Revolution was in the air as the nineteen-sixties gave way to the seventies. There was the sexual revolution, the social revolution, and lest we forget, a two-part revolution in divorce law in California. The first part occurred on January 1, 1970, when no-fault divorce laws made their debut. No-fault divorce allows spouses to end a marriage simply based on “irreconcilable differences,” instead of having to go to court and prove that one person was to blame in creating the reasons for the divorce. The second big event was the founding of Nolo Press and the publication of its very first book, How to Do Your Own Divorce in California, by Ed Sherman and Jake Warner.
No-fault divorce was revolutionary in that it made divorce much easier, reducing the need for unhappy husbands and wives to, for example, don wigs and sunglasses and follow their spouses around looking for signs of an affair. But still more revolutionary was Nolo’s effort to make it possible for ordinary people to complete their own uncontested divorces, without paying exorbitant lawyer’s fees. At that time self-representation in a divorce was almost unheard of. In fact, the publication of How to Do Your Own Divorce was so shocking that the president of the Sacramento County Bar Association called a press conference and warned Californians against using the book. In a prime example of unintended consequences, this announcement got lots of media attention, and sales skyrocketed.
Forty years later, How to Do Your Own Divorce in California has sold over a million copies and Nolo offers highly regarded family law books for every need, from Nolo’s Essential Guide to Divorce to Prenuptial Agreements and The Legal Guide for Lesbian and Gay Couples (the first book to provide accessible legal information to same-sex couples, published in 1980). It’s fair to say that the publication of the first do-it-yourself divorce book by Nolo forty years ago was a catalyst for the national trend toward self-representation in America’s divorce courts. The Internet now teems with self-help divorce websites. More important, courthouses all over California provide self-help centers offering assistance to self-represented parties in divorce cases. The California Judicial Council website provides forms and instructions, as do many county court websites. It’s no longer unusual for parties to represent themselves in a divorce—in fact, in nearly three out of four divorce cases at least one party is self-represented.
There have been a lot of other changes in the world of divorce in the last forty years. No-fault divorce is now available in every state, and most counties have family courts that deal exclusively with divorce and other family issues, making it easier for families to interact with the court system. Same-sex couples can marry or enter an equivalent legal relationship in ten states and the District of Columbia. The growth of divorce mediation has helped make divorce less expensive and allowed couples to keep control of the process. Even lawyers’ fees have come down, particularly through a practice called “unbundling,” in which the lawyer helps with one specific part of a case while the client handles the rest. Self-help family law has come a long way, and Nolo has been there every step of the way.