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`Legal coaches' offer help

From divorce to bankruptcy, the number of pro se cases, in which litigants represent themselves, has surged. But are these do-it-yourselfers doing themselves justice?

Forrest "Woody" Mosten doesn't think so. Mosten, a $425-an-hour family-law attorney in Beverly Hills, thinks pro se litigants in divorce cases tend to get less child and spousal support, miss out on financial advice about how to divvy up assets and don't get the benefit of hearings on temporary orders such as custody.But Mosten's solution isn't what you'd expect. Rather than recommend that someone hire him to take over a case, Mosten offers his services as a "legal coach" on an as-needed basis, with emphasis on helping people find ways to settle out of court.

Mosten's clients can do as much or as little of the work as they want. In her divorce, Janet Winer gathered the financial documents and met with her husband to discuss settlement options. But when she wanted guidance, she turned to Mosten. Even at $425 an hour, Winer figures she saved more than $5,000 by doing so much legwork herself.

In Rowayton, Conn., lawyer Barbara Shea operates a similar Court Coach service.

"Law firms charge a lot of money for photocopying," says Shea, whose hourly rate is $325. "But you're perfectly capable of doing it more cheaply yourself."

She says her coaching clients get "essence de lawyer" instead of high-priced administrative services.

Even courts are getting into the do-it-yourself act. After years of struggling with self-represented (and underprepared) litigants, the Maricopa County Superior Court in Arizona started a Self-Service Center. Pro se litigants have access to a 24-hour information hotline.