Nolo was born of the frustration of two legal aid lawyers who were working to help low-income families in the San Francisco Bay area in the late 1960s. Charles (Ed) Sherman and Ralph (Jake) Warner were tired of having to turn away working people who didn't qualify for free legal aid but couldn’t afford lawyers. There was no place to send these people, because there were almost no sources of free or low-cost legal information—no do-it-yourself books or software, no court-based, self-help programs, no Internet. And precisely because the many millions of Americans who earned less than $5 per hour had to purchase even the most routine legal information and help at $80 per hour, most went without.
In 1971, to help fill the need, Sherman wrote How To Do Your Own Divorce in California, and Warner immediately followed with The California Tenants’ Handbook (with Sherman and Myron Moskovitz). They took the books to established publishers, who promptly rejected them. (“Self-help law? You must be nuts!”)
Warner and Sherman decided they had no alternative but to publish the books themselves—and so Nolo Press was created. (Nolo, in Latin, means “I don’t choose to.” Warner and Sherman thought it was appropriate given that they had never intended to become publishers.) Joined by Toni Ihara, they committed to publishing a comprehensive series of do-it-yourself legal guides. Nolo books soon covered a wide variety of legal niches, including debtors’ rights (How to Beat the Bill Collector, by Warner and Peter Jan Honigsberg), personal relationships (The Living Together Kit, by Warner and Ihara), business formation (How to Form Your Own California Corporation, by Anthony Mancuso), and estate planning (Plan Your Estate, by Denis Clifford). The public was hungry for this information, and Nolo became widely recognized as a pioneer in what can best be described as a popular law revolution.
Toni Ihara and Jake Warner
Early do-it-yourself law titles
In 1980, Nolo moved to its present home in a former clock factory in Berkeley, California. The success of its national titles allowed the company to grow robustly. Nolo attracted a diverse bunch of employees who, whether they edited books, designed them, or shipped them from the warehouse, shared a commitment to Nolo’s mission and were proud to be a part of it. By the early 1980s, Nolo had gone beyond its consumer law roots to publish books in new and more sophisticated legal areas such as patents (Patent It Yourself, by David Pressman), landlords’ law (Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, by Janet Portman, Marcia Stewart, and Warner) and probate avoidance (Make Your Own Living Trust, by Clifford).
When personal computers came along in the 1980s, Nolo quickly published do-it-yourself legal software, including Quicken WillMaker, which has sold over two million copies and remains a bestseller. Again, the idea was simple: give people clear, reliable legal information and let them get on with the job. In 1994, now with 70 employees, Nolo created one of the first consumer-oriented legal websites, offering lots of free legal information, and later adding online document preparation and downloadable versions of all Nolo books and software.
In 2005, Nolo launched a lawyer directory, to help people find a consumer-oriented lawyer when they want professional help in addition to self-help. Nolo approached its lawyer directory in the same way it had always approached books and software: Give people good information and let them make their own choices. So the Nolo lawyer directory is uniquely consumer-friendly, featuring in-depth attorney profiles so that consumers can get lots of information about local lawyers and choose one who will be a good fit.
Working for a better legal system
Nolo doesn't just publish useful products; from its beginnings in 1971, it has also advocated for a more open and democratic legal system. Over the last 40 years, Nolo has promoted a legal reform agenda in a number of ways, including The Nolo News, a quarterly newspaper published from 1984 to 1997, and in books such as The People's Law Review, edited by Ralph Warner, and Fed Up with the Legal System? What's Wrong & How to Fix It, by Stephen Elias and Ralph Warner. Today, on Nolo.com, Nolo provides a huge trove of free legal information written by Nolo authors and editors, and it also gives easy access to state court websites and U.S. Supreme Court cases.
Nolo continues to push America’s legal system to:
- write laws, regulations, and court forms in plain English
- require courts to provide in-person help to people without lawyers
- simplify courtroom procedures to give people without lawyers a fair shake
- simplify probate, and eliminate it entirely for uncontested bequests to family members
- remove many simple uncontested matters from court entirely
- redesign public law libraries to make legal information accessible to all
- substantially raise small claims court dollar limits to create a true people’s court
- let lawyers coach the self-represented without taking over the whole case (lawyers call this “unbundling” legal services)
- promote mediation to settle disputes out of court
- abolish unauthorized practice of law statutes that threaten online access to do-it-yourself legal materials and tools, and
- let trained nonlawyers help consumers accomplish basic legal tasks such as uncontested divorces, adoptions, guardianships, and stepparent adoptions.
At first, the legal establishment paid scant attention to the proposals put forward by Nolo and other reformers. Trying to handle routine legal tasks by yourself, or even learning about the law, they sniffed, was akin to doing your own brain surgery. But as do-it-yourself products moved into the mainstream, more and more Americans realized that, armed with good information, well-designed forms, and helpful court clerks, they often didn't need a lawyer to accomplish routine legal tasks.
But the do-it-yourself law movement made some lawyers nervous. As law professor Steven Gillers told Time magazine, “When you realize how routinized legal work is, and how much information you can pack into an interactive CD-ROM, then you recognize how easy it is to substitute a computer for a lawyer. That’s the threat.” (Time, Aug. 3, 1998.) But fortunately other lawyers rejected this “lawyers own the law” point of view and joined Nolo in advocating for a legal system accessible to all.
The Old Guard didn’t give up without a fight. In 1996, a Texas Bar Association committee, acting under the auspices of the Texas Supreme Court, actually sought to ban Nolo’s and other companies’ legal books and software from the state. Only lawyers, they said, could give out legal information. Fortunately, librarians, the national media, and First Amendment advocates everywhere rallied to Nolo's defense. After a two-year fight, the Texas legislature finally passed a law in 1998 to make it clear that selling law books and software was not "practicing law without a license."
Thanks to the Internet, information about the law is everywhere. And many of Nolo’s ideas about reforming the legal system have been at least partially adopted. For example, many courts and agencies provide helpful, plain-English materials online or welcome do-it-yourselfers when they come in. And, in many areas, simple, uncontested tasks have been removed from the courtroom or, when a contest is unavoidable, diverted to mediation. We're proud that the efforts of one small company have been an important part of the larger movement to make America's legal system more democratic and affordable.
But at Nolo we know that America is still far from a legal system where all laws are written in plain English, all legal forms are well designed and easy to use, and basic courthouse procedures are equally accessible to both lawyers and do-it-yourselfers. Ensuring that all Americans can understand the laws that govern their lives and have access to courts, and when appropriate mediation and other less adversarial procedures, remains a work in progress.
That’s why Nolo still strives to give consumers information they can trust and put to use: the highest quality, most up-to-date legal information, access to statutes and court decisions, and detailed information about lawyers who can provide personalized expert help. Even after 40 years, no other organization does what we do.
Today Nolo doesn’t look much like it did when the company began back in 1971. Web designers having long since replaced typesetters, all of our books and software are available online, and Nolo’s website attracts more than a million visitors each month. But Nolo remains true to the original vision and passion of its founders: to publish reliable, plain-English legal information that anyone can use.