Written by Tom Gordon
The U.S. Army’s Fort Drum, in upstate New York, is home to about 13,000 soldiers and their families. Derek Distenfield is a soldier stationed at Fort Drum. After eleven years of service, Distenfield will be leaving the Army in September. Distenfield noticed that Fort Drum had a higher divorce rate than most military bases and decided that in his post-military career he would do something to help his fellow soldiers with divorce and other legal problems they face.
In 2012, Distenfield founded Legal Docs By Me, a legal document preparation service. The company uses non-lawyers to help people complete legal documents for matters such as uncontested divorces, wills, and incorporations. The company opened an office in Watertown, near Fort Drum, in May. It offers document preparation for divorce and several other services for a flat rate of $399.
Since most people can’t afford a lawyer at $200 to $300 per hour, the company helps fill a gap in access to justice for people with simple legal needs that don’t require the expertise of a lawyer. Without document preparation services, people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer are left to identify appropriate forms to create a legal document on their own. Books from companies like Nolo and online services such as LegalZoom have helped fill some of these unmet legal needs, but many people prefer to work with somebody face-to-face on these matters, as shown by the large number of satisfied customers visiting the recently-opened Watertown office.
However, businesses that give people access to the legal system without a lawyer are a threat to lawyers’ monopoly, and recently New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has been on a mission to shut down Legal Docs by Me. Schneiderman is claiming that the business engaged in the unauthorized practice of law (UPL), and he ran an undercover sting operation to try to find evidence that paralegals at the business were providing legal advice.
Running a sting operation shows the desperation of a prosecutor trying to generate evidence of a crime with no victims. If consumers were being harmed by the alleged UPL at Legal Docs by Me, then the attorney general would have no trouble producing testimony from the victimized consumers. Instead, customers continue to flock to the business, and not a single UPL “victim” has come forward.
Even if a paralegal at Legal Docs by Me accidentally crossed the blurry line between permissible help and practicing law, it’s a misuse of prosecutorial resources to try to shut down the company. Undoubtedly, at law firms across the state, paralegals have crossed this line on multiple occasions. However, the attorney general is not sending undercover investigators into Manhattan law firms to ferret out paralegals who accidentally step into the forbidden territory of legal advice. This is clearly a case of the state’s chief lawyer using his prosecutorial power to protect his professional brethren. The attorney general should focus his office’s resources on real crime rather than trying to shut down a business that is helping to bridge the access to justice gap.
Tom Gordon is Executive Director of Responsive Law.