Founded: 1971 as Nolo Press
NAIC: 511130 Book Publishers; 511210 Computer Software Publishing, Including Design and Development, Packaged
Nolo.com, Inc. is the leading publisher of self-help books and software that help individuals understand and gain access to the legal system without using lawyers. In 1971 it founded this new publishing specialty in the early years of the Information Age. It publishes more than 250 titles that help its customers deal with divorce, bankruptcy, real estate, running a small business, estate planning, and a wide variety of other common concerns. It offers legal reference information, forms to complete, and links to related web sites. Begun as a book publisher, Nolo increasingly relies on electronic commerce as more individuals gain access to the Internet. In the 1990s other companies and organizations followed Nolo’s lead by making print and web-based legal information available. Of course, Nolo admits that it is no substitute for a lawyer when one is really needed. Nonetheless, it continues to play a major role in helping consumers deal with an increasingly complex legal system.
Origin and Early History
In 1971 lawyers Ralph Warner and Charles Sherman did their best to answer the legal questions from poor individuals who came to their storefront Legal Aid Office in Richmond, a few miles from Berkeley, California. Many sought advice for divorce, bankruptcy, wills, and other common legal problems. Warner and Sherman became frustrated, however, over not being able to serve thousands who made too much money to qualify for their government-subsidized service and yet could not afford to hire a lawyer.
Warner and Sherman then decided to put together two books: How to Do Your Own Divorce in California and The California Tenants ’ Handbook. At first several New York publishers rejected their work. “I kept getting blank stares,” recalled Warner in the January 31, 2000 Business Week. “One guy thought his brother-in-law was playing a practical joke.”
The two founders thus started Nolo Press out of Warner’s attic to publish legal self-help books in plain English as a way to avoid the expensive services of a lawyer. Their company name was derived from the Latin phrase “nolo contendre,” or “I choose not to contest.” They simply extended that idea to mean “I choose not to publish.” Nolo Press “rented a space (for the books) in the Berkeley co-op produce department between the broccoli and celery,” said Janet Portman, the company’s publisher, in the September 15, 2000 San Francisco Chronicle.
Due to little advertising, only a few hundred copies of the California divorce book were sold initially. Sales exploded, however, after the head of the Sacramento County Bar held a news conference to condemn the book, while a photo of him denouncing the book was published statewide. The proverbial law of unintended consequences thus helped Nolo Press get started.
When Nolo published its California divorce book in 1971, less than 1 percent of filed divorces were done without an attorney. The company reported that by 2001, after it had published more than 800,000 copies of its book, more than 60 percent of uncontested California divorce cases were handled without the help of a lawyer.
Nolo authors kept writing new self-help books and initiating other projects to bring the law to the masses. For example, in 1973 they started the Wave Project, which trained 18 nonlawyers to type up divorce forms for those who did not want or need a lawyer. Soon project trainees all over California provided their services for just $45, a fraction of lawyer-aided divorces. In 1975 Nolo moved to a separate office in a former Berkeley clock factory. It had already published 15 books, so running an office in Ralph Warner’s attic was no longer feasible.
Nolo Press was just one of several small independent presses started in or near Berkeley at about the same time. Others included Heyday Books founded in 1974, Ten Speed Press in 1970, and Ulysses Press in 1983. Some failed, but between 30 and 50 still were operating in 2000, the highest concentration except for Manhattan. Small publishers flourished in the area due to the free speech emphasis in the center of the counterculture, proximity to the University of California Press, many eager writers and editors, and a Berkeley ordinance protecting small low-tech businesses.
Nolo Press took advantage of such local conditions, as well as a general cultural shift from institutional help to self-help. John Naisbitt in his number one bestseller Megatrends described this trend. “For decades, institutions such as the government, the medical establishment, the corporation, and the school system were America’s buffers against life’s hard realities … During the 1970s, Americans began to disengage from the institutions that had disillusioned them and to relearn the ability to take action on their own. In a sense, we have come full circle. We are reclaiming America’s traditional sense of self-reliance.”
Naisbitt also pointed out, however, that the number of lawyers was rapidly increasing as part of the growing Information Age. The total number of lawyers in the United States went from 250,000 lawyers in 1960 to 622,000 in 1983. Big law firms rapidly expanded in the 1980s and 1990s as the economy boomed. The fact that both self-help and professionals were growing simultaneously was part of the trend to have more options and diversity, instead of the either-or orientation of the past.
Early legal self-help advocates like those at Nolo Press were aided by criticism of the legal profession. For example, the 1969 book The Trouble with Lawyers described “how the American middle class is victimized by inept, lazy, and corrupt lawyers,” according to the paperback version’s cover. The high cost of lawyers was of course a major problem, which led to other companies like Pre-Paid Legal Services offering prepaid legal insurance and the rise of paralegals or legal assistants who could conduct legal research and do some other tasks for much less per hour than lawyers.
Developments in the 1980s
Nolo Press in 1980 published its first issue of the Nolo News. The first editorial in the small eight-page publication urged California to increase the limit at small claims courts to $5,000, which became a reality 11 years later. Soon, newly elected President Ronald Reagan reduced spending for legal aid by $100 million, which increased the need for legal self-help even more. Meanwhile, Stanford University law professor Deborah Rhode concluded that the claim was worthless that nonlawyers were dangerous because they provided limited legal services.
In 1985 Nolo Press introduced its WillMaker software, which became its bestseller. In 2000 the company came out with its eighth version of WillMaker, which could be used to produce a will, a living will with medical provisions, a financial power of attorney, and burial and other final instructions. WillMaker did not cover all possibilities, though, such as joint wills for spouses. In any case, Nolo reported in 2001 that WillMaker “had over a million satisfied users, making Nolo responsible for more wills than any law firm in history.”
By the mid-1980s Nolo’s books had become very popular. Libraries even reported that Nolo titles were among their most stolen books, so the company began replacing for free one Nolo title each year in libraries across the nation.
The 1990s and Beyond
As the self-help legal movement grew, many Americans continued to give the legal profession little respect. When Nolo launched its first web site in 1994, it included lawyer jokes that poked fun at greedy and crooked lawyers—for example, “What do you get when you cross a lawyer with a demon from hell? Another lawyer.”
In 1997 the Texas Supreme Court’s Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee began investigating the work of Nolo Press and other self-help legal publishers. Attorney Steve Elias, who authored some of Nolo’s works, said in the June 16, 1998 Washington Times that no other states had claimed that Nolo’s publications violated their rules concerning the unauthorized practice of law.
Nolo founder Ralph Warner said in the same article, “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 and Texas accountants self-help tax books and software?”
In January 1999 U.S. District Court Judge Barefoot Sanders ruled that self-help legal software could not be sold under the 1939 Texas statute defining what constituted the practice of law. He also noted that the state legislature instead of the courts might be the proper place to clarify this issue. Within a few months the Texas House approved House Bill 1507 by a 138-2 vote, and the Texas Senate voted 26-4 to do likewise. As signed into law by Texas Governor George W. Bush, the new law asserted that written materials, books, forms, and software programs were not an unauthorized practice of law if they clearly stated that they were not substitutes for an attorney.
Nolo’s mission is to make the legal system work for everyone—not just lawyers.
That effectively ended the Texas Supreme Court’s investigation of legal self-help publishers such as Nolo Press, although the court’s attorney in this matter argued that the courts, not the legislature, were the place to define what could be done. In any case, on its web site Nolo.com reported that its victory was due to the work of the Austin, Texas law firm of George and Donaldson and supporting efforts by the American Association of Law Libraries, the Texas Library Association, and five individuals who cooperated in filing a lawsuit that helped lead to the passage of H.B. 1507.
In 1999 Nolo Press changed its name to Nolo.com, Inc. “Less and less will we be making our money in the traditional book markets,” said Steve Elias, the company’s associate publisher, in the July 12, 1999 Publishers Weekly. “Increasingly, we’re going to be making it on the Web.” In addition to online legal assistance, there also was an online advice column called Ask Auntie Nolo written by Barbara Kate Repa, a lawyer who specialized in work-related issues.
Nolo.com in the new millennium used various alliances and joint operations to serve the public. For example, in 2000 it signed a content distribution agreement with ThirdAge.com, a leading media and marketing site for those older than 45. Nolo.com’s information about legal issues concerning retirement, estate planning, and family law were welcomed by ThirdAge.com, a private company based in San Francisco. Also in 2000, Nolo.com signed a content and licensing partnership with San Francisco’s eHow.com, an online company providing solutions on how to get things done. A third agreement in 2000 was with CBS.MarketWatch.com, a San Francisco-based provider of financial and business news.
In January 2001 a strategic alliance with the United Kingdom’s Epoch Software, Plc gave Nolo.com users the capability to use Epoch’s Rapidocs software to create complicated legal documents over the Internet without consulting an attorney. Nolo.com also partnered with ImageTag Inc., based in Chandler, Arizona. ImageTag’s KwikTag E technology was used to organize and use paper as digital documents. Nolo.com signed an agreement with Property Automation Software Corporation to let the latter’s TenantLawCenter.com have access to Nolo’s real estate articles, a benefit to property managers, real estate professionals, and others. Other Nolo.com partners included AllBusiness.com, books24X7.com, garage.com, homestore.com, netlibrary, Rentals.com, and Vault.com.
Such partnerships and web sites were just part of the exploding legal self-help movement. A search engine in 2000 located about 330,000 web sites when a search asked for “free legal advice.” Some thus argued that state regulation of lawyers was obsolete and that the solo law practice was going the way of the dinosaur. “The licensing of the legal profession, primarily by states, seems increasingly archaic in a global community,” said Frederick J. Krebs, president of the American Corporate Counsel Association, in the Washington Times on July 21, 2000. President William H. Mellor III of the Institute for Justice argued that lawyers would be eliminated as middlemen when potential clients instead relied on the Internet, self-help software, and paralegals. To promote such changes, a group called HALT, or Help Abolish Legal Tyranny, was organized.
The issues involved in the conflict between the organized bar and the legal self-help movement were described by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), part of the Democratic Leadership Conference. In response, Bill Litant, the Massachusetts Bar Association’s communications director, said in the Boston Herald, “The issue that bar associations need to tackle is not how to prevent people from accessing do-it-yourself legal information, but how to make professional legal help affordable for many people, because for many it certainly isn’t.”
The bar in fact participated in the legal self-help movement, at least to some extent. The American Bar Association provided some online information, although most of that was intended for lawyers.
As Nolo.com headed into the 21st century, it was proud of its several awards and honors. For example, PC Magazine on February 14, 2001 honored Nolo in its “Top 100” list. On March 12, 1998 Nolo received the Webby “1998 People’s Voice Award” for having the best information in the business and money category. Based on this excellent performance, Nolo appeared well prepared to meet its future challenges as a niche player in the information technology field.
Made E-Z Products, Inc.
- Two former Legal Aid lawyers begin Nolo Press by publishing two self-help law books.
- The company moves to its new office in Berkeley, California.
- Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court is first published.
- The company introduces the first version of its WillMaker software.
- Nolo launches its web site.
- Nolo Press changes its name to Nolo.com, Inc.; Texas’s approval of a new law allowing publication of legal self-help materials leads to a Texas State Supreme Court committee ending its investigation of Nolo.com.
Bloom, Murray Teigh, The Trouble with Lawyers, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969.
Clewley, Robin, “The Independent Type/Since the 1960s, Small Presses Have Found a Way to Publish and Flourish in Berkeley,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 2000, p. 1.
Emmons, Natasha, “Texas Investigates Nolo Press,” Legal Assistant Today, May/June 1998, p. 22.
Goldberg, Stephanie B., and Gary Poole, “Success at Nolo Press,” Business Week, January 31, 2000, p. F24.
Holt, Patricia, “Do-It-Yourself Law,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 1996, p. 2.
Hughes, Polly Ross, “Bill to Lay Down the Law on Self-Help Software/Controversial Measure Reversing Statewide Ban Is Awaiting Gov. Bush’s Signature,” Houston Chronicle, June 13, 1999, p. 1.
Mitchell, Barbara, “Willmaker 8,” Library Journal, December 2000, p. 204.
Mulvihill, Maggie, “At the Bar; On-line Law Services Now Face Their Own Legal Threat,” Boston Herald, July 11, 2000, p. 28.
Murray, Frank J., “Internet Age Shakes the Legal Profession, Bars Must Rethink Regulations,” Washington Times, July 21, 2000, p. A1.
Naisbitt, John, Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives, New York: Warner Books, 1982.
“Nolo.com and Epoch, the Leading U.S. & British Consumer Law Sites, Form Strategic Alliance to Improve Legal Access,” Business Wire, January 8, 2001, p. 1.
“Nolo.com, Nation’s Leading Self-help Legal Provider, Teams with Top Financial Site, CBS.MarketWatch.com,” Business Wire, February 16, 2000.
“Property Automation Software’s TenantLawCenter.com to Add Content from Nolo.com,” Business Wire, January 23, 2001.
Schmitt, Richard B., “E-Commerce (A Special Report): On the Battlefield—Lawyers vs. the Internet: For Some Nonlawyers, the Web Is a Cure for What Ails the Legal Profession; Many Attorneys Object,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2000, p. R36.
Veigle, Anne, “Texas Court May Lasso Self-Help Law Publisher,” Washington Times, June 16, 1998, p. E4.
Wessel, Harry, “Book Explains Using Small-Claims Court,” Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.V.), November 12, 2000, p. 5F.
Zeitchik, Steven M., “Nolo Press Changes Name, Web Site,” Publishers Weekly, July 12, 1999, p. 14.
—David M. Walden