LeeAnne Wyrick couldn't afford to hire a lawyer to get a divorce, so she bought a $50 do-it-yourself legal kit from the county attorney.
But the kit was too confusing, so in November she paid Gary Thompson, a paralegal at the Legal Access Group, for his advice."I did it all myself. All Gary did was help me prepare the papers," said Wyrick, 24, of Delta. She was supporting her two children on $800 a month and feared her husband, who she said was abusive. "Lawyers all wanted $500 for a retainer before they would talk to me. I couldn't have done it with a lawyer. There was no way."
Thompson, founder of the Salt Lake company, on Monday filed a 3rd District Court lawsuit against the Utah State Bar. In phone calls and letters, bar officials have informed the Legal Access Group it is being investigated for the unauthorized practice of law.
Wyrick served as a character witness for Thompson's company at a Monday morning press conference. Thompson said he doesn't dispense legal advice but guides low-income people like Wyrick through the confusing maze of the legal system.
His company charges from $99 to $125 to prepare legal documents for people seeking uncontested divorces. If clients desire, they can have their papers reviewed by the company's attorney. In contrast, it can cost at least five times as much to consult an attorney to obtain a divorce.
"Basically, we're a typing service," Thompson said. "The majority of our clients are low-income minorities. Their divorces are very simple. They just want out of the marriage."
The problem is that state law prohibits people from practicing law if they aren't licensed as attorneys. John Baldwin, executive director of the Utah State Bar Association, said the bar is charged with enforcing the U.S. Supreme Court's definition of the practice of law.
In Utah, where there is no registration program for paralegals, anyone can claim the title. "Frankly it grew up as kind of a bridge between secretarial and administrative skills, and I don't think licensing has caught up," Baldwin said.
While low-cost legal aid can be a public service, Baldwin said, clients sometimes get what they pay for: cut-rate service. As the judicial system routinely discriminates against poor people because of costs, the legal profession is constantly considering ways to provide more access. But Baldwin said the bar won't concede that law should be practiced by someone other than licensed attorneys.
The language of the law as it reads now is too vague, Thompson believes. For example, it could be dangerous to tell drivers they could get a speeding ticket for driving faster than 55 miles an hour. That could be construed as dispensing legal advice, similar to the way his company practices law by typing legal papers.
Thompson admits the lawsuit could hamper his future career if he decides to apply to law school in Utah or for admission to the bar association. But he believes the principle is important, because his service provides legal access his clients couldn't afford to buy anywhere else.