Law News

Disbarred, Unbowed

Arizona ex-lawyer offers legal tips, products on Web site; state does not sanction unauthorized practice of law

By Bob Van Voris
The National Law Journal
November 10, 1999


Disbarred Arizona Attorney Bob Hirschfeld
The Wizard of Oz needed a machine to inspire confidence in his abilities. Bob Hirschfeld has the Internet. Mr. Hirschfeld is a disbarred Phoenix lawyer who cruises World Wide Web chat rooms, styling himself the Wizard of Laws and advertising Lexstrat, his new Web site that answers legal questions for $24.95 and up, payable by credit card.

As Mr. Hirschfeld tells it, his aggressive advocacy on behalf of fathers in custody disputes caused Arizona's bar and judiciary to run him out of the profession on trumped-up charges.

His numerous critics, including a unanimous Arizona Supreme Court, say that Mr. Hirschfeld richly deserved disbarment for overbilling and abandoning clients.

The one thing that no one disputes, though, is that since 1995, the 58-year-old Mr. Hirschfeld has not been permitted to practice law in Arizona or anywhere else. The surprising fact that he is able to offer legal advice on the Internet, more freely than if he were in good standing with the bar, has a lot to do with the slowness of bar officials nationwide to catch up to the Internet and with a quirk in Arizona law that leaves the unauthorized practice of law largely unregulated.

Despite his Captain Kangaroo mustache and avuncular appearance, Mr. Hirschfeld was the terror of Arizona's domestic relations courts during his decade in practice, which ended in 1995.

An electrical engineer by training, Mr. Hirschfeld entered law school at the age of 40, after a bitter eight-year battle with his ex-wife over the custody of their two children turned him into a crusader for fathers' rights. After graduation, he launched a solo practice in Phoenix in 1985 and quickly became a domestic relations lawyer known for aggressively representing men in divorce and custody cases.

A 1993 profile in a Phoenix newspaper--under the headline "I Dismember Mamas"--only served to attract more fathers eager to retain the self-described "pit bull lawyer."

The beginning of the end for Mr. Hirschfeld's legal career came in 1994, when he failed to inform a judge that his client had attempted suicide just three weeks before a hearing to determine custody of the client's 5-year-old son.

Mr. Hirschfeld believes that he acted in good faith, protecting a client's confidence. The judge called it a fraud on the court and fined Mr. Hirschfeld $20,000. When Mr. Hirschfeld failed to appear for a contempt hearing, the judge issued a warrant for his arrest. Mr. Hirschfeld fled to Mexico before returning to Arizona and being hauled off to jail.

The fine, not to mention his client's divorce, would later be voided on appeal. But bar authorities eventually determined that Mr. Hirschfeld was guilty of a variety of ethical violations, including abandoning clients while he was on the lam and using a nonrefundable retainer agreement to overcharge others.

Mr. Hirschfeld denied all the charges and continues to proclaim his innocence, although he declined to defend himself before a bar disciplinary committee and the Arizona Supreme Court. He says that both lacked jurisdiction and were too biased to give him a fair hearing.

In its opinion finalizing the disbarment, the Arizona Supreme Court addressed Mr. Hirschfeld's charges that the proceedings were the result of a vendetta by those who opposed his advocacy of father's rights.

"We wish to be clear about why he is being disbarred," Chief Justice Thomas A. Zlaket wrote. "It is because he has lied to judges, cheated and abandoned clients, and acted in despicable ways toward his opponents. [He] has manifested an unabashed willingness to violate court rules, ethical precepts, and even common decency in pursuit of his perceived goals."


ON THE NET
These days, Mr. Hirschfeld says, he makes his living lecturing and preparing legal documents. And he has high hopes for Lexstrat, which he launched on July 7, the fourth anniversary of the day he burned his Arizona Bar card on the steps of the state's Supreme Court. Mr. Hirschfeld will not say how much business he has received, but he says that he hopes Lexstrat will grow into a full-time job.

Visitors to the Lexstrat site, at www.lexstrat.com/nolawyer/myquestion.html, see a mysterious blinking eye above a form asking for a credit card number and relevant information, including the facts and the identities of the parties. An answer to the customer's question is promised, "usually within 48 hours."

A question about health insurance posed by The National Law Journal was answered within several days. The answer, containing disclaimers stating that it did not constitute legal advice, included a discussion of general insurance law applied to the facts of the case, along with suggestions of places to look for additional information.

Some links from the page lead to pages touting legal forms and legal-instruction videos for sale by Mr. Hirschfeld. Others lead to biographical material about Mr. Hirschfeld, briefs from his bar wars and even a photograph of his bar-card burning.

Whether or not Lexstrat constitutes the unauthorized practice of law, bar officials say that they have difficulty tracking such practices on the Internet.

"It's an underground industry, a kitchen-table industry," says William Hornsby, a lawyer for the American Bar Association in Chicago.

One problem, he says, is determining whether the person behind a Web site is a lawyer. Jurisdictional problems arise when a Web site offering services that are legal in one state reaches into another where they are not. Still, sites offering document preparation, pro se information and legal advice are easy to find.

Mr. Hirschfeld hopes, and some legal ethics experts believe, that he will be able to continue to operate the site untroubled by legal authorities. Arizona is the only state with no law prohibiting nonlawyers from giving legal advice.

A state Supreme Court rule says that only admitted lawyers may sign papers and appear in court on behalf of clients, but it does not affect out-of-court behavior. A criminal statute banning the unauthorized practice of law was allowed to expire in 1984 and hasn't been re-enacted. And although an Arizona Bar ethics opinion issued this year limits what Arizona lawyers may do on the Internet, Mr. Hirschfeld, as a disbarred lawyer, is not subject to legal ethics rules.

Still, he is wary of future attempts to stop him. "If they want to beat a dead horse, they're going to find they have a horse who's going to get up and bite them," he says.

Copyright 1999 NLP IP Company -- American Lawyer Media.