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DIY legal stores walk fine line

They can't offer advice, lest they slide from law helpers to outlaws.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published March 19, 2007


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ST. PETERSBURG - The big blue sign in the storefront window reads "Legal Documents for Less."

Inside, franchise owner Janet Brooks is waiting to help customers with their problems, such as bankruptcies and divorces.

The prices for her services are alluring: $99 for a will. Divorces for $399. Name changes for $199. Far less than the average cost of visiting an attorney.

This is We the People USA, a franchise of do-it-yourself legal centers that hope to do to the legal profession what H&R Block did to tax accountants.

Three stores have opened in the Tampa Bay area in the past few months, in St. Petersburg, Brandon and Tampa.

So far, business is growing steadily, said Brooks, who opened the St. Petersburg store in December.

"It's starting to take off," said Brooks, 50, a former real estate agent. "There are so many things you don't need an attorney for."

But over the years, many customers found the company's bargain-basement prices weren't worth the accompanying problems.

The company has been the target of multiple lawsuits by lawyers, state bar associations and disgruntled customers who said its documents didn't pass legal muster.

In Sarasota, a store was forced to close after the Florida Bar accused its managers of practicing law without a license.

But representatives from We the People said those days are over.

The business was acquired by Dollar Financial Corp. in December, and the company immediately created strict new standards of training and compliance to avoid the pitfalls of the past, said Roy Hibbard, senior vice president.

"Our franchise owners like our new focus," he said. "No one wants to be involved with a problem."

* * *

We the People strives to take the mystery out of complicated legal documents by giving customers a simple worksheet to complete for the service they want.

Once the customer fills in the information, the form is faxed to the company's central office in Berwyn, Pa., where it is transformed into a legal document.

But store employees must walk a very fine line. If they advise customers in any way, that's practicing law without a license, said Lori Holcomb, a Florida Bar official.

Accusations of unlicensed practice of law sparked most of the lawsuits We the People has battled over the years.

In 2004, the Florida Bar filed a complaint against a Cape Coral We the People store, accusing the store's manager of giving legal advice to several customers. The Florida Supreme Court agreed and the store was fined $2,000.

Last year, Tennessee announced a $90,000 settlement against We the People after accusing the company of unauthorized practice of law and violating consumer protection laws.

In the Tennessee case, several customers complained that their divorce petitions were denied because they weren't completed properly. Others who used the service to file for bankruptcy reported similar complaints.

The Federal Trade Commission intervened in 2004, charging the company with violating federal law by failing to inform prospective franchisees about pending lawsuits. The company was forced to pay a $286,000 civil penalty.

Joseph Morgese, 76, was one of several Sarasota residents who reported receiving faulty legal advice from a Sarasota We the People.

Morgese went to the store for help filing a malpractice suit. After writing his complaint, the manager, Julie Marie Jefferson, told him it was insufficient. So she rewrote it on her computer, accidentally giving the wrong address for the insurance company.

After the complaint was filed in court, a judge found it defective because of the incorrect address and threw out the complaint.

"I would have been better off going to a lawyer and doing it right," Morgese said. "It cost me more to fix the problem than I had coming to me."

* * *

Those looking to save money can already find a variety of resources, said Bruce Lamb, chairman of the Bar's committee on the unlicensed practice of law.

Organizations such as Legal Aid can provide low-cost advice from an attorney, Lamb said. Those who want to represent themselves can get most of the documents offered by We the People at local courthouses or through the Florida Bar for free, he said.

"The value of these places, when you look at it, is pretty low," Lamb said.

St. Petersburg attorney Richard Georges, who contributes to a self-help law blog, also suggested negotiating with attorneys for their services. Some may charge a reduced rate if clients are willing to do most of the work themselves, he said.

But We the People is not without its supporters, many of them enthusiastic.

Richard Brady, 68, a St. Petersburg resident, wanted to create a living trust for years. But he was put off by the hassle and expense.

This month, his financial planner suggested using We the People. So Brady and his wife, Dorothy, tried it.

"It was really great," he said. "There was no problem. Everything was explained to us."

Brady said he was so pleased with the service, he's recommended it to his sister.

Brooks, the St. Petersburg franchise owner, said she's very up-front with customers about the limitations of her service.

If they need resolution of a simple problem, then her store can help. Anything more complex warrants a trip to a lawyer, she said. "I'm not an attorney. I don't want to be an attorney. We are very careful not to cross that line."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 19, 2007, 00:56:53]


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