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Legal champion for the middle class

Times Staff Writer

When Ralph “Jake” Warner earned his degree from Boalt Law School, few of his fellow graduates were on the big-firm, big-money track. It was 1966, a time of anti-corporate sentiment, communal living, free love -- and, for Warner, free law.

He went to work for Legal Aid in Contra Costa County. He’s made a living out of making law free -- or at least really inexpensive -- ever since.

Warner, 66, is chief executive of Nolo Press, a Berkeley-based publishing house that puts out dozens of books a year on topics as diverse as landlord-tenant rights and patent law. When he co-founded the company in 1971, his goal was simple: “Remake the legal system.”

The company’s motto: Law for all.

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“Law is part of our democracy,” Warner says passionately. “Every word should be understandable by everybody. All these convoluted systems that made it difficult to get access are ridiculous.”

The idea for Nolo was hatched at Legal Aid.

“We had nine, maybe 11, lawyers handling thousands of poor people,” he says. “But we realized we were also turning thousands of people away because they earned too much to meet our requirements.”

The problem, says Warner, was that rich people could always afford lawyers and poor people could get help from Legal Aid, but the vast middle class had legal issues too. They didn’t qualify for Legal Aid, nor could they afford an attorney who billed by the hour.

Still, they needed legal help to make out wills and get divorced. They needed to know their rights as tenants, homeowners, debtors, employees, neighbors, even as pet owners.

In 1971 Warner and fellow Legal Aid lawyer Ed Sherman pooled their resources and published a book written by Sherman titled “How to Do Your Own Divorce.” It cost them a relative fortune: $3,000. They kept the books, which retailed for $4.95, under the bed and carted them around to bookstores until they found a small, family-owned book distributor that agreed to represent them.

Now Nolo publishes about 80 titles a year, totaling about 800,000 books annually. Some of the titles: “A Busy Family’s Guide to Estate Planning,” “8 Ways to Avoid Probate,” “Tenant’s Rights” and “The California Landlord’s Law Book: Evictions.” There’s “Fight Your Ticket and Win,” “Credit Repair,” “Surviving an IRS Tax Audit” and “Every Dog’s Legal Guide.” The company also produces software, such as its bestselling program “Willmaker,” and is launching an aggressive bid to peddle legal forms and products over the Web.

In the meantime, Nolo has helped make self-help law so commonplace that many courthouses have entire sections dedicated to those who want to handle their own divorce or bankruptcy or file a claim against their landlord, boss, neighbor or dry cleaner. In Los Angeles, almost 30% of bankruptcies are now filed “pro se” -- sans attorney -- and an estimated 80% of divorces are handled the same way, according to the court clerk’s office.

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Warner has taken more than his share of flak about it.

When Nolo first started, he says, Newsweek decided to do a profile about the then-unheard-of concept of self-help law. The magazine asked famed litigator Melvin Belli -- also a Boalt Hall graduate -- what he thought of it.

“Dangerous!” Belli bellowed. Do-it-yourself law was akin to do-it-yourself brain surgery, he contended.

Warner loved the criticism. With criticism came controversy; with controversy came publicity; and, for a company with no budget for marketing, free publicity was a bonanza.

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Besides, Warner always had a wry and witty retort. To be sure, you had a fool for a client if you were trying to represent yourself in a complex legal matter, he acknowledged. But a young couple who realized six months into marriage that they’d made a mistake could certainly manage their own divorce, which involved filling out a few forms and hitting a deadline or two. A simple divorce, Warner opined, was more like giving yourself a haircut than doing your own brain surgery.

“It’s always a continuum of what you can do yourself, what you need help with and what you need a lot of help with,” Warner says. “Right now, self-help law is established. A whole generation has grown up with it. But when we started, it was a war.”

Indeed, Nolo has been blasted at one point or another by virtually every bar association in the country. The most serious challenge arose when the Texas Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee, which is affiliated with the State Bar of Texas and appointed by the state Supreme Court, informed the company in 1998 that it was being prosecuted for practicing law without a license. The committee intended to ban Nolo’s books from the great state of Texas.

Warner says he was initially worried about how his staff might take the blow, but then he realized that his “Noloids” were energized by the news. They’d been fighting to make law accessible for all for years. This gave them another opportunity to promote that goal.

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Warner opted not to challenge the law on 1st Amendment grounds.

Instead, he contacted the committee and asked which of Nolo’s books were problematic. He even sent a catalog and a pencil so they could circle the most offensive titles. The company also marshaled the support of the state’s librarians and contacted all the people who had purchased Nolo books in the state.

When the committee refused to disclose who would decide whether to ban Nolo’s books and how that decision would be made, Nolo sued and asked Texas customers whether they’d want to join the suit. Twenty-eight of the 32 customers contacted said yes.

Realizing that Nolo was being called to task under a consumer protection statute aimed at stopping people from masquerading as lawyers, Warner decided on a strategy: Nolo would ask for a jury trial to see whether 12 Texas citizens could tell the difference between a book and a lawyer. If they could, he theorized, Nolo wasn’t misleading anyone. Customers, who had used Nolo’s books to start businesses, process divorces and make wills, all swore in legal filings that they knew the difference between a Texas attorney and a paperback. They were not misled.

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But just as the case was about to go to trial in the summer of 1999, the Texas Legislature passed a law that exempted books and software from the statute. The only caveat: Nolo needed to publish a disclaimer that made clear that its products were not lawyers. It did that anyway.

The battle cost Nolo a small fortune, Warner says later. But it so boosted Nolo’s profile that it was soon selling more books in Texas than in any other state except California.

Where does Nolo go from here? The Internet, Warner says. The publisher already provides broad legal information on the Web for free. But Nolo is looking to develop deep and detailed content to offer on a subscription site.

“Our first big metamorphosis was learning to be a publisher,” Warner says. “Then software came along and we had to start over again. Along came the Internet and we realized right away that we needed to have the coolest site.”

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Now, Warner says, the company has to figure out a way to make a cool website pay.

“Every 15 years or so the world changes,” he says. “We have to keep up.”

kathy.kristof@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Legal eagle

Who: Ralph “Jake” Warner

Age: 66

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Education: Bachelor’s degree from Princeton; law degree from Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley

Title: Chief executive and co-founder, Nolo Press

Point of pride: He attempted to retire from Nolo, which he co-founded in 1971, but in an effort to avoid becoming “another boring old curmudgeon” he decided to launch a new business -- Tall Tales Audio -- that produces engaging and informative CDs for kids. Earlier this year, Nolo asked him to return to the helm. Now he helps run both companies.

Memorable moment: He got married after his 6-year-old daughter called a family meeting and demanded an explanation for her parents’ unmarried status. Warner said it was hippie romance, “the idea that you were there each day because you chose to be,” not because you were legally compelled. “But then I thought that after 10 years together, that maybe the really romantic thing would be to get married.” He got down on his knees and proposed.

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Personal: Warner has three children and four grandchildren and lives with his wife and business partner, Toni Ihara, in Berkeley.


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