use We the People, they first pay for a workbook that gives them information on the process and worksheets to fill out. The worksheet information is then sent to one of the company's eight regional processing centers, which, in turn, fills out the appropriate legal papers and returns them to the local office for the customer to pick up, sign and file in court.
The company also offers customers the opportunity to chat with a "supervising attorney," a company-paid, local attorney who will answer general questions, but not specifics, about a customer's case. Searns said the attorney is offered as a service to help give legal information and alternatives, but since attorneys are not paid by the customers, they don't represent them and therefore it would be improper to give specific advice.
It is the supervising attorney concept that is drawing criticism from the judges who have ruled against We the People in recent years. Colorado Bankruptcy Judge Sid Brooks, for example, issued a ruling late last year barring the local franchises from providing the service of a supervising attorney. "It gives the perception that WTP is backed up by a staffed attorney to guide the debtors through the troubled waters of bankruptcy. This is unfair, deceptive, and detrimental to any debtor."
Jim D. Pappas, the chief U.S. bankruptcy judge for Idaho, similarly faulted We the People in a 2002 decision for referring customers to a supervising attorney: "By necessity, the information the lawyer provides them is no more customized or trustworthy than they could obtain consulting a book at the library."
We the People is appealing both decisions. "We think we should be constitutionally protected to hand out materials if they are written by an attorney, and our customers should be able to talk to an attorney if they have general questions," Searns said. He added that another Colorado judge upheld the company's practices.
Company Chairman Ira Distenfield leaves no doubt that his company is ready to fight each and every court challenge and ruling. "We're not going to allow the local bar, state bar or judge -- who is nothing but a lawyer who knows the governor -- to stop us" from giving legal access to the consumer, he said in a telephone interview. "We're trying to serve the vast underserved population who can't afford lawyers," said Distenfield, who along with his wife, Linda, has run the company since 1993.
Ira Distenfield is a former stockbroker and key political strategist for former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley. He has also served as president of the Los Angeles Port Authority. He resigned from the Port Authority amid allegations that he misused his position with Bradley to win a city contract for a former employer. He has denied the allegations, calling them politically inspired, and said they never resulted in any lawsuits.
Distenfield figures We the People charges about 6 percent of a typical lawyer's fee. Last year, customers paid the company a total of $29.2 million for its services. Even assuming this amount is as much as 10 percent of traditional legal fees, Distenfield said, "I find it extremely hard to believe you're going to get an endorsement of the value of our services when last year about $292 million went away from the traditional legal community."
The Distenfields' plan for future growth is ambitious. The company has hired a Los Angeles investment banking firm as well as former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's managing consulting firm. With their help, the company is now talking to well-known corporate names about investing in the firm, partnering with it or even purchasing it outright. Ira Distenfield declined to say which companies, but said, "It is my guess that We the People will be in every neighborhood in this country. It could well be as part of an existing Fortune 500 company that already has a distribution system in place."
That goal concerns some bankruptcy lawyers who have been retained by former We the People customers.
"It would be a disaster for lower-income people who need help, because so many of their cases go bad," said New York attorney Charles Juntikka, who has three former We the People customers, including one who almost lost her car. "People end up paying twice -- they pay them trying to get away without having to see a lawyer and then have to see a lawyer who sometimes can fix things and sometimes they can't."
We the People's Searns said that last year the company processed 20,000 bankruptcy petitions around the country. "The vast majority of those went through fine and consumers got what they needed. A small percentage didn't work out for a number of reasons; just like [with] attorneys, a small percentage doesn't work out."
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.