Trying to handle your own legal problems, says San Francisco's famous and flamboyant trial lawyer, Melvin Belli, is like trying to do your own brain surgery.

Ralph Warner, another California lawyer, thinks otherwise. Warner, one of the founders of Nolo Press -- the Berkeley-based publisher of legal self-help books -- says "there are about 20 legal problems that interest the average person in a lifetime." All of these, he says, "could be decomplicated, deconvoluted, delawyered."

It is the delawyering, Warner says, that is the most important and most difficult step in making the law accessible to all, because lawyers have unnecessarily identified themselves so closely with the legal system.

Processes like name changes and unopposed stepparent adoptions, for example, don't require a lawyer because they are "totally uncontested actions," he says. "Why is it that they must be heard by a judge wearing an austere black robe sitting at the end of a drafty room? Why are the legal forms so difficult to understand?" he asks. "The damn procedures are just too intimidating. And they could easily be delawyered if people were just handed simple four-page forms with two pages of instructions."

Warner's dream of delawyering is exactly what most Nolo publications do -- guide people simply through the how, when, where and why of the law. Most Nolo books contain simulated or pullout forms with instructions on how to fill in the blanks. Many offer simply stated but legally valid alternative language to use in place of the legalese standard on most court forms.

Business is burgeoning for Nolo Press ... now. But those who recall Nolo's shaky start say it was once just an idea born of necessity, nurtured in adversity, and saved by its critics.

The motivating necessity struck 16 years ago when Warner and Ed Sherman got so disillusioned with the law they quit their jobs as Legal Aid lawyers and moved into an old house in Berkeley, Calif. They were flat broke, with themselves and five children between them to support.

Spurned by the legal system in his own divorce and spurred by the newly enacted no-fault laws, Sherman wrote How to do Your Own Divorce in California. When no publisher was willing to back a book specific to one state, Sherman and Warner got into the publishing business.

Warner believed that nonlawyers should be given the tools to deal with other kinds of legal problems, so he coauthored handbooks spelling out the rights of tenants, homeowners, and couples living together.

For months, the two stumbled around the piles of books crowding their attic office. But aside from the few copies given to friends, the books stayed piled high.

Until the unwitting critics saved them. Opponents railed that Nolo's first self-help book advocating do-it-yourself divorces was a dangerous document. The California bar attempted to disbar Sherman for starting one of the country's first independent paralegal typing services to help people type legal forms. Finally, a Sacramento Bar Association official stood on the courthouse steps, waving a copy of How to Do Your Own Divorce and decrying it as heresy.

Visibility struck. Nolo's founders were invited to explain their unpopular legal self-help stance -- in forums from "Good Morning America" to small-watt, small-town radio stations. This year, How to Do Your Own Divorce, is in its 14th edition.

Shortly after Nolo's first commercial success, Sherman moved to the countryside he preferred and opened a branch office in Occidental, Calif. Most of Nolo's growing library market is still handled from that office, although Sherman has gone into "sort of semi-retirement in Canada."

Meanwhile, Ralph Warner changed his name to Jake and persevered in Berkeley -- teaming up with Toni Ihara, another former Legal Aid attorney. The two wrote The Living Together Kit, a big seller that explains how cohabiting couples can contract to avoid property disputes. They soon added more titles.

"Our first six or seven books came out of our experiences with Legal Aid," says Ihara. After that, Nolo expanded its publishing enterprise beyond the scope of "traditional" poverty law. "We knew that tenants can't really afford to hire lawyers," she says. "But then we realized that only the really big landlords have their own lawyers on board. And every segment of the public really needs help understanding the law and solving legal problems." Nolo began publishing self-help guides on estate planning, bankruptcy and incorporating small businesses.

One such guide helped Forest Scholpp, who told Nolo that using the step-by-step help in How to Handle a Simple Estate and with some added guidance from a paralegal, he distributed his mother-in-law's estate quickly, easily and inexpensively. "Based on the formula for computing attorneys' fees, my attorney would have charged $11,192 for his services," said Scholpp. "Our total out-of-pocket cost was under $900 to probate the estate."

Today, Nolo produces more than 50 books, an audiotape, and several computer software packages. About half are limited to California law, and the rest are for consumers nationwide.

But despite the success, the staunch critics of Nolo -- and of the entire legal self-help movement -- have remained.

Not surprisingly, most of those critics are lawyers.

Gerald Richman, past president of the Florida bar, believes the real harm to the public is caused by those who offer legal advice without being licensed to do so. Richman says he supports simplified court procedures for cases like uncontested divorces where the couple have a property agreement and no children. But he claims there is a problem in regulating people who he says may cross over the bounds of unauthorized practice of law by offering legal judgments and advice to clients.

While the future of legal self-help remains uncertain, Nolo staffers say they must keep both feet running just to keep up with current activities. "In the short run, we'll try to do more California and more national titles," says Warner, who sounds a little overwhelmed by the prospect.

His conclusion: "The very best thing that could happen would be if more Nolos were started up in every state." Barbara Repa is a Washington attorney who writes for Student Lawyer, from which this article is adapted.