OKLAHOMA CITY — They are scattered throughout Oklahoma City, multiple signs stacked up at busy intersections.
They advertise uncontested or agreed divorce at prices that most would call ‘cheap.’
“We charge a rate of $100 to prepare the paperwork that people will need to accomplish their divorce,” said Nikole Kenny.
Kenny is the face behind one of those signs.
She’s not an attorney, but a paralegal who used to work for a divorce attorney.
She saw first-hand how difficult it was for some people to afford the attorney’s fees.
“People flat could not afford it, so they wanted to know if there were other options available to them,” Kenny said.
So, Kenny started her own business: JNK Paralegal Services.
She can’t give legal advice or represent anyone in court, but she gives clients a step-by-step how-to and prepares the forms for them.
Most people who come to her have already made agreements with their spouse. They could be called ‘uncomplicated divorces.’
She’s helped thousands of clients, including Tom Quinn.
“Couple hundred bucks, and you’re done,” Quinn said.
Kenny helped Quinn with his fourth divorce.
He said that experience was much less stressful than previous ones with attorneys, because he knew it wasn’t breaking the bank.
“If you’re not going to have anything contested, there’s no reason to even go to court. It’s just a matter of filing everything,” Quinn said. “Not everyone has a thousand plus dollars to lay out to an attorney.”
But, there are many who would caution against going this route.
“I would urge anyone going through a divorce to always use an attorney, not to use a paralegal,” said Divorce Attorney Cathy Christensen.
Christensen calls it the “unauthorized practice of law” and said she usually snaps pictures of the signs on the side of the road when she sees them to turn over to the bar association’s general counsel.
“The truth is it’s the attorneys that know how to protect the client or the consumer from harm that might not be undone,” Christensen said.
In 2014, the general counsel investigated 26 complaints of unauthorized practice of law. Nineteen percent of those dealt with paralegals.
Bar Association President David Poarch said there is recourse with an attorney who does wrong, but not paralegals who aren’t licensed in our state.
“I have a professional standard I have to meet,” Poarch said. “And, if I don’t do that, there’s recourse by the client against me, as well as the bar association.”
And attorneys said there is help for those who can’t afford their services.
Three times a week, at the Oklahoma County courthouse, is the pro se waiver divorce docket. That basically means people are representing themselves.
On Thursday afternoons, attorneys and OCU law students volunteer and hold a clinic in the courthouse law library. They offer free advice and help clients who don’t know how to get their paperwork exactly right.
“We help people get agreed divorces that have deficiencies in their paperwork,” said attorney Mark Gutel.
Gutel volunteers often and said, sometimes, they have to fix problems in paperwork prepared by paralegals.
“I can’t say not to go to every paralegal, but it seems like there are more protections if you go see an attorney,” Gutel said.
And judges, as well, say most people going through a divorce are going to need advice at some point in time.
“The average person handling their own divorce has no idea how to do any of that,” said Oklahoma County District Judge Donald Deason.
“If there’s not matters to be contested, I say call Nikole. She’ll help you out,” Quinn said.
Quinn stands by his cheaper route.
He is now happily married to his fifth wife, Suzanne.
“Of course we defied all the odds,” Quinn said. “We got married on June the 13th, which was a Friday.”
Quinn hopes to never need divorce services again, but has recommended Kenny to his daughter.
Those embroiled in the sometimes complicated and messy business of divorce said, whatever you do, make sure it’s right because final orders in a divorce usually cannot be undone.