Texas weighs legality of self-help legal books

Tuesday, March 31, 1998

The nation's largest publisher of self-help legal books and software recently found itself with a legal problem of its own.

Nolo Press, based in Berkeley, Calif., faces an investigation in Texas to determine whether the company is violating a state law forbidding the unauthorized practice of law. The Texas Supreme Court earlier this month set an Aug. 20 hearing in Dallas to consider the matter.

Houston-based attorney Jeffrey Lehmann, who chairs one of the state's subcommittees on unauthorized law practices, said if there's an investigation “there must be some smoke somewhere.”

Lehmann said the high court formed about six subcommittees to investigate and eliminate unauthorized practices of law. He said state law prohibits the unlicensed practice of law in a courtroom or in dispensing legal advice.

But Lehmann said that he couldn't comment on the Nolo case and emphasized that the publishing company hasn't been charged with anything yet. That, he said, is why there's an investigation.

“What the Supreme Court does after the committee's investigation, I don't know,” he said.

Dayna Macy, publicity director for Nolo, said company officials haven't yet determined the best way to handle news of the investigation. “We might take our wagon trains to Texas and blow our horns a lot.”

Macy said that Nolo has received numerous e-mails, many from lawyers, who rave about the books and say they are outraged that the guides may be banned in Texas.

Nolo officials say a ban would be difficult to enforce. They note that the court would not only have to prohibit Texas retailers from selling the book but would have to stop the sales from Internet vendors. They say, too, that thousands of the books have already been sold in Texas and are on the shelves in numerous libraries across the state.

In other states where such an issue has arisen, the courts have ruled in favor of the book publisher, Nolo officials say. In the 1967 decision New York County Lawyers Assn v. Dacey, New York's highest court overturned a lower court ruling forbidding the sale of Dacey's book How to Avoid Probate.

Founded in 1971, Nolo has published more than 7 million copies of about 130 different books and software. Featured titles include Everybody's Guide to Small Claims Court, Open Your California Business in 24 Hours and Poetic Justice, a joke book about lawyers.

Ralph Warner, publisher of Nolo Press, said the books offer basic information and tools to many Americans who might not be able to afford legal help. He said he worries that the investigation is the first step toward widespread censorship in Texas.

“Surely if you prevent people from taking advantage of their First Amendment rights to find information useful to their lives, it's a slippery slope,” Warner said in a statement on the company's Internet site. “If the Texas legal establishment can successfully ban law books written for ordinary citizens, who is to say Texas doctors can't ban self-help medical publications?”