Court House Scoundrels

In June 1993, an attorney for the discipline unit of the Vermont State Bar sent a letter to her counterpart in Arizona. It alerted the local Bar that disbarred lawyer Gary Karpin was moving to Phoenix.

"Suffice it to say," the letter said, "out of excess of caution, I forward this decision for your reading pleasure . . ."

That was a lawyerly way of saying BEWARE.

The attorney included a copy of the Vermont Supreme Court's recent disbarment ruling against Karpin, which recounted serious wrongdoing in four separate cases.

"[Karpin] had dishonest and selfish motives," the high court had written. "He engaged in a pattern of misconduct. He committed multiple offenses. He submitted false evidence and used other deceptive practices during the disciplinary process. He refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of his conduct. He took advantage of vulnerable victim[s]."

Seven years later, Bill and Becca Ludlow decided to call it quits after a decade of marriage. The Mesa residents agreed not to hire opposing attorneys because they'd settled most of their differences about finances, and how best to arrange joint custody of their three young children.

The estranged couple had seen a newspaper ad for Karpin's Phoenix business, Divorce With Dignity. It said Karpin was an ex-prosecutor and divorce litigator now focusing on "mediation."

The Ludlows agreed to pay Karpin $3,500 to help them resolve the remaining issues. When they met with Karpin at his office on East Shea Boulevard, they took note of his prominently displayed law diploma.

"We thought we were dealing with an established attorney," says Becca Ludlow, who works at a golf course in Mesa. "We just wanted someone who could just help us get through this as easily as possible."

But the Ludlows' experience with Gary Karpin turned out to be just the opposite.

Bill Ludlow later complained to the State Bar of Arizona that Karpin had charged an excessive amount of money under false pretenses: He said Karpin had led them to believe he was a practicing lawyer, which he's not, and that he'd promised to mediate, not advocate.

To the contrary, the Ludlows tell New Times, Karpin discouraged any chance that the couple had of reconciling, and tried to talk Becca into having a romantic relationship with him.

For his part, Karpin denies any wrongdoing involving the Ludlows or any other "client."

The Ludlows had stepped into a world where unlicensed, unhindered, and sometimes unscrupulous individuals are making lots of money doing work that once was solely the province of attorneys.

Increasing numbers of Arizonans each year are hiring from a growing pool of non-lawyers eager to perform legal work on their behalf.

Some, like the Ludlows, are white and middle-class. Many are poor people, including confused immigrants and others without the sophistication to understand their basic legal rights, and without the financial ability to access those rights when they do.

All have proved vulnerable to the scam artists who have been allowed to operate with impunity in what many have dubbed the "document preparation" industry.

"My parents make an excellent example of what we at the Bar have been worried about with the document-preparation industry," says State Bar president Ernest Calderon, whose father was a copper miner and his mother was a short-order cook in Morenci. "Neither of my folks had a lot of formal education. Say they'd gone to a non-lawyer to help them resolve a legal matter. What recourse would they have had if the guy had given them bad legal advice, or screwed up the documents? None. And people like my folks are being hurt, purposely or inadvertently."

In part, this industry is flourishing because Arizona currently is the only state without criminal or civil sanctions against the unauthorized practice of law. Beyond that, the State Bar of Arizona has no authority over non-lawyers.

Just as important, government agencies have been of little help in regulating or even monitoring businesses and individuals who offer to help with everything from green cards to divorce mediation to estate planning to getting money from insurance companies.

The state Attorney General's Office rarely takes action against anyone in the doc-prep industry, despite hundreds of complaints it receives annually about practices that, in many instances, are textbook examples of consumer and criminal fraud.

For the past six months, New Times has reviewed more than 1,000 complaints filed with the State Bar (which forwarded a majority of those complaints to the AG's Office), and interviewed more than 40 people familiar with the non-lawyer legal industry -- victims, doc-prep business owners, lawyers, judges and others. The paper also reviewed numerous court documents on cases involving the unauthorized practice of law and traced the backgrounds of a number of the people who offer legal-assistance services.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin