Originally created 11/24/03

Nolo: Legal publisher for the do-it-yourselfer



NEW YORK -- When Ralph Warner was a young lawyer working with legal aid in California, he was disturbed that he had to turn some people away.

They included the working poor and middle class, too wealthy to qualify for public defense but not wealthy enough to afford private attorneys.

Warner thought there should be a way to help, and his solution was do-it-yourself legal books. When he couldn't find anyone to publish them, he set up Nolo in 1971.

Headquartered in Berkeley, Calif., Nolo has nearly 300 titles, from tenants' rights to estate planning and bankruptcy. Fifteen lawyers work as writers and editors, and sales by the privately held company are expected to exceed $14 million this year, Warner said

"The idea was to provide simple, basic information in a book with insight for the middle class that couldn't afford a lawyer," said Warner, who goes by the nickname Jake and who is Nolo's executive publisher.

Warner said the company initially met resistance from some in the legal profession. "Lawyers would hold up our books and say, 'This is dangerous, don't use it,"' he said.

Today, the legal system is much more accepting of doing it yourself: Legal forms are readily available, courts provide rooms and sometimes coaching for citizen litigants, and there are state-sponsored self-help law centers.

Nolo means "I do not wish to," as in the Latin phrase "nolo contendere," which means "I do not wish to contest." It was chosen as the company's name, Warner said, because it's "vaguely legal, catchy and easy to remember."

Warner recently spoke to The Associated Press about his self-help legal publishing house.

AP: Isn't there an old proverb that says, "A man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client?"

Warner: That was probably a Bar Association or a Madison Avenue slogan. The fact is, that if you were being charged with murder-one or something else in a contested situation with a whole lot of peril to your money or to your safety, there might be something in that. But 85 percent of the stuff that goes through the American legal system is uncontested. Another big percentage is lightly contested. So there really isn't anybody on the other side.

AP: So how can Nolo help?

Warner: We provide basic information. Take the executor's handbook, for example. Whoever is going to do that - cleaning up after the deceased person - has to see to it that their will is carried out, that property is properly divided, that the bills are paid, a million other little details. All of those things have legal dimensions. You could, in the traditional Edwardian sense, turn the whole thing over to the family solicitor. ... People are educated and sophisticated enough to handle things, especially if it's in a non-perilous situation.

AP: But certainly there are times people do need lawyers.

Warner: In every one of our books there's going to be a 'see a lawyer' icon. ... Say you're adopting a stepchild. Stepparent adoption is real common ... and generally the former parent is out of the picture. Normally it would go through completely uncontested. So what happens when the notices go out and the natural father who has been missing for five years shows up with a lawyer, stamping and snorting that he should have custody? That thing just took a highly unusual turn. So there can be times when you're doing it yourself and you need to bail out.

There also can be plenty of times you might want to read a book on something like estate planning because you don't want to feel like a complete fool when you talk to a lawyer. ... When the lawyer says, do you want a living trust. do you really want the lawyer to spend three hours educating you to what one is?

AP: Are all of your books aimed at consumers?

Warner: We do lots of stuff for small businesses. In Eisenhower's America, a small businessman probably had to see his lawyer once a year. There were no laws on employment. The disabilities act hadn't been passed. Nobody thought of sexual harassment yet. And on and on and on. So today, any employer has got to deal with legal issues from morning to night. If you're running a camera shop or another small business, are you going to be calling your lawyer at $250 an hour every time you have a question?

AP: You have 22 categories of books, from debt to retirement. Which ones are in greatest demand?

Warner: No question, it's estate planning. ... But the best selling book year after year is David Pressman's 'Patent It Yourself.' We sell 15,000 to 20,000 copies every year, and it's a $50 book.

AP: What kind of competition does Nolo face?

Warner: Wiley (John Wiley & Sons Inc.) publishes some self-help legal books. ... The "Dummies" and "Idiot" series do more in financial planning than we do, and I think their books are pretty decent. There are also publications available at office supply stores, and there are some legal (computer) programs.

AP: How much of an outlet do you think the Internet could be for a publishing house like yours?

Warner: We publish a lot of things on the Web that are not published in any other way, like simple basic forms. You can go on our Web site at www.nolo.com and get a promissory note, say, or a bill of sale for a car or a motorcycle. That works well. But for longer material, we've found that people want books. ... What we've tried to do with our site is create a large, free legal encyclopedia, which I think is the best ones out there, and a legal dictionary. And we have links to every courthouse in the country.

AP: Laws vary greatly from state to state and can change frequently. How do you deal with that?

Warner: One good example is tenants' rights. We do a 50-state tenants' book. Although tenants' laws vary quite a bit from state to state, we found that the differences are in 11 principal areas. So we do charts in those areas and just plug them right in. Most of our titles are on an 18-month update schedule, and we have legal researchers working on them all the time.

AP: Do lawyers read your books?

Warner: Our books are in a lot of law libraries, and they're there primarily because lawyers want them. And we sell loads of books to individual lawyers. ... Everybody's not an expert at everything. Your average lawyer today is such a hyperspecialist, but people's families don't necessarily understand that. If someone is an expert on patent law, their mother-in-law is still going to call them up and say, 'Can you help me with my will?'

AP: Are there topics you haven't covered that you want to get in to?

Warner: There are some areas we're not in enough. Criminal law, for sure. ... Also, we don't do as much in family law as I'd like to. We already do books on unmarried couples, and the lesbian-gay book ('A Legal Guide for Lesbian & Gay Couples') is by far the best seller. There's one that is going to have to be totally redone frequently because of states passing domestic partner laws. We do divorce books, but we don't do as much on children as I'd like. We don't have a good 50-state custody book, for example.

Ralph Warner Bio:

AGE: 62

TITLE: Executive publisher, Nolo

LOCATION: Berkeley, Calif.

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in history from Princeton, law degree from University of California-Berkeley.

CAREER: Passed the bar in 1966 and then clerked for a federal judge. From 1967 to 1971, work as a legal aid lawyer in Contra Costa County in California. Launched Nolo in 1971.

FAMILY: Married to lawyer Toni Ihara, who does Nolo design work; three grown children.

QUOTE: "Early on, we had a core belief that we were not about taking sides in some kind of social argument. We wanted to provide good legal information for everybody. So we have a tenants' handbook, and we have a landlords' handbook."