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Lawyer strikes chord with online DIY divorce

|Written By Robert Todd

A Toronto lawyer’s crusade for the unbundling of legal services could become a major money-maker as self-represented litigants seek low-cost alternatives on divorce cases.

Robert Berman recently launched MyOntarioDivorce.com, a site that helps self-represented litigants in divorce cases.

Robert Berman, who has practised for over 25 years and focused mainly on defending business owners in divorce matters, recently launched MyOntarioDivorce.com. The site helps self-represented litigants with a tool that automatically generates court forms for divorce cases.

Berman says he came up with the idea about 18 months ago while sitting in a courtroom awaiting one of his matters to be heard. He noticed that many individuals who were self-represented seemed to get “mistreated” by judges or clerical staff. He specifically noted bickering in which judges suggested litigants get a lawyer to help them, while the litigants said they couldn’t afford one.

“Somebody needs to do something for these people,” Berman recalls thinking. He dreamed up a free web site loaded with information and links to help inform people about the divorce court process and relevant laws.

He immediately began work on the web site, writing informational pieces and compiling links to relevant government web sites.

Then another light went off.

“It occurred to me that, really, what the problem was here for the judges and self-representers is the form,” he says. “They’re highly complicated for lawyers. It seems as the government became intent on simplifying the process, they created forms that complicated the process.”

So Berman - bewildered as to why the government had not already created such a tool - shifted his attention to finding a way to help the self-represented create a form without a lawyer. He hired a computer programmer who created a system that allows individuals involved in simple cases to answer an online questionnaire, the responses to which are automatically entered into relevant forms.

Berman says he has thrown about $100,000 into his idea. He first conceived of a free service, but the site has morphed into a pay-as-you-go offering ranging from around $100 per month to nearly $850 per month. The same service from a lawyer would cost from $2,500 to $4,000, says Berman.

The site offers all the typical forms involved in a divorce - application form, financial statement, answers, reply, and conference briefs, he says. Berman guarantees judges’ acceptance of the documents.

“That’s really the huge benefit to the site, and the innovation, because as far as I know, I can’t find anything in the U.S. or Canada that does this,” says Berman.

He suggests no one else has done it due to the investment of time and money involved.

“The virtual online questionnaire, in a programming context with the form . . . was a hugely complicated exercise because there was so much if-and-thenning,” he says. He hired a specialist to take care of that aspect.

Former O.J. Simpson dream team lawyer Robert Shapiro has a U.S. site - legalzoom.com - that offers legal document services. But Berman says those documents are not auto-generated.

The crux of Berman’s vision, he says, is the unbundling of legal services. It’s a controversial concept that many lawyers fear will cut into their bottom line, but one supported by Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin.

“It’s gotta happen,” says Berman. “We’re, in my view, as a profession living in another era. The public, I think, is entitled to and the process needs to accommodate the unbundling of legal services and the ability to self-represent. Especially in the family law context. And so that’s what this is all about.”

Berman says he’s yet to receive any negative feedback from his peers. But the response from the public, he adds, has been overwhelming.

“I’m just blown away by the reaction,” he says. “I guess I’m not that surprised because it’s timely and I think it’s really necessary. I’m hoping that it creates enough controversy that people start talking about unbundling legal services.”

The public response began in January when a promotion began for a free do-it-yourself divorce guidebook in exchange for e-mail addresses. Berman says he gave away over 700 of the books from the start of the promotion to the web site’s mid-February launch. Since the site’s launch, 200 members have signed up.

“That’s a pretty good response,” he says.

Berman already has turned his attention to the future. He has acquired similar web site domain names for all Canadian provinces. His next targets are Alberta and British Columbia.

Berman also has plans for an added service in which affiliated lawyers will give clients using the online service in-person advice. Lawyers have approached Berman to be involved in that project, and says he plans to have it in place by the end of this year.

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