The restrictions which have been imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have posed fundamental challenges to lawyers and their clients in relation to the signature of legal agreements and the management of transactions.
The current situation has pushed the legal profession to consider other forms of signature and execution of legal documents, which do not involve the physical presence of people and the handling of documents, particularly where offices might be closed or people don't have access to printing and scanning facilities.
For Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD), one obvious solution was the use of electronic signatures – e-signatures – and e-signature platforms to continue to facilitate transactions and provide clients with the same high standard of service they have come to expect from the firm. WBD is fully licensed to use DocuSign, a market leading e-signature platform in the legal sector. In the last month, the firm has scaled up its ability to utilise the platform and now has over 600 registered users and hundreds of legal documents have already been created, circulated and signed using this platform. WBD had recognised the potential for e-signature platforms to transform the way in which legal documents can be executed well before the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming an early adopter in the legal sector, and so was in a strong position when the use of this technology became a necessity, rather than an innovative option.
However, the use of e-signatures does pose some challenges -and it can be very easy to treat the use of e-signature platforms as a case of "button pressing", without considering the risks or the need to produce the evidence of valid execution of a legal agreement which may be required in the future. Care needs to be exercised when using e-signature platforms for complex or high value legal agreements or transactions when documents need to take effect in a certain order, rather than for "one-off" transactions between a limited number of parties which would simply take effect when the last of them signed it.
In response to these challenges, WBD has devoted significant resource to consider the legal issues and risks posed by e-signatures and to develop protocols and wording which enable the technology to be applied to current transactions now with confidence, when agreements may need to be enforced or subject to legal due diligence.
E-signatures are not applicable to all legal documents, for example some real estate documents which require registration at the Land Registry or wills must be physical "wet ink" documents.
The firm is in a strong position in relation to facilitating the execution of legal documents by e-signatures for clients now, as well as managing the additional risks which arise in respect of e-signatures. WBD can also assist clients in relation to their adoption of e-signature platforms, tailored for the needs of their business.
Simon Hewes, corporate partner, commented:
"We are at the leading edge in the adoption of e-signature platforms and our ability to apply it, which has enabled us, as well as our clients, to use it with confidence and ensure business can go on as usual under lockdown. Although the increased need for, and usage of, e-signatures has been triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, when "normality" returns, which looks likely to require social distancing for a considerable period of time, it is expected that e-signatures will continue to be used, and may well become the market norm. This is why it is important for us to have embraced the technology now so we can remain ahead of the curve."