Court House Scoundrels

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

In September, Ludlow filed a civil lawsuit against Karpin in Maricopa County Superior Court, alleging fraud, breach of contract and other counts.

Though Karpin hasn't responded formally to the suit, he told Ludlow's attorney in a letter that, if he loses, he'll file for bankruptcy protection to avoid having to pay.


Maricopa County's Self-Service Center has made it easier for many people to file legal papers by themselves.
Maricopa County's Self-Service Center has made it easier for many people to file legal papers by themselves.

About the last thing Elena Rodriguez wants to do two days before Thanksgiving is to file for divorce. But here she is, at the courthouse in downtown Phoenix, trying to figure out how to do just that.

The Phoenix native has the two youngest of her three small children with her as she waits in line at the Superior Court's self-service center for her "divorce with children" forms.

Rodriguez says she's living with her mother at the moment, and works for a cleaning service about 30 hours a week. She says she thinks her husband of eight years will hire a lawyer to fight the divorce, even if he has to go into debt.

"He thinks it's wrong for a husband and wife to split, unless he's the one to do it," Rodriguez says. "But I can't take it anymore."

She pays a few bucks for the packet that the county provides prospective divorcees in person (forms for divorces and other legal matters may be downloaded for free off the Internet).

But Rodriguez appears stunned when a woman at the counter says she can't help her fill out the paperwork. By now, her children are whining, the guy behind her in line is fidgeting, and time is running short on her parking meter.

"I can't even think about this right now," she says, waving the packet in the air. "I'll have to get somebody to help me."

Rodriguez is asked about the possibility of hiring a lawyer.

"A lawyer?" she asks, smiling briefly. "A lawyer! I think I'm going to have to pay for one of those people who does this stuff for you."

If she does, she'll join thousands of other Maricopa County residents who hire document preparers each year to fill out (and sometimes file) paperwork in divorces and other legal cases.

Attorneys filed only about 15 percent of the 17,000-plus divorce petitions filed in Maricopa County in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2001, according to unofficial statistics amassed by the courts.

The litigants filed the rest pro se, by themselves. They included people like Rodriguez, as well as those who settled their legal issues before filing and whose divorces were considered "uncontested."

If she hired a lawyer, her divorce probably would end up costing her several thousand dollars -- money she doesn't have. An established document preparer likely would charge her up to about $1,000.

A "mediator" unattached to a law firm probably would charge Rodriguez $1,500 or much more, quite a sum considering that non-lawyers can't appear in court on behalf of their customers.

"I'm not sure right now what to do," she says, before hurrying out of the courthouse with her kids. "I wish somebody would tell me."


Life is sweet for Rick Gordon these days. He just remarried, and he says his business, The Divorce Store, is doing well. It is a self-described "full-service document preparation/paralegal firm," with locations in west Phoenix and Mesa.

A consummate hustler, Gordon says one of his earlier enterprises in Phoenix was as owner of a limousine service. He recalls putting an ad in the Yellow Pages shortly after opening for business that claimed he had the largest limo service in Arizona.

Actually, he says, chuckling, he had just one limo at the time: "But we got a lot bigger in a short period of time."

The 49-year-old Gordon says he got the idea for a document-preparation business in the late 1980s, while working as a process server and collection agent for attorneys.

"Lawyers cost too much, and people just don't need them in a lot of cases," he says. "The Divorce Store was a natural in this community, and still is."

Gordon says he and his employees -- there are about 15 at the moment -- have processed paperwork for about 15,000 Family Court cases, almost all of them without a glitch. He says about 40 percent of his clientele considers Spanish their primary language.

"We never take on work we can't handle," he says. "I'll sometimes tell someone to talk to an attorney, then come back and we'll process the paper for you. The contract we make people sign says no lawyers are employed here by The Divorce Store, and we're not providing them legal advice. For all the work we do, we rarely get a complaint against us from anyone. Look it up."

In fact, there are few complaints against The Divorce Store at the State Bar, Better Business Bureau or anywhere else.

Besides doing divorce paperwork, Gordon also offers "assistance" with paternity, annulment, custody, visitation and child-support issues. And his prices aren't outrageous. For example, he charges $549, plus $417 in court costs, to customers filing for an uncontested divorce with children.

"Lawyers make their money off litigating, and charging hourly," he says. "The bulk of our work is on a flat-rate basis. We are a society of lawyer-haters. Is it any wonder that a simple, honest service like ours is making me a heck of a living? There's enough business out there for everybody."

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