HOLD ON TO YOUR torts, K Street: Relentless Yankee ingenuity, which first brought you Janitor in a Drum, has now produced Lawyer on a Disk.
A personal-computer program disk, that is--like those from Lassen Software, a Chico, Calif., byte-mill that wants you to write your own legal documents at home. Without benefit of counsel. Just plop the floppies in your IBM-PC and punch in answers to various intimate questions that appear on the screen. Whereupon the machine cogitates a moment in camera, and then disgorges your personalized will or power of attorney ($49 each), residential lease ($79) or promissory note ($59).
Each is printed up in pin-striped precision, centered authoritatively on the page and ready for signature, with all the customary jargon and syntactical encumbrances thereunto appertaining: Heaps of hereons, hereofs and hereinafters and a wad of juridical jawbreakers like residuary beneficiaries, acquittances, hereditaments, demised premises, hypothecations and remissions. Moreover, it doesn't go to lunch, need a mahogany desk or play golf.
It all began last year when Lassen's president, Frank Holt, had a silicon epiphany: Most simple legal documents consisted of nothing more than slabs of standard textbook prose ("boilerplate," as it's known) copied by lawyers and recycled to clients. Why not just computerize the venerable verbiage and circumvent the legal fee--whence the savings escheats to your wallet. A new micro-genre--call it writware--was born. After all, law firms with word-processing systems had been doing much the same for years, and billing plenty.
"The average fee you pay an attorney in Washington these days is usually about $100 to $150 an hour," says Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, the watchdoggy consumer outfit that recently published "Representing Yourself: What You Can Do Without a Lawyer." At those rates, she says, even a simple will can cost as much as $1,000, even though "nobody actually writes them"; and for persons with truly uncomplicated cases, a form copied from a book or stored in software can "more than adequately fulfil those minor needs."
Holt wanted to start with a will and found a way--recruiting his friend, attorney Douglas Jacobs, raised in Bethesda and now practicing in Paradise, Calif. He knew from boilerplate: "I use it, my partners use it. And I have no objection to somebody paying me a couple hundred bucks to do it, but it's silly."
He conferred with colleagues in various jurisdictions, found the phraseology to satisfy the probate laws of every state but Louisiana (the Napoleonic code and all), and wrote the 80 questions and a mighty slim manual. Since then, he says, the company has shipped nearly 2,000 copies. "We wanted to go one better than the write-your-own-will books," says Jacobs, who asserts that the interactive format "gives users the opportunity to make intelligent-type decisions."
But caveat emptor, says Robert Tigner, staff attorney for HALT (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny), the Capitol Hill legal reform and education group. Eyeballing the seven-page lease agreement, he says, "most tenants and landlords would be crazy to buy something like this. Our position is that the forms themselves don't really tell the story. One has to understand what's going on."
Lassen's writware inquires indiscreetly of your marital status, living and dead children and their "issue," special gifts (up to three), named executor(s) and guardian(s) for children, funeral arrangements, intended inheritors and alternates and unbeloved survivors you want to cut off without a nickel. But it provides no advice or explanatory background for each of your choices. And it carries a warning that materials are sold "without warranty as to their performance, merchantability, or fitness for any particular purpose"--about the same thing you'd expect to find on a Pet Rock.
Tigner doubts that any software can educate the user enough. "We're in the business of self-reliance, self-help. Our premise is--this is your affair, so you better figure it out."
Ralph Warner, editor and publisher of Nolo Press, is equally skeptical, although "we're working on a couple of programs ourselves." The problem, says the head of the Berkeley, Calif., house specializing in legal self-help books ("Bankruptcy: Do It Yourself," "Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court"), is to duplicate on disk the strengths of a book.
"Our printed material has the ability to stop people at points and say, 'Hey, wait! If your income is such-and-such, you may want to establish a trust to avoid heavy taxes.' In our publications, we've been committed to the notion of giving people the whole field of information," without a page-load of glottis-spraining Latinisms. If they can do it, Nolo expects to release two or three programs next year.
Jacobs concedes that Lassen's present wills package fails to alert users to potential advantages such as trust formation, and says an admonitory option has been added to the next version of the program. But Tigner still thinks it would be better to use a low-budget legal alternative.
Jacobs disagrees. "Yes, you can go to a cheap attorney. Then it's $75 for you and $75 for your spouse--every time you do it. But what happens if six months later you realize you've forgotten to include Cousin Mary? Ask a lawyer what he's charging for a codicil these days!"
Hyatt Legal Services' eight offices in the Washington area charge $75 for a simple will (for both husband and wife if "reciprocal") and $55 for an individual, with added charges for estate tax planning. Codicils go for $55 and $35, respectively, and a simple power of attorney runs $50 with a $20 consultation fee. But aren't these, too, just the same old forms cranked out of a word-processor?
"Sure," says regional partner Mary Lou Yanda. "But what you really need to do is understand the provisions, the options." Leases, for example, "can be written from the perspective of the landlord or of the tenant." Hence, she says, the need for client-barrister interface.
In fact, says Tigner, if all you need is a simple residential lease, "you might as well stumble into a legal stationers." (The ultimate in low-pay pro se: At Stott's, wills, powers of attorney and lease forms are less than a buck a covenant.)
"Yeah, we find that problem everywhere," Jacobs says. But then, "I wrote that as a jump-off to do a commercial lease, which doesn't exist in standard forms." And next up: "a living-together agreement. Actually, I might bundle that with a pre-nuptial agreement." (That gurgling sound you hear is Marvin Mitchelson's blood pressure.)
Jacobs admits that his program may not help the user understand the process; but the way they see it in Chico, ex nihilo nihil fit. "Most people realize they need a will but don't bother until their parents die or they have a heart attack." They buy his program, he says, "as a stop-gap measure," or to generate a first draft for their attorneys. But some, he says, have potentially peccant entrepreneurial urges. "We've had to keep telling people, 'Look, you can't just go sit down in the shopping center and start selling wills.' "
Which raises the specter of unauthorized practice of law--especially if the software becomes sufficiently sophisticated. Although many courts have held that the publication of do-it-yourself legal kits does not constitute unauthorized practice, asking questions and giving advice is another matter.
When Rosemary Furman of Jacksonville, a former legal secretary and court stenographer, saw how much lawyers charged for the simple documents and pleadings she typed, she started producing them herself at $50 for impoverished clients. The Florida Bar Association sued; Furman was ordered to desist. She declined, and now faces fines and a jail term.
Could an inquisitive disk tempt the wrath of the bar? John Jude O'Donnell of the D.C. Bar's Unauthorized Practice Committee says the issue simply hasn't come up. Yet.
But it may: Writware is likely to be here to stay, the logical culmination of both a 10-year boomlet in legal self-help publications and a digital deluge of self-help programs. Soft-biz oracles have watched with deepening glee as new computer owners soon grow pooped with Pac-Man, sick of monkeying around with Donkey Kong, bored with balancing their checkbooks to seven decimal places and start wondering what to do with their $2,000 byte-grinders. The industry is ready with a hundred answers.
Behind on your correspondence with Granny? Grab LetterBANK, "with over 200 letters you can use as is, expand, modify or even rewrite." Having nightmares again? Run 'em past Dream Machine, a sort of microchip Daniel that uses Gestalt theory to interpret objects, meanings and themes. Tired of being a friendless, cringing nerd? Get a disk called Intimacy, the Art of Communication, or maybe Assertiveness Training--both from intimate, assertive California.
And in Buffalo, the industry weekly InfoWorld reports, there's a shrink who uses computer hypnosis: "Users are put in a sleeplike state while answering questions and interacting with the computer by themselves." (Just like "Agronsky & Co."!)
Keep dropping the ball on football bets? Tackle GRIDSTAR, the professional football analysis system with 11-year database and on-line handicapper. Still losing? Put a little twinkle in that loan application with Jewelry Appraisal System, which writes up your baubles in the proper kind of prose and even calculates their weight by formula. And if the total comes out too low, talk it over with Eliza, the interactive software psychiatrist ("I am sorry to hear you are feeling depressed").
As they say in Silicon Valley, res ipsa loquitur.