So you made the decision to move to a paperless environment and have grasped the concepts and technology needed to create a paperless system. But your best-laid plans of going paperless come to a screeching halt when you need to get someone’s signature on a document. That process typically involves printing the document, signing it yourself, mailing/faxing/scanning it to the other party, and waiting for them to print, sign, and mail/fax/scan it back—where it’s printed yet a third time and filed away in a cabinet forever.
For illustration, compare the two workflows and determine which one you would rather use. Besides the obvious paperless approach of Scenario #2, you also get the signed, fully executed document back in much less time. You can get results in hours instead of days.
Scenario #1 is anything but paperless. It’s antiquated. It’s busy work. And there is a better way.
Incorporating E-Signatures Into Your Paperless Workflow
E-signing tools represent a high-tech and much-needed response to the vast inefficiencies of dealing with physical signatures. And for the law firm taking on a paperless strategy, it just makes sense. Take the leap and break away from any preconceived notions you may have about their legitimacy.
Although systems vary from provider to provider, the general idea behind them is the same. You upload a document—Word, PDF, or even an image file—to an online web-based service (more cloud stuff going on here), and then tag it with special annotations where signatures, initials, and dates eventually need to go. The service sends this marked-up file to your specified recipients, who then “sign” it with a few clicks, either with a scrawl they draw using their mouse (or a finger, using a tablet) or typed-in characters. When finished, the file is sent back to you, signed, sealed, and legally delivered.
But Is This Actually Legal?
They are fast, convenient, and paperless, but are e-signed contracts legal? Will they hold up in court the same way an ink-stained piece of paper will? For the most part, the answer is a definitive yes.
The US government actually took the biggest step of resolving the legal issues of e-signatures back in 2000 with the US Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN), which gave electronic signatures the same legal weight as handwritten ones. State law, for the most part, has followed suit in recognizing their validity. E-SIGN defines an electronic signature as “an electronic sound, symbol, or process attached to, or associated with, a contract or other record and adopted by a person with the intent to sign a record.”
Since the passing of the E-Sign Act, the question most law firms now have is not whether electronic signatures are legal, but rather how reliable are they in helping organizations to defend their position should a legal dispute arise. The key to ensuring an enforceable e-signed record and staying out of court in the first place is to capture and reproduce as much electronic evidence as possible, a process built into most electronic signature processes and products.
But Who’s Doing the Signing?
Aside from a few key legal documents, most contracts can be safely dealt with via electronic means. The exception is anything that requires notarization. To eliminate e-signing risks, security must be applied at three levels: (1) at the user level, (2) at the document level, and (3) at the process level.
Tip: While doing your investigation of which service to use, you will get a free trial. Do not use this free trial with a client. The free trials are a not a full version of the program and, therefore, do not include the above three levels of security. Test the free trial offer internally or with a friend.
1. User Authentication
Security at the user level helps attach the signature to a specific person. During an electronic signing process, the identity of the person is verified or “authenticated” prior to signing documents, and then stored as part of their electronic signature. Authentication may include user ID / password, password token, or fingerprint. When correctly executed, security at the user level prevents people from claiming, “That’s not my signature.”
2. Document Authentication
Document security prevents the contents of a document from being modified and signatures from being copied into another document without visible detection. The electronic signatures should also be permanently bound to documents and travel with them at all times to enable the documents to be securely emailed, stored, and viewed from any location.
3. Process Authentication
The goal of process authentication is to prove what took place during the signing process. This is accomplished by recording all the URLs visited, documents, legal disclosures, and actions taken by users in a way that enables the process to be accurately reproduced from start to finish.
From simple contracts to complex real estate transactions, electronically signed documents are now becoming standard operating procedure. It’s up to you incorporate them into your paperless workflow.
The reality is that electronic signatures save time for both the lawyer and his or her clients. A variety of cloud-based services have popped up to help you take advantage of the rise in e-signing, making the whole process safe and simple. These products provide secure, web-based electronic signatures and in some cases will store signed documents online for access by both parties. Some common features of these products include:
Note: Each provider offers different plan levels that incorporate different levels of authentication. Read each provider’s plan before signing up. Each plan level includes additional security features.
- Lets you set field locations for signatures, initials, and dates and specify when documents expire
- Multiple signers feature with order of signing defined
- Branded emails with logo upload
- Most nonfree versions offer unlimited documents
- Access via apps on mobile devices
- Dashboards to keep track of all your outstanding and completed documents
The following are the major players in e-signatures.
Sign documents right from Gmail. They also sync with Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive, and Evernote for added access and management. Pricing $13–$40/mn.
Provides 256-bit SSL encryption and Amazon Web Services to ensure privacy of data. Pricing starts at $14/mn up to $49/mn. RightSignature also integrates with Clio.
A major service provider to the real estate industry, DocuSign is a straightforward and feature-filled service that any law firm should find simple. Plans range $10 to $30 per user per month.
Acquired by Adobe in 2011, EchoSign looks and acts a lot like DocuSign, and is comparable to it in most ways. Naturally, integration with various Adobe products makes this an appealing option for PDF-centric law firms. Plans range from $14.95/mn to $19.95/mn.
So take your paperless efforts to the next level by letting your clients know about your paperless strategy and incorporate an e-signature workflow into your document handling processes. By the way, this article is an example of how you can repurpose content. This content was part of a CLE program on setting up a paperless law firm, and now it is an article.
A version of this article, also written by Peggy Gruenke, was originally published on Attorney at Work.