E-signatures: a case study in legal tech apathy?
Jack Shepherd reflects on the evolution and increasing adoption of digital signatures in the legal sphere
The pandemic has clearly changed the way lawyers and legal teams have worked. In early 2020, it would have been fanciful to suggest that in the same year a large proportion of lawyers would depart from traditional conference calling (e.g., “please enter your PIN followed by the has key…”) and adopt video calling. But now, lawyers are speaking to their clients face-to-face over Zoom and Teams.
But why exactly did the pandemic lead to such changes? Many have suggested that it was because people needed to replicate face-to-face contact. But for numerous lawyers, physical meetings with their clients (and, sometimes, each other) were rare anyway.
The real tipping point for video conferencing was, perhaps, that traditional dial-in facilities did not have the bandwidth to cope with the sudden spike in usage. Enter, the likes of Microsoft Teams – which did have the bandwidth…
If this is true, was it simply the case that people were forced to change because their tools and processes simply didn’t work anymore?
Pandemic and e-signatures
E-signatures provide another great case study. In simple terms, an e-signature is a way of signing a document electronically, rather than using pen and paper. It may, for example, involve clicking a button on a website to sign a document.
Uptake of e-signatures prior to 2020 was poor. Law firms were still embroiled in questions such as, “can a deed be executed by way of e-signature.” It was clear many were dragging their heels, occasionally looking for the reasons not to change rather than the advantages of changing.
The signing experience: clients
To put this in context, it’s important to think about the experience for both lawyers and clients when it came to signing documents.
For a client signing a document, this was a cumbersome experience. In a worst case scenario, clients would have to physically visit their lawyers’ offices to carry out the signing. This practice, however, was generally reserved only for people who had enough time on their hands to do so, or for the very most important transactions.
In general, documents were signed remotely. This meant that documents were emailed to clients to sign. Signatories would hand these documents to their assistants to print. The documents would be signed, and handed back to their assistant. The documents would then be scanned and sent back to the lawyer.
This exercise might be manageable for a single document. But it quickly becomes unwieldy in corporate transactions. I remember the reaction of a client when I asked for 200 documents to be signed in a transaction involving multiple funds. They called me up after signing the first 100, and asked, “do I really need to sign all of these? My hand is starting to hurt”. You know your client experience needs improving if they are complaining of physical ailments…
The signing experience: lawyers
For lawyers, the exercise was perhaps even more outrageous. In a physical signing room, you could almost feel the steam coming out of the copy room after generous wads of signed documents were fed into photocopiers to be distributed to all parties.
Remote signings, while easier for clients, are probably harder for lawyers. Using a lawyer adept with PDF editing software (a rare commodity in the market), documents would have to be decoupled from the signature pages. The signature pages would have to be collected for each document, for each signatory. Once these pages were signed, they had to be reassembled into fully executed documents – an exercise that again involves complete mastery with PDF editing software.
I personally missed too many evening plans than I can remember doing this kind of exercise. It was hugely inefficient and stressful – especially when I had realised I made an error, and then had to check an entire suite of documents once again.
Suddenly, everybody was forced to work from home. It was not possible to do a physical signing. For most people, it was not possible to do a remote signing either – a situation brought about because people did not have printers at home…
Several firms therefore switched to e-signature platforms. The client experience was immediately improved, as people could click a button rather than having to print everything. For lawyers, the incessant disassembly and reassembly (and subsequent disassemblies and reassemblies) of long PDF documents was largely automated.
Many asked, why did it take people having their printers taken away, for this change to take place?
A case study in apathy?
There is still work to do on encouraging adoption of e-signatures. Indeed, a number of lawyers I speak to have since admitted to reverting to ‘old ways’ again. E-signatures provide an interesting example of where technology existed to improve a legal process in dire need of improvement, but was held back due to a lack of incentives.
For those who are new to the legal profession, it may be surprising to hear that a tool that can potentially save hours in a high-pressure situation has not been welcomed with open arms – and was adopted only when there was quite simply no other way of doing things.
Yet for those who work in technology and process change in the legal industry, this is a familiar story. We shouldn’t blame lawyers for not wanting to change. After all, nobody wants to change the way they have worked for no benefit. That is especially the case where they have worked the same way for decades, and personality traits lean towards risk aversity, perfectionism and control (as is the case with many lawyers).
Breaking through the apathy
It is possible to create change in the legal industry without relying on people having their tools taken away from them. It relies on a thorough understanding of existing process and incentives.
As far as existing processes are concerned, it is important to understand how people work currently. This helps people acknowledge where a new tool fits into their existing processes. For example, in e-signatures it is crucial to make sure people are comfortable with legal requirements and hand-off points with other systems (for example, a document management system).
Understanding existing processes naturally helps you build incentives, because you can understand the current pains and problems with how people work.
For example, instead of telling your firm you have a ‘new e-signature solution,’ it is far more effective to phrase your communications around the problems your new solution will solve. For e-signatures, this might be around collating signature pages, chasing for updates and spending time in PDF editors.
Unless you explain the value of a tool, you are relying on lawyers to do this themselves. By leading with benefits, value and uses you are taking this mental gymnastics away from people. You will get fewer people pushing back on changing how they work, because they understand why it is worth changing.
It is also worth doing this exercise from a business perspective. For example, are clients piling pressure on all the fees you are incurring in signing processes? If so, might e-signatures allow you to deliver a better client service and become more profitable?
I hope we can learn from this case study, and shift our focus away from talk about pure technology, and more about why people should change.
Building incentives to change, speaking to clients on how their experience can be improved, and tying these things to overall business outcomes for law firms is key. The most successful examples of change projects I have seen in law firms have one thing in common – they acknowledge that change is not just about the technology. They work hard at answering the question most lawyers have around new technology: “why should we care?”.
Unless you do that, the only way to bring change might be to take people’s printers away…
Jack Shepherd is legal practice lead at iManage RAVN imanage.com He was formerly an associate solicitor at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer