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NAME AND TITLE: Jason E. Searns, general counsel and senior vice president AGE: 49 THE BUSINESS: We the People Forms and Service Centers USA Inc. operates a chain of storefronts that help pro se litigants prepare legal forms for uncontested divorces, bankruptcies, incorporations, living trusts, wills, name changes and a wide variety of other legal matters. The company sees itself as helping those of limited means get access to the courts and as vindicating the right of the people to represent themselves, but insists that it is not anti-lawyer. However, one slogan appearing on the company’s Web site — “No Lawyers!” — suggests that the company is not above appealing to the public’s distrust of lawyers. We the People got its start in 1994 when Ira Distenfield, a former stockbroker and president of the Port of Los Angeles, and his wife, Linda, opened their first storefront in Santa Barbara, Calif. Today, We the People has 76 storefronts in 14 states and expects to open an additional 24 offices in the near future. According to Ira Distenfield, the parent company has more than 50 employees and annual revenues of $5 million to $6 million. Last year, he says, more than 49,000 people used We the People forms nationwide, including 21,534 divorces, 8,376 bankruptcies and 8,147 living trusts and wills. THE LEGAL DEPARTMENT: In a sense, Searns is the legal department at We the People, since he is the only full-time lawyer on staff. But Searns keeps watch over 17 supervising attorneys, at least one for each state in which the company has franchises. Supervising attorneys are lawyers in private practice who work part-time fielding legal questions from customers at the company’s franchises. Searns emphasizes that they answer questions of a general nature and do not undertake to represent We the People’s customers. Searns himself got his start with the company by working as a supervising attorney in Colorado for two years while he had his own law practice specializing in civil rights, family and criminal law. He became GC in 2000. AVOIDING A PROBLEM: Searns says that about 70 percent of his time is devoted to keeping an eye on the legal environment to make sure the company doesn’t stray into the unauthorized practice of law. Before We the People sells a franchise in a new state, Searns tests the waters by researching the law and even meeting with members of the state bar association. He acknowledges that there are some states in which the company would be hesitant to do business, citing Texas as an example because that state’s Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee brought an action against Nolo Press, a publisher of books for pro se litigants. But Searns thinks the tide is turning, pointing to the fact that many states have set up their own resource centers for pro se litigants within their courthouse walls, staffed by nonlawyers. Recently, We the People had problems in two states. In a pending lawsuit in Illinois, We the People is accused of unauthorized practice by the State Bar association. Searns argues that the case illustrates the company’s sense of responsibility toward its customers. In the suit, the Bar association accuses the company of giving legal advice to a customer seeking a divorce and with sending a lawyer to argue on the customer’s behalf without his knowledge. Searns explains that an Illinois judge refused to finalize divorce petitions using We the People forms unless the petitioner had a lawyer. In this case and in similar cases, the company will hire a lawyer for the customer at its own expense, Searns says. Because We the People couldn’t locate the Illinois customer in time for a hearing, it sent a lawyer to request a continuance, Searns says. In Connecticut, Searns says that the State Bar association had accused the company of the unauthorized practice of law in a lawsuit in state court. But the Bar association agreed to drop the suit, Searns says, on the condition that We the People put additional disclaimers on its printed materials making it clear that its customers are in ultimate control of their litigation. PROCEDURES: To avoid legal problems and to meet We the People’s mission, Searns has helped install meticulous procedures to ensure that the customer, and not We the People franchisees or their staff, are in command of litigation. A customer walking in the door is presented with a package of We the People forms. The staff is trained not to suggest what forms would be appropriate, but to wait until the customer makes a selection. Then the customer goes through one of the company’s workbooks, filling in the information that the company’s typists at a central location will turn into a form ready to be filed. Although storefront staff review the workbook, Searns says, they will not question the customer’s judgment except with respect to legibility, completeness and clarity. “If a customer has left a line blank, our staff will ask if he meant to leave it blank. If he says yes, then they leave it blank. If he lists a car in the real estate section of a financial form, they’ll ask if he meant to do that,” Searns says. We the People is also careful to tell customers that its services are only appropriate for relatively uncomplicated matters — an uncontested divorce, for instance. In Searns’ words, “We serve only three flavors of ice cream, vanilla, chocolate and strawberry. If the customer needs something else, we suggest he see a lawyer.” From time to time, Searns will send compliance auditors — he hesitates to call them undercover agents — into the franchises, where they present themselves as customers walking in off the street. ROUTE TO THE TOP: Searns earned a B.A. in political science from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 1974 and a master’s in politics from the University of Lancaster in England the following year. He got his J.D. in 1978 from the University of Toledo College of Law, where he served on the law review and was the winner of the National Appellate Advocacy Competition. After law school, Searns spent two years as an associate at Buffalo, N.Y.’s Phillips, Lytle, Hitchcock, Blaine & Huber, where he worked on the Love Canal toxic waste litigation. From 1980 to 1984, Searns was an assistant district attorney in Erie County, N.Y., before moving to Colorado and setting up his own practice. Searns has led a busy professional life, being involved in a number of organizations in addition to We the People. Until recently, he was a special counsel to The Legal Center in Denver, an advocacy group for the disabled. Since 1990, he has been an adjunct professor at the Denver campus of St. Louis-based Webster University, where he teaches classes on law firm administration and legal ethics in the MBA program. OUTSIDE COUNSEL: Searns gets help on business matters, including the vetting of its agreements with franchisees, from Holland & Knight. For advice on the law of unauthorized practice, he turns to Alec Rothrock of Englewood, Colo.’s Burns, Figa & Will, who has written widely on legal ethics and who sits on the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee. We the People is represented in the Illinois litigation by Michael A. Stiegel, a partner in the Chicago office of Milwaukee-based Michael Best & Friedrich. FAMILY: Searns’ wife, Norma, is a substitute school teacher. Together they have five children, three from her previous marriage and two, Justin, 20, and Victoria, 17, from his previous marriage. LAST BOOK READ: “Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News,” by Bernard Goldberg. LAST BOOK WRITTEN: Searns is the co-author, along with Jane Howard-Martin and Diane B. Hopper, of “Public Accommodations Under the Americans with Disabilities Act: Litigation and Compliance Manual,” now in its third edition from West Publishing.

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