So you made the decision to go paperless. You’ve grasped the concepts and technology you need and your systems are mostly set. But when you need someone’s signature on a document, your best-laid plans come to a screeching halt. That process typically involves printing the document, hand-signing it yourself, mailing or scanning or faxing to the other party — and then waiting for them to print, sign and mail, fax or scan and send it back to you, where it’s printed yet a third time and filed away in a cabinet forever.
It’s anything but paperless. It’s antiquated busy work. And, yes, there is a better way: Use e-signing tools.
Compare these two paperless workflow scenarios. Which one would you rather be using?
Incorporating E-Signatures into Your Paperless Workflow
E-signing tools are a high-tech, much-needed response to the vast inefficiencies of dealing with physical signatures. For a law firm taking on a paperless strategy, it just makes sense. So take the leap and break away from any preconceived notions you may have about their legitimacy.
While 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 a web-based service, tagging it with special annotations where signatures, initials and dates eventually need to go. The service then sends your marked-up file to the recipients you’ve identified, who then “sign” it with a few clicks — either with a scrawl they draw using their mouse (or a finger, when using a tablet) or typed characters. When finished, the file is sent back to you, signed, sealed and legally delivered.
But Is This Actually Legal?
Okay, it’s 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 U.S. government actually took the biggest step in resolving the legal issues of e-signatures back in 2000 with the U.S. Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (E-SIGN), which gave e-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.”
So, the question most law firms now have is not whether e-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 capability built into most e-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. But to eliminate e-signing risks, security must be applied at three levels: the user, document and process levels.
(Note: When you’re investigating which service to use, most providers will give you a free trial. Do not use this free trial with a client. Free trials are not a full version of the program and do not include all three levels of security. Test the free trial offer internally or with a friend.)
- 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 or password, password token or fingerprint. When correctly executed, security at the user level prevents people from claiming, “That’s not my signature.”
- 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.
- 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.
A variety of cloud-based services have popped up to make the whole e-signing 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. (Note: Vendors offer different plan levels that incorporate different levels of authentication. Read each provider’s plan before signing up. Each plan level up includes additional security features.)
Some common features include:
- Ability to set field locations for signatures, initials and dates
- Ability to specify when documents expire
- Multiple-signers feature with order of signing defined
- Branded emails with ability to add your logo
- Unlimited documents (in most paid services)
- Access via apps on mobile devices
- Dashboards to keep track of all your outstanding and completed documents
Here are the major players in e-signatures:
- Hello Sign lets you sign documents right from Gmail. It also syncs with Google Drive, Dropbox, Box, SkyDrive and Evernote for added access and management. $13 to $40 per month.
- RightSignature provides 256-bit SSL encryption and Amazon Web Services to ensure privacy of data. It also integrates with Clio. $14 to $49 per month.
- DocuSign is a major service provider to the real estate industry. It is a straightforward and feature-filled service that any law firm should find simple. $10 to $30 per user per month.
- EchoSign/Adobe Sign was acquired by Adobe in 2011. Renamed Adobe Sign, it 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. $14.95 to $19.95 per month.
From simple contracts to complex real estate transactions, electronically signed documents are becoming standard operating procedure. Stuck in an “almost paperless” state? It’s up to you to incorporate an e-signature workflow into your practice.
Peggy Gruenke is a law firm management specialist in operations, online marketing, technology, and accounting. She is a popular speaker and contributor to legal publications, including here for Attorney at Work. Follow her on Twitter @PeggyGruenke.