The Brief Story of Texas vs. Nolo

Headlines feature Nolo-Texas BattleWhen 19th century pioneers rode west, many carried a bible in one saddlebag and the bestselling Everyman His Own Lawyer, by John Wells in the other. But by 1998, when a Committee of the Supreme Court of Texas sought to ban Nolo’s books and software from the state, this frontier tradition of legal self-help had obviously been forgotten.

Claiming that only lawyers could provide legal information and that Nolo’s publications were guilty of practicing law without a license, the Supreme Court of Texas’ Unauthorized Practice of Law sub-committee ordered Nolo to appear before a closed hearing at Austin on August 20, 1998 to explain why sale of its books and software should not be prohibited.

Nolo fought back by challenging the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee’s kangaroo court-like proceeding before the very same Texas Supreme Court that authorized the sub-committee. And after the Court ordered the UPL sub-committee to adopt new, more open procedures, Nolo pressed its case. Represented by Austin civil liberties attorney Peter Kennedy, Nolo sued the U.P.L. sub-committee in state court in Austin claiming that the sub-committee’s activities violated the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and the Texas Constitution. Joining the suit were a group of Texans who had used Nolo’s books, the Texas Library Association and the American Association of Law Libraries.

Nolo’s argument that Texans had a fundamental right to basic legal information and that the Texas legal profession had no right to ban low cost competition struck a chord with both the press and the public. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine and even the International Herald Tribune were just a few of the publications that covered the story, almost always treating Nolo’s pro-democracy arguments sympathetically. The headline on Jim Barlow’s column in the Houston Chronicle of May 31, 1998 “Lawyers Want Law Kept to Themselves” was typical.

After a two-year battle, and on the eve of Nolo’s case being heard by an Austin jury, the Texas legislature provided a respectable exit strategy for its beleaguered legal establishment. In the 1999 session it passed legislation that exempted self-help law products from the Texas Unauthorized Practice of Law statute as long as they carried a disclaimer making it clear that they didn’t provide legal advice. Since all of Nolo’s books and software had already done this for many years, the fight was over.

In looking back at Nolo’s struggle, Ralph Warner, Nolo’s Co-founder and Publisher said, “Lots of Texans cared about keeping our books and software available in the state but none more so than librarians. With tens of thousands of Nolo books in Texas public libraries, the Texas Library Association and its individual librarian members were absolutely committed to the fight to keep them accessible to the public. The idea that Texas lawyers could simply ban and remove Nolo books from library shelves was absolutely anathema to them.”