Stationery stores in downtown Washignton sell a fill-in-the-blank form for 89 cents that anyone can use to write a will. Even the least expensive lawyers, many of whom use the same form, charge at least $50 to draft the simplest of wills.
Also available are personal bankruptcy forms less than $1 and a $2.95 kit that contains all the forms needed to fill backruptcy papers for a business. Lawyers charge $100 or more to handle even simple personal bankruptcy cases.
Arnold J. Gibbs, of Baton Rouge, La., a specialist in divorce law, offers a full kit for lawyers handling divorce cases - including their choice of pleadings to the file with the court, a complete set of questions to be asked the client (with cartoon-like characters for each heading) and sample letters that call for a retainer fee of $500 and $450 a day for time spent in court.
Gibbs said his forms - available at the American Bar Association meeting for $10 - are designed to be used by lawyers, some of whom may be unfamiliar with divorce cases, but should not be used by nonlawyers who may miss key points of law.
While lawyers argue that they bring specialized knowledge that goes far beyond printed forms - such as advice on a will's tax consequences for heirs or what property can be withheld from creditors in bankruptcy proceedings - do-it-yourself law is a growing trend across the country.
One of every four divorces filed in Los Angeles in the first half of this year was done without a lawyer, and court officials in the Washington area report the number of people arguing their own divorce cases is growing.
"It's substantially above what we had before," said John F. Bischoff, head of the family relations branch of D.C. Superior Court.
Even in the conservative Midwest, people are coming into courts without lawyers to file their own divorce papers. About 4 per cent of the cases filed in the Kansas City, Mo., courts - 160 of 4,000 - were done without lawyers, said Austin E. Van Buskirk, administrator for the Jackson County (Mo.) courts.
"They cause problems," he said. "They come in here with a bunch of forms that they don't know how to fill out to fit their circumstances."
While many lawyers and court officials decry the trend, others feel that people should be encouraged to handle their own simple legal problems in court.
"It's a healthy trend, I see no need to have a lawyer when you don't need them," said Arthur S. Miller, professor of law at George Washington University.
Trying to handle legal matters with out a lawyer can be costly, especially if property or children are involved, according to Samuel Green, head of the family law section of the District of Columbia Bar.
"Sure you can do it. You can buy one of those manuals and do it, but I think it is crazy as hell," Green said.
Going to court on one's own is often deliberately discouraged by the courts. Even if it is not discouraged the maze of court procedures and tharcane language of lawyers works against non-lawyers' trying to handle their own cases. Even highly literate people who try to write their own wills are put down by lawyers who insist the complex legal language of "whereas" and "heretofore," is preferred by judges.
"The legal profession seems to thrive on complications, and many Americans are discovering they can uncomplicate their problems by doing it themselves," said Melvin Marcus, whose American Divorce Center in Los Angeles sells do-it-yourself divorce kits for $65.
Maxwell Laskin sells a $99 kit for a New York state divorce that contains a step-by-step guide for neophytes through the court building in Manhattan. The sample papers contain balloons such as those in comic strips with specific instruction. One reads:
"Enter plaintiffs name. Plantiff is the one who starts the action." Another says: "Enter defendant's name. Defendant is the party who receives the summons."
In suburban Montgomery County, where about four people file for divorce each week without a lawyer. Domestic Relations Master John S. McInerney refers do-it-yourselfers to divorce cases in the files and advises them to copy the language. "That's what a lot of lawyers do," he said.
McInerney also suggests that do-it-yourselfers sit in divorce court to get an idea of the kind of questions that are asked. "Some of the people get as proficient as the lawyers," he said.
Kits have not yet become popular in the Washington area, court officials said, although the District's new divorce law, which makes it easier to handle a case without a lawyer, may give them a boost.
In Los Angeles, bar association officials said many of the kits, which cost from $25 to $100 contain little more than forms that are available from court clerks for $1.50.
More than 7,000 of the 25,000 divorces filed in the first six months of this year in Los Angeles were done without a lawyer. Ten years ago, one in 1,000 applicants filed without a lawyer. Marcus predicted that half of all divorces would be done without lawyers by 1980.
But Stephen Meyers, founder of the country's first legal clinic. Jacoby & Meyers, said lawyer advertising will lower the price of divorces to the point that it will be almost as inexpensive and easier to hire an attorney than to do it alone.
Meyer's Los Angeles clinics charge $185 for a simple divorce, which he said is not too much more costly than the kits.
"One of the reasons they (the kits) have been able to flourish is that lawyers haven't been competing with them," Meyers said.
Despite the booming business in do-it-yourself divorces, lawyers and court officials agree that persons with substantial property or children should hire a lawyer to handle their case.
"If there are any complications," said New York divorce kit seller Laskin, "we tell them to see a lawyer."
Nonetheless, he continued, "Most of the people who come in to see me have no children. They have no assets. There's nothing to speak of no advice to give. "It's just paperwork."
Maryland Del. David Scull (D-Mont.), a lawyer who has introduced legislation to make it easier for people to handle their own legal affairs, charges $50 to help file divorce papers. He does not go to court with the filer.
A typical client, Scull said, was separated some time ago, already has divided the property and has no children. "The only thing is to get the court to stamp 'divorced' on the marriage certificate," he said.
Scull said one-third of Maryland's 20,000 divorces last year involved young people with no property and no children. "They just wanted to go their separate ways," he said.
Yet specialists in divorce law warn of the pitfalls of doing without a lawyers. Green, of the D.C. Bar, noted that persons could throw away important legal rights they never knew were theirs.
"Take a couple married for 19 years," he said. "Do they know that if they remain married another year the wife can collect full Social Security benefits when her ex-husband dies. A lawyer will know that. He'd stall the divorce for a year."
Or the case of a women with back trouble, he said. Does he know she has 30 days after the divorce to sign up for her exhusband's health insurance? With her medical history, Green said, she probably could not afford health insurance on her own.
Then there are the tax problems. Splitting property one way can produce a windfall or Uncle Sam, while doing it another way gives both parties what they want and reduces the tax burden. Green said.