The doors are open, the lights are on, but last week the State Attorney General's Office got a temporary restraining order essentially suspending Legal Docs by Me's businesses in Watertown and North Salina Street in Syracuse. While CEO Derek Distenfield waits for his day in court, he also has to wait to take on new customers.
Distenfield says customers can come in, provide information and trained document preparers will fill out standard legal forms for simple matters. An uncontested divorce costs $399, but the State Attorney General's Office says document preparers were practicing law without a license.
"They were interpreting documents and advising clients with regards to issues that could have long standing negative repercussions to those consumers,?? said Deanna Nelson from the Attorney General's office.
In court documents, investigators say they were given advice on living trusts and on real estate leases. An affidavit from a woman who came in for a divorce says she was told to list incorrect or false information in various sections.
"On numerous occasions Legal Docs by Me employees assured consumers that the paperwork was going to be reviewed by an attorney or a licensed paralegal. We do not believe that is the case," said Nelson.
Distenfield says signs on both the Watertown and Syracuse offices make it clear they are not lawyers, and document preparers are told to only take down information customers provide.
"They understand that we do not and can not provide them legal advice, that we will not represent them so this notion that we are practicing law will be found to be false," said Distenfield.
In transcripts of conversations between investigators and Legal Doc by Me employees, the document preparers also say they can not give advice and can only handle simple matters.
"We believe that customers have a right to represent themselves, we believe that Legal Docs by Me is on the right side of the issue and we believe we will prevail in this action,?? Distenfield says.
He says his business model provides a low cost option for people who need help with simple matters, and that the Attorney General is siding with attorney's who are losing business.
"This is a small group of Watertown attorneys that are threatened by our innovative, lawful and tested business model,?? Distenfield says.
"Legal Docs by Me will have their day in court on July 15, when there will be hearing before a State Supreme Court judge in Jefferson County.