When Ralph “Jake” Warner earned his degree from Boalt Law School, few of his fellow graduates were on the big-firm, big-money track. It was 1966, a time of anti-corporate sentiment, communal living, free love — and, for Warner, free law.
He went to work for Legal Aid in Contra Costa County. He’s made a living out of making law free — or at least really inexpensive — ever since.
Warner, 66, is chief executive of Nolo Press, a Berkeley-based publishing house that puts out dozens of books a year on topics as diverse as landlord-tenant rights and patent law. When he co-founded the company in 1971, his goal was simple: “Remake the legal system.”
The company’s motto: Law for all.
“Law is part of our democracy,” Warner says passionately. “Every word should be understandable by everybody. All these convoluted systems that made it difficult to get access are ridiculous.”
The idea for Nolo was hatched at Legal Aid.
“We had nine, maybe 11, lawyers handling thousands of poor people,” he says. “But we realized we were also turning thousands of people away because they earned too much to meet our requirements.”
The problem, says Warner, was that rich people could always afford lawyers and poor people could get help from Legal Aid, but the vast middle class had legal issues too. They didn’t qualify for Legal Aid, nor could they afford an attorney who billed by the hour.
Still, they needed legal help to make out wills and get divorced. They needed to know their rights as tenants, homeowners, debtors, employees, neighbors, even as pet owners.
In 1971 Warner and fellow Legal Aid lawyer Ed Sherman pooled their resources and published a book written by Sherman titled “How to Do Your Own Divorce.” It cost them a relative fortune: $3,000. They kept the books, which retailed for $4.95, under the bed and carted them around to bookstores until they found a small, family-owned book distributor that agreed to represent them.
Now Nolo publishes about 80 titles a year, totaling about 800,000 books annually. Some of the titles: “A Busy Family’s Guide to Estate Planning,” “8 Ways to Avoid Probate,” “Tenant’s Rights” and “The California Landlord’s Law Book: Evictions.” There’s “Fight Your Ticket and Win,” “Credit Repair,” “Surviving an IRS Tax Audit” and “Every Dog’s Legal Guide.” The company also produces software, such as its bestselling program “Willmaker,” and is launching an aggressive bid to peddle legal forms and products over the Web.
In the meantime, Nolo has helped make self-help law so commonplace that many courthouses have entire sections dedicated to those who want to handle their own divorce or bankruptcy or file a claim against their landlord, boss, neighbor or dry cleaner. In Los Angeles, almost 30% of bankruptcies are now filed “pro se” — sans attorney — and an estimated 80% of divorces are handled the same way, according to the court clerk’s office.
Warner has taken more than his share of flak about it.
When Nolo first started, he says, Newsweek decided to do a profile about the then-unheard-of concept of self-help law. The magazine asked famed litigator Melvin Belli — also a Boalt Hall graduate — what he thought of it.