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They Fought the Law — and Won

“They Fought the Law — and Won”

We the People gets business with grass-roots effort.

Financing? Check. Management? Check. Marketing? Check.

Run down the list of essentials for growing your company, and you might balk at this one: Doing battle with lawyers coast to coast.

But that’s what Ira and Linda Distenfield did — and are still doing.

Owners of We the People, a paralegal firm in Santa Barbara, Calif., the Distenfields provide speedy, low-cost, document-preparation services for more than 80 uncontested legal actions such as divorce, bankruptcy, incorporations and restraining orders. Customers simply fill out workbooks in their own handwriting, and We the People transfers that information to a processing center, then returns the completed forms to customers to file. The company is now selling franchises in select states for $89,500.

"We are giving people the keys to the courthouse," says Ira Distenfield. His company handles nearly 40% of California bankruptcy cases and one out of three divorces. It’s easy to see why the company’s success ruffles the feathers of California bar members — and lawyers nationwide. If such services become widespread, they could seriously reduce meat-and-potatoes revenue for lawyers.

When Distenfield started the company seven years ago, the California Bar Association quickly cried unauthorized practice of law. Though no California statute prohibits such services, the bar accused the company of breaking the state’s business and professional code, which requires certain professionals such as lawyers and doctors to have licenses.

From the beginning, the Distenfields were careful not to cross the line. When customers ask questions that require legal advice, they’re sent to a company attorney.

Yet the Distenfield’s ultimate solution has been to change the law. On January 1, 2000, a new California law took effect that legitimizes We the People. It sets forth certification requirements for paralegals, including education, experience and bonding, and regulates the industry. Distenfield asked to have the law introduced and then went the extra mile. Traveling to San Francisco, he picketed in front of the state bar. Distenfield also was responsible for hundreds of letters to representatives and raised money for a campaign to pass the bill.

Now Distenfield will have to decide whether to fight the same battle in other states such as Texas, where it’s a crime to even touch a legal document without an attorney’s license. In a business that seems to rock the proverbial legal boat, Distenfield is quite aware of the personal time required to get his business foot in the door.

In Colorado he’s talking with the state bar. "We are now in constant communication, trying to educate them about what we do, and the limits of what we do and the professionalism we bring," explains Distenfield. In his educational efforts, he tries to point out benefits for the attorneys: We the People can remove the unrewarding work from their desks. Lawyers can focus on what they’re really good at — legal advice — and leave the paperwork to someone else.

"We opened our first office there three months ago, and now we’re ready to open our fourth [in Colorado]. There’s really no stopping us," Distenfield says.

Writer: Kathy Dimond