In Maryland, where about one out of every three legislators is an attorney, there is a state law forbidding court clerks in Montgomery and Prince George's counties from helping the public fill out certain legal forms used in court cases.
As a result lawyers are needed to handle many minor court matters for citizens who don't know how to fill out the forms themselves.
Montgomery county state delegates are offering legislation that would repeal the old law.
Until Wisconsin's legislature became more time consuming, many of its delegates were attorneys. Now there are fewer lawyer delegates (they found they could not maintain their private practices as legislators) and the state legislature had begun enacting laws making it easier for nonlawyers to conduct their own court business.
It's all part of a growing national movement called "delaying" - an attempt to simplify legal procedures such as probate and uncontested divorces so that lawyers are not needed.
"It's a campaign against legal feather-bedding," said Mark Green, director of the Corporate Accountability Research Group and author - with Ralph Nader - of "Verdict on Lawyers."
It's not that we're antilawyer," said Wisconsin State Sen. David Berger, who led the fight to make the laws there more understandable for nonlawyers. "We just like to see things on an even plane with some semblance of justice. If laws are written so only professional lawyers can understand them, it's unfair to the rest of society."
The move has the support of consumer groups, some lawyers scattered around the country and the Justice Department, which has said that lawyers' monopoly on legal services may constitute an antitrust violation.
"Our initial research indicates that bar associations may be engaged in conduct that constitutes monopolization attempts to monopolize and boycotts in its efforts to quash any competing alternative methods of handling legal services," said Barbara A. Reeves, special assistant to the assistant attorney general in charge of the antitrust division.
"The lawyers' monopoly," she continued in a speech given recently, "is often the result of friendly interaction between legislation drafted and passed by lawyers" in state legislatures coupled with restrictive "bar association rules and codes."
In Maryland, State Del. David Scull (D-Montgomery), a lawyer himself has introduced a package of laocal bills that would make it easier for Montgomery County residents to handle their own simple legal problems - matters such as probating uncomplicated wills or getting a divorce where both parties agree to the split and the property settlement.
One of his proposals would repeal the ban on court clerks helping the public - a state law that effects only the suburban Washington counties of Prince George's and Montgomery. Scull said the law has been on the books for decades and no one now remembers why it was put there.
Another od Scull's proposals would affirmatively state that clerks in the registrar of wills' office are ready to help nonlawyers fill out the standard forms for settling estates. These forms are supplied by the clerks to lawyers.
Also as part of this movement the New York legislature passed a law in August requiring that loan agreements, apartment leases and consumer contracts be written in plain English not legalese. Gov. Hugh Carey signed with the simple sentence "I approve the bill" instead of the archaic form usually used for bill signings.
In California, the legislature last year added five nonlawyers to the board of governors of the states bar association.
That is an especially sensitive issue for lawyers, since probate is the bread and butter of many of their practices. Most fees are based on a percentage of the estate and in Maryland, for example, a lawyer can make $5,000 for handling a $100,000 estate even though it involves a few hours work filling in standard forms supplies by the registrar of wills.
Leo Cornfeld, former editor of Trusts and Estates Magazine, said three years ago that the handling of most estates is "cut and dried . . .Most of the work is done by the lawyer's secretary, problems are solved gratus by the clerks at the probate court and very little of the lawyer's own time is consumed."
Wisonsin's new law simplifying probate has been copied in North Dakota, Michigan and Minnesota. Moreover, the Minnesota legislature has done away with its committees on the Judiciary - The traditional seats of attorneys' power over laws affecting them - as the number of lawyers-legislators had decrease.
The Wisconsin Senate is currently considering a measure that would empower the legislature - not the lawyers or the courts as is currently the case - to regulate the activities of lawyers.
Scull introduced a far less radical version of the bill as part of his package. That one would allow nonlawyers to serve on inquiry committees handling the initial investigation of complaints against lawyers.
While no bar association representatives were present at a recent hearing before the county legislative delegation, James J. Cromwell, a Silver Spring attorney who is vice chairman of the State's Attorney Grievance Commission, opposed adding nonlawyers to the disciplinary process. He said nonlawyers are unqualified to determine the ethical conduct of lawyers.
Otherwise, Schull's proposals received the support of consumer groups. Rodney Crowther, president of the Montgomery County Association of Senior Citizens Organizations, said the proposal to allow court clerks to help citizens "would be very helpful."
"This package," added Mark Davis, an attorney with Maryland Action, an activist group, "promises important gains for the consumer toward quality and affordabe legal services."
Montgomery County's registrar of wills, Winifred Scott, said probating wills is not that simple. Under Maryland law, for example transferring property, requires that a lawyer sign the deed, and transferring stock or bond ownership can be complicated, she said.
Moreover, she said, lawyers help by handling disputes between heirs, such as which daughter gets the mother's prize ring when the jewelry is left to be divided equally among all heirs.