Vol. 30, No. 6
Review of Legal Resources
The Women's Guide to Legal Issues
Reviewed by Ann B. Mygatt
THE WOMEN’S GUIDE TO LEGAL ISSUES
By Nancy L. Jones, with Phil Philcox (Los Angeles, CA: Renaissance Books, 2000) [Renaissance Books, 5858 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 200, Los Angeles, CA 90036; distributed by St. Martin’s Press; available by calling (800) 452-5589 x 28, by fax at (323) 939-1855, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org], 412 pp., including glossary and appendix; $19.95, paperback.
Reviewed by Ann B. Mygatt
A recovering lawyer in Boulder, Colorado, who spent twenty years practicing law in the areas of criminal law and domestic relations, the last sixteen in private practice. Mygatt is currently involved in community activism and redefining herself.
The Women’s Guide to Legal Issues is being marketed as a comprehensive reference book for women who want to know about their rights in the legal system. The book occupies a unique position in the marketplace: it is dedicated solely to women, not just in the working world but throughout every facet of life. It is a comprehensive and simplified handbook of the legal system and the law governing a host of legal issues. This is not so much a book for legal practitioners as it is for their clients.
Do women need a special legal guide for themselves? The idea seems a bit condescending ("This is a guide for women, so talk real slow. . . ."), but, for now, I will sidestep that issue. As one colleague ruefully noted, it also assumes that men already know all this stuff, which is not necessarily true either.
The author, a lawyer living in Florida, has practiced for twelve years, and the premise of her reference book is that women, in fact, do face unique legal challenges. She makes a pretty good case for herself. Statistics show that women have a higher chance of becoming the victim of a crime than a man. A woman typically is more likely to experience sexual assault; domestic violence; gender discrimination; issues of abortion; and collection of maintenance and child support. Women also are more likely to be the economically disadvantaged parties in prenuptial agreements and in conflicts over divorce settlements and custody of children.
The book begins with basic information about the legal system, from the structure of the court system, the differences between civil and criminal matters, and trial procedures, along with general information as to how a sample legal case or transaction is handled. The author also addresses such questions as:
• What do you do if you’re arrested or involved in an automobile collision?
• How do you represent yourself in a small claims action?
• When and how do you go about finding and hiring an attorney?
• How do you obtain free or low-cost legal services?
Topics covered include taxes, consumer issues, prenuptial agreements, employment law and discrimination, marriage (even same-sex marriage), real estate, divorce, custody, victim rights, patient rights, estate planning, and social security benefits.
The book is readable, easy to understand, and includes statistics and sensible, practical information (for example, what you need to start an online business or what form to use when you’re amending your passport after a name change—Form DSP-19, in case you didn’t know). In examining the sections on the area of law with which I am most familiar (domestic relations), I found the author’s advice to be practical and, for the most part, accurate and useful, albeit not specifically related to the law of Colorado.
Much of the information and advice is useful no matter what your gender. I learned some interesting facts as I perused the chapters. For example: Did you know that women initiate divorce twice as often as men, and women experience less stress and are generally better adjusted than men after divorce? Or, that one way to locate a spouse’s hidden assets is to run a credit check on yourself? The author often prefaces her statements with the phrase "The law in most states . . . " and provides specific examples from selected states as illustrations.
Several helpful sections are included in this book: a few forms, a glossary of legal terms (such as, "default judgment" and "preponderance"), a comprehensive bibliography listed by subject matter, and a section entitled "Resources" with listings by state of hundreds of helpful organizations with phone numbers, fax numbers, and Web addresses for Child Support Enforcement Units, Child Welfare/Children’s Rights organizations, consumer protection, and many more.
One benefit for practitioners who read this book is that it raises aspects of the law of which the client should be advised, but which lawyers may overlook. In an age when the workings of our legal system come from watching Ally McBeal and The Practice, the depth of a client’s misunderstanding may be greater than we think. For example, most clients don’t realize that even when attorney fees are ordered at the end of a case, the court almost never orders a party to pay 100 percent of the fees. Practitioners can be reminded to incorporate this information in their initial consultations with the client, or recommend that the client use this book as a reference. The book’s broad range of topics and general legal information is focused on the needs of the client.
Reading this book could help a practitioner gauge and manage a client’s unrealistic expectations, particularly on issues of legal fees, the high costs of litigation, and the uncertainty of results. The author stresses how much less expensive many legal matters would be if the parties are able to work together, and—without advising or promoting such—she discusses mediation and do-it-yourself divorce as alternatives to lawyered cases, when appropriate.
Interestingly, the author also gives tips on how to avoid hiring an attorney, and when it’s safe to go it alone. Not every legal problem needs an attorney to resolve it. On the other hand, nearly everything we do today has some sort of legal ramification. Whether it is buying a car or house, getting married or divorced, applying for a job, an unexpected illness, signing a contract, renting an apartment, or having children, there is a vast array of laws we need to know and understand.
It may offend readers that the basic assumption underlying this book is that women are more vulnerable, less advantaged, and more ignorant than men, and thus need their own resource to guide them, for example on "How to Buy a Car." But it’s nice to know that there’s a product on the market that is a readable, inexpensive, and comprehensive resource for self-education, and could be a good starting point for a client who wants to know more about the subject matter and the process of her case.
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