At the Arizona Bar Center, there are five fat accordion files bursting with complaints about nonlawyers practicing law. Most were filed by real, gone-to-law-school attorneys. Nearly all of them suggest that independent paralegals and scrivener services--the folks who advertise document preparation for divorces and bankruptcies--have overstepped their legitimate roles as document preparers and are engaged in advising people. And unlike the grievances filed against real lawyers, the bar association is willing to allow reporters to examine these files.

The bar's favorite target is Michael Levin, who runs Levin and Associates, a Phoenix document preparation and mediation service. One of the accordion files is dedicated solely to Levin, and more than 100 attorneys have drawn the bar's attention to Levin's solicitation letters, which typically begin: "Although I'm not an attorney and do not give legal advice, I assist those people who either cannot afford an attorney or refuse to pay the very high cost of hiring an attorney and wish to represent themselves."

Levin, who's aware of the bar's interest in his business, insists he does not practice law.

"I perform a service," he says. "The service is strictly two things: the preparation of legal documents for dissolution in civil matters that are prepared only and strictly at the direction of the people who come to see me. The other thing that I do is I mediate . . . in order to prevent it from having to go to court.

"All my clients sign a declaration when they walk out of here that says I haven't given them any advice of any kind. Not only that, when they give me instructions of what to put in the documents, they write them in their own handwriting and sign the documents."
Levin says he's never been accused of crossing the line by anyone other than an attorney. Even if he did cross the line, such an act in and of itself would not be a crime. Currently, there is no criminal statute prohibiting the unauthorized practice of law in Arizona, and there hasn't been one since the legislature "sunsetted" the statute in 1984.

When the bar gets complaints about someone like Levin, it faithfully catalogues them in the accordion files. In cases where it seems people have been damaged, investigators may make a few telephone calls and advise the Attorney General's Office of a possible fraud. But most complaints generate no action stronger than a letter to the complainant, saying that the bar is not currently investigating such complaints.

In 1989, the state bar established the Unauthorized Practice of Law Task Force to collect data and draft legislation, but Harriet Turney, chief bar counsel, says it seems unlikely the situation can be remedied before 1994. And though there are statutes that cover fraud and procedural rules that would prevent a nonlawyer from appearing in court on behalf of a client, she says it needs to be remedied.

"Lawyers have accountability," Turney says, referring to the bar's disciplinary function. "These self-styled paralegals have no accountability. If the advice they give causes harm, there's not really any recourse. They're not the ones who end up paying for it."
Though injured clients could sue a nonlawyer who advised them, many people elect to use paralegals and document preparers precisely because they can't afford a lawyer. The clients these services attract are generally unsophisticated, intimidated by jurisprudence. While many of the letters seem mundane--there's one from a convict complaining that the paralegal she hired lost her court transcripts--others have real consequences.

A Tucson woman's letter is typical. In a childlike hand, she writes:
"In the month of June, I decide to file bankruptcy. I got an ad out of the Tucson Shopper for bankruptcy. [The paralegal] came to my home and collected bills and my first payment of $120. I did not hear from her for quite a while."
When the woman called the telephone number supplied by the "paralegal," she found it had been disconnected. Later she discovered her bankruptcy papers had been filed incorrectly.

Sloppily prepared bankruptcy forms can cause severe problems. A couple from Show Low wrote the bar after a document preparation service botched their filing, nearly costing them their home:

"Us being just regular people failed to understand that these papers said that if we didn't respond within so many days they could foreclose so since we didn't we were served a paper about the date of the trustee sale."
Neither the Tucson "paralegal," who uses the names Catherine Hilpipre and Catherine Durand, nor the person who prepared the Show Low couple's bankruptcy filing could be reached for comment on this story. The telephone numbers listed in the file had been disconnected.

Larry J. Ruhl, managing attorney of Community Legal Services, a nonprofit legal aid firm that works mainly with poor people, offers another perspective. With a letter to the bar, he enclosed photocopies of advertisements from Prensa Hispaa, a Phoenix Spanish-language newspaper.

"Part of the problem is that the term 'notary public, notario publico,' in Mexico is a person trained in the law, whereas here they're simply notarizing signatures," he says. "They play on this by saying notario publico and people go in there thinking they're trained in the law. They prepare all sorts of legal documents for these people, and we get complaints, of course, when something goes wrong."
Other examples in the bar's files seem more ludicrous than dangerous. Don Weisenberger, a paralegal and former justice of the peace with no law-school experience, runs ads in Valley shoppers featuring photos of the "judge" brandishing six-shooters and promising to shoot down "legal expense." Then there's the case of Don Smith, a document preparer from Laveen who insists he only supports pro se actions. In any case, a handwritten note in the bar association's files identifies him as "the only nonlawyer who has actually made an appearance on behalf of a client."

On May 21, Smith, under questioning by attorney William Udall, said, "I do practice law without authorization in Arizona and have for several years."

Not to the satisfaction of every client. Rose Davis, on whose behalf Smith had appeared in court, told the bar association her nonlawyer "has all but ruined my case. He's filed numerous motions and pleadings without my knowledge."

Despite cases like Smith's, Turney, the bar association counsel, says there's a place for these services. It's only when nonlawyers stray into the arena of providing legal advice that problems arise.

Turney says people are suspicious of lawyers, and might regard any attempt by the bar to pass legislation to regulate nonlawyers as self-serving. Mistrust of the legal profession was one of the factors that contributed to the legislature's decision to allow the unauthorized-practice-of-law statute to expire.

"This is not a turf issue," she says. "This is a consumer issue."
Levin doesn't disagree. "I think there is a need to oversee our field--even by the bar association, if they came into it with an open heart," he says. "But there is a significant need to oversee the legal profession, also. You wouldn't believe the stuff I see come across my desk . . . the unscrupulous, unconscionable things that lawyers do."

And if the bar ever wants to pick a fight, Levin says he's up to it.
"If the bar association ever decides they want to set an example, I'm going to have a case that is not going to quit," he says. "I'm not going to sit back and let them take my income from me when I know that the service I perform is a very good one, a very fair one, and does not constitute the unlawful practice of law. And if I have to call 300 witnesses into court to prove it, I will. And I'm not going to back down.

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Philip Martin