While Nolo is the first and biggest organization dedicated to the cause of legal self-help, others are following suit. In Washington, HALT (Help Abolish Legal Tyranny) was started 10 years ago by two Rhodes scholars disgruntled by the high cost of legal services. Today, HALT has a staff of 26 and has nearly 150,000 members nationwide.
"We feel the law is unnecessarily complicated," says HALT staff attorney Katherine Lee. "With the aid of self-help resources, people can handle many of their own legal problems." HALT makes help available in the form of eight Citizens Legal Manuals, which guide non-lawyers through probate, divorce, small claims and estate-planning procedures. Its most popular manual, Looking for a Lawyer, tells consumers how and where to find an attorney and more importantly, how to maintain a good working relationship and what to do if that relationship sours. Lee says most problems could be avoided if clients were willing to gather some information on their own before deciding to hire a lawyer. "For too long, people have been too quick to entrust their problems to lawyers, asking too few questions first," she says.
HALT differs from Nolo in that it also lobbies to get self-help recognized and into the law. Says Lee, "We are active in trying to change the legal system to make it affordable and equitable." For example, the group fought hard, but unsuccessfully, two years ago to get no-fault auto insurance legislation passed in the District.
In Maryland, HALT has focused its efforts on reforming probate procedures, which currently allow attorneys to charge a percentage of the estate value as a fee. HALT claims such fees are unfair because they have no relationship to the work actually performed by lawyers, but attempts to change the law over the past 10 years have been unsuccessful. This year HALT has introduced a bill that provides for a do-it-yourself probate, making lawyers unnecessary to process simple wills and estates.
HALT also plans to renew its efforts to persuade Virginia to give up its status as one of the few states that does not have a simple way to handle small claims. A bill establishing a small claims court, which HALT dubs "a user-friendly place for people to bring claims without a lawyer," was defeated in Virginia's last legislative session.
Information on the organization's membership and publications is available from HALT, 1319 F St. NW, Washington D.C. 20004. (202) 347-9600.