SHE FOUGHT THE LAW
You may not know Stella Gaudreau, but state Senate President John Greene and the 13,500-member Arizona State Bar sure do.
Thanks in great measure to Gaudreau, it's still not a crime to practice law without a license in Arizona.
Senate Bill 1055, which could have made it a felony for document preparers to charge a fee for providing certain legal services, died in the House Judiciary Committee last week. With a few exceptions, it would have allowed the Arizona Supreme Court to decide what kind of services could be provided and who could provide them.
But the bill's powerful supporters were bested by Gaudreau and a ragtag band of fewer than 100 document preparers that outlobbied and outfoxed the State Bar, its two paid lobbyists, Greene and the six other legislators who sponsored the bill.
According to the State Bar, which reports receiving about 100 complaints per year about document preparers, the public needed the legislation to prosecute incompetent and unethical document preparers.
Document preparers argue that many of those complaints are filed by lawyers who are trying to put them out of business. Lawyers want to create a monopoly and take away the public's right to choose alternative legal services, they say.
Estelle Gaudreau--the grandma from 'Bama known as Stella by her friends--is their champion. She runs ABC E-Z Legal Forms & Packets on North 27th Avenue, preparing uncontested divorces from $45, wills for $15 to $25 and quitclaim deeds for $10.
Situated between storefronts named Pool Hall and Ammo for Less, Gaudreau's office has bars on the windows and a wall that's adorned with a copy of a "Letter from a Hillbilly mother to her son."
Sometimes it's hard to tell her clients from street people. Sometimes her clients are street people. On one recent morning, an old man with greasy white hair and bad teeth shuffles in and spends some time talking to Gaudreau's fish. She calls him "Reverend" and treats him like one. It's hard to imagine Reverend in a lawyer's office.
Gaudreau eschews the label of paralegal, a title traditionally bestowed upon a lawyer's aide and appropriated by some document preparers. She claims to be little more than a typist who fills out legal forms. But she's even created her own will and divorce kits, using the documents she used to fill out when she was an attorney's secretary, before she started her business.
"After my boss retired, my neighbors kept coming over and asking me to fill this out or notorize this, so I didn't have the time to fix dinner or help my kids with their homework. So I just decided to start a business," she says.
Gaudreau has been filling out dozens of legal documents every day for 17 years. Some people wouldn't go anywhere else to get a cheap divorce, a bankruptcy, a power of attorney or a quickie will.
"A lot of the people I help can't read or write, much less afford an attorney. Some are older people who are afraid to go downtown. Where will they go if I'm not here?" she asks in her soft Southern accent.
Her clients also include millionaires, she claims, and on a recent afternoon, they include Josette Haley, 27, the daughter of state Representative Robert Blendu, who drops in for help with a divorce.
Haley's sister, Ana Blendu-Howard, 30, brought Haley in after having a bad experience with the lawyer who handled her own divorce.
The sisters don't seem to mind waiting for 30 minutes while Gaudreau works to organize opposition to the legislation.
"She goes through everything with you and just types in what you want. You come out knowing what's going on instead of wondering what you just did. Not everyone is comfortable in a lawyer's office. This is a lot more relaxed atmosphere," Blendu-Howard says, promising to lobby her father for Gaudreau's cause.
Gaudreau is on call and available 24 hours a day, even if that means going to the county hospital on a Sunday afternoon to fill out a will for $30. "Show me an attorney that will do that," Gaudreau says, chuckling.
The State Bar hasn't received a single complaint about her work, and she claims that every one of the hundreds of wills she's prepared survived probate without any problems.
But Gaudreau has powerful enemies. A cadre of lawyers has been plotting against her and her kind from downtown high-rises for more than a decade. Ever since the original statute making the unauthorized practice of law illegal expired in 1984, the State Bar has been fighting to get a new law on the books.
So when Stella heard a new bill was being proposed, she fought back, collecting petitions and getting clients and friends to call and write their legislators. She got her son to write an editorial opposing the bill; it was published in the Grapevine, a weekly newspaper sold by the homeless.
Senators were inundated with hundreds of calls, with some members reporting that phone calls from opponents outnumbered those from supporters 25 to 5.
The State Bar countered with letters urging its members to call the legislature in support of the bill. By the time the bill got to the Judiciary Committee, those numbers evened out, but opposition was still strong enough to kill the bill.
Committee chair and bill co-sponsor Representative Tom Smith angered Greene by pulling the plug on the bill. Anticipating that the bill wouldn't have the votes to clear the committee, he killed it and proposed that a panel come up with a new bill that would be acceptable to both sides.
Leading the charge against the independent paralegals is Harriet Turney, general counsel for the State Bar.
Turney is frustrated by the bill's failure and that the State Bar's supposedly heavy lobbying position seems to have been ineffectual.
"We're not willing to concede defeat on this one. We won't let this issue go. It's too important," Turney vows. "These document preparers and independent paralegals aren't required to have any training. Over the last ten years, over 1,000 people have been harmed by document preparers who aren't attorneys, and there is no effective way to get recourse. There is nothing on the books that fits precisely."
Without a new law, anyone can take fees for filling out legal documents, she says, and, short of fraudulent or other criminal behavior, they cannot be prosecuted or disciplined.
Richard Slatin, vice president of the 40-member Independent Paralegal's Association of Arizona, says he hopes the most recent defeat has taught the Bar some humility.
He recalls that when a similar law was proposed two years ago, the Bar ignored an offer of a compromise that would have created a document preparer's licensing board and regulatory structure. Instead, the Bar pressed for a law that would have made Arizona the only state in which a document preparer's misconduct was a felony instead of a misdemeanor.
"We do not want to be under the control of the Bar, and they can't dictate we only provide a short list of services so that we have to go out of business," says Slatin, whose organization proposes a bill requiring independent paralegals to be governed by an eight-member board that would include one attorney.
As for Gaudreau, she's been elevated to hero status among document preparers. If the Bar continues the turf war, she predicts, it will once again suffer defeat.
"But if a bill ever passes," she threatens, "I'll take it all the way to the Supreme Court."
With or without a license.
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