Court House Scoundrels

Unsuspecting consumers are getting ripped off by the hundreds. The Supereme Court is working to stop this unauthorized practice of law.

The non-lawyer legal industry has grown so large and become so controversial that it has been targeted by the lawyers. For months, the industry and the State Bar of Arizona have been locked in a momentous struggle for power and business.

The lawyers, who rightly have one eye on their bank accounts, want the state Supreme Court to bring the doc-prep businesses under a new board that would certify eligible practitioners and regulate their practices. The Bar also wants the power to seek civil penalties against unlicensed non-attorneys who continue to engage in lawyer-like practices.

Ernie Calderon concedes that many people who go to court don't need a lawyer: "The young couple getting divorced with no kids that maybe have a TV set, car and a few other things. We don't want to require the hiring of lawyers, and I certainly don't want to see all document preparers thrown out. But what I want is to see them held accountable for what they do. In the words of the prophet Dirty Harry, a man has to know his limitations."

Fran Johansen of the State Bar: "The consumer fraud we learn about here almost every day is amazing."
Jackie Mercandetti
Fran Johansen of the State Bar: "The consumer fraud we learn about here almost every day is amazing."
Bob Van Wyck, chief Bar counsel, calls the proposed document-preparation board a positive step.
Jackie Mercandetti
Bob Van Wyck, chief Bar counsel, calls the proposed document-preparation board a positive step.

The owners of legitimate document-preparation firms -- and some do good work for a reasonable price -- also say they would embrace a regulatory system under the wing of the Supreme Court. But the document preparers worry that the lawyers just want to put them out of business.

"We already knew the State Bar hates that we exist," says Rick Gordon, owner of The Divorce Store -- a high-profile operation with offices in Phoenix and Mesa. "Now we knew they wanted to destroy us and our livelihoods."

The high court is expected to vote on the proposed Board of Legal Document Preparers early next year.

Allen Merrill, president of the Arizona Independent Paralegal Association (AIPA), says about 200 document-preparation firms are operating statewide, serving more than 25,000 new customers annually. Those numbers don¹t include those who call themselves "mediators" or other legal-sounding names.

Merrill, who runs a respected doc-prep business in Mesa called Legal Solutions Inc., says he knows that those in his industry have widely divergent backgrounds -- and prices.

"But we offer an alternative to the price-gouging monopoly that lawyers are all about," he says.

But many in the non-lawyer legal industry also charge exorbitant rates, then do little or nothing to help their clients. Others pretend to be lawyers, and even go so far as to write legal briefs and appear in court on behalf of clients.

Yet others who claim to be attorneys actually are convicted felons and/or chronic impostors who are hell-bent on trying to run scams on vulnerable victims.

In part because Arizona lacks a statute covering the unauthorized practice of law, it has become a haven for attorneys disbarred elsewhere, such as Gary Karpin.

"I don't think losing a license to practice should be a life sentence from doing anything in mediation with people," Karpin says. "I have a lot of experience, and I help a lot of people with their situations."

Some in the industry are both felons and disbarred attorneys, including the venerable Dick Berry, who operates a so-called "paralegal firm" in Tempe called Why Pay a Lawyer? Berry twice has served prison terms for robbing clients, as an attorney and as a non-attorney. A probation officer once characterized him as "very slick, sophisticated, and substantially more dangerous to the public than most offenders." His faulty advice cost dozens of Valley residents their homes in the mid-1990s. A U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge fined Berry $1 million a few years ago, which remains unpaid.

Fran Johansen, an attorney who heads the State Bar's unauthorized-practice-of-law section, says she receives about 400 complaints from consumers annually, including dozens from people who thought they were dealing with lawyers but hadn't been. Johansen says she repeatedly responds that the Bar has no enforcement authority over non-lawyers, and that she'll forward the complaints to the proper authorities, usually the AG's Office.

"That's where it usually ends," she says. "Nothing ever seems to happen to anyone. We can't seem to get the government interested in this problem, though the consumer fraud we learn about here almost every day is amazing."

Most attorneys are kept in check by a strict set of rules and a code of behavior that is monitored by the State Bar. Lawyers who violate those rules, or even break the law, can face varying levels of discipline, including disbarment and, occasionally, criminal indictment.

The Bar also may compensate victims from its Arizona Client Protection Fund. Funded through Bar dues, the fund in 2001 paid claims to clients totaling $177,699 against 17 attorneys.

"Our discipline system certainly isn't perfect, but at least we have a mechanism to deal with attorneys who screw up," says chief Bar counsel Bob Van Wyck, a former Superior Court judge. "The document preparers and others in that industry pretty much have had a free run."

Consumers have filed complaints at the State Bar against 17 disbarred attorneys since January 2000, claiming they were engaging in the unauthorized practice of law and other allegations of wrongdoing. Divorce With Dignity's Gary Karpin fits into that category, and has had 10 complaints filed against him at the Bar.

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