When was the last time you signed and sealed a document? Unless you take the title “Esquire” far too seriously (if you’re wearing a powdered wig, this is for you)… or you’re in possession of something passed directly to you from some sitting monarch, the answer is “never.”
It’s not just the plebs who no longer respect the value of an ink signature. The United States government (as well as most of those federal units, called “states”) have decided to throw tradition out the window when it comes to signing documents.
That’s right, e-signatures are actually valid and legally binding for most transactions. Even where it’s not the preferred option, e-signatures will often be upheld absent affirmative evidence of fraud.
But there’s a better reason for you to become an e-signature ninja: your wonderful plans for a “Paperless” Law Firm are basically worthless without them.
E-signatures are a feature of modern business. That means it’s a feature of modern law too, provided we’re willing to accept them, which is far from an easy thing to push. We do so love our signature pages, whether all together, or in counterparts.
Oh, and we love our fountain pens. Our lovely, expensive, prestige-granting fountain pens!
On the other hand, electronic signatures are the lynchpin of the modern paperless law firm.
Without electronic signatures, your paperless efforts will be mired in the dreaded “gray area,” a purgatory of sorts. A halfway house. No-man’s Land.
Fine, just think of it like this: most of the problems of the old way, along with very few of the positives of the new way. It’s exactly where you don’t want to be.
What are e-Signatures?
Without electronic signatures, you’re stuck there. We’ll get to why in a minute. First, let’s find out what we’re actually talking about. What exactly do we mean when we say “E-Signature”?
While there is no universal definition of an “electronic” signature, what you’re looking for is:
“… anything from a unique code embedded into an electronic form, a checkbox, or even biometric data attached to an agreement. The essential ingredient is that the signature must be capable of being tied to a specific person, and must be secure so as not to be invalidated by questions of tampering and authenticity.”
At the end of the day, anything that demonstrates intent to agree and consent to agree is sufficient for most “signature” requirements. So anything that demonstrates intent and consent in electronic form will meet the most basic definition of e-signature.
There are two different types, for those into ultra-specific definitions. Technically, the terms “electronic signature” and “digital signature” mean two different things. An “electronic signature” is anything that manifests consent and intent in electronic form (a check box on a website could count). A “digital signature” includes user authentication procedures to ensure the person doing the signing is who they claim to be.
Are e-Signatures legal?
But wait, how can they be legal when there isn’t an absolute legal definition? Good question!
How about a balancing test, we’re good at those, right?
Maybe one of those could help! We’re in luck, there is a federal uniform law that provides some guidance. The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, adopted by 47 states and the District of Columbia, places two requirements on electronic signatures. They must be 1) capable of being retained, and 2) capable of being accurately being reproduced.
Another major legal provision is the U.S. Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (“E-SIGN”). The E-SIGN Act really started the e-signature ball rolling in 2000, and recognition of e-signatures has expanded dramatically since then.
So, with some narrow exceptions, yes, e-signatures are going to be considered legally binding, just like the ink ones.
The biggest concern about e-signatures in law firms isn’t even the authenticity of the signature. It’s making sure that the signature “flattens” on the document. In basic terms, when you use your electronic signature, it had better print out on that document when you send it to someone else.
E-Signatures and Your Paperless Law Firm
So why are e-signatures so important to your law firm’s paperless plans? Well, unless you’re using e-signatures, everything that needs to leave your office signed has to be printed. In fact, one could argue that without e-signatures, any other efforts made to digitize your files is actually a big waste.
Your digital workflow in your “paperless” office relies on printing out only those documents that have to exist in paper form – for the most part that’s going to be things that you have to file with the court. However, if you have to print every letter, pleading, or other document that requires a signature, you’re not really accomplishing your paperless goal.
Worse, now that you’ve already had to print out your document to sign it, scanning it back in to your system starts to just feel like a wasted extra step. Your digital version serves as nothing more than a backup – exactly the opposite of how a “paperless” office works.
It’s even worse when you need someone else’s signature. Even if you agree to counterparts, you have to send them the document, they have to print it out, sign it, and at best, scan it and return it to you. So you’re at their mercy – if they’re not near a printer or scanner, it’s gonna be a while. Even worse if they’re the type who prefers returning documents in the regular mail!
Without e-signatures, your best laid “paperless” plans amount to nothing more than making a digital backup of your files. On the other hand, simply adding e-signatures into your workflow, beating that last major barrier to being “paperless,” will make you look like a high tech professional. Particularly to other attorneys who can’t get their head around e-signatures.
So you agree that you should start looking into e-signatures? Great, I’ll even help you get started:
Here are 5 e-signature options for your law firm:
For most of the electronic signatures that your law practice will need, you don’t need to look any further than Adobe Reader DC. It’s free, and it’s used on PDF files, which are pretty much the universally acceptable form of electronic documents.
All you need to do is take a picture of your signature and save it to your computer in .png format. (Make sure there are no shadows – use a flash.) Then follow these steps (or see this post from Ernie Svenson’s Paperless Chase for another option):
1) Under “Tools,” select “Fill & Sign”
2) Select “Add Signature” under the “Sign” option on the menu bar
3) Select your signature image, and click “Apply”
4) Use it.
It has no digital security features, so while it’s great for those basic, daily needs (correspondence, non-critical pleadings and discovery), be sure to test it first to make sure that the signature becomes part of the document.
However, if you’re looking for options that fit more in the “digital signature” area – more security, better systems for recording the process of executing the document – you’ll want to look for more advanced systems. Such as…
With one of the most diverse portfolios of options for electronic signatures, Adobe eSign Services (previously known as “EchoSign”) is an excellent option for businesses that want both basic “electronic signatures” as well as “digital signatures” with certificate-based digital IDs.
HIPPA compliant and using transparency systems that provide extensive data about every digital signature, Adobe eSign is a powerful option. Individual licenses are available starting at $9.99/month, with business licenses beginning at $30.00/user/month.
With options to sign documents right from Gmail, HelloSign is a popular electronic signature option for law firms. Also compatible with Google Apps, Box, Dropbox, Evernote, and OneDrive, you’ll be able to sign documents, or send documents out for signatures, to up to 20 people at a time through cloud-based services.
A nice options that HelloSign offers is a free version, although it’s little more than a trial (3 documents per month, one sender). Unlimited documents start at $13/user/month.
Another popular option is RightSignature. RightSignature delivers documents directly to your signers, with an identity-protected login, and they can sign anywhere on any computer or mobile device. Compatible with numerous cloud-based services, RightSignature can also be embedded right into your law firm’s website.
RightSignature documents are also tamperproof—once a document is sent for signature, it can no longer be edited or altered in any way without being present. With plans beginning at $11/user/month, it’s one of the least expensive options available.
DocuSign boasts of being the global standard for electronic signatures, claiming over 50 million global subscribers. With basic setup options and extensive automation options, there’s no doubt that DocuSign is a powerful option.
While it’s highly recommended, DocuSign’s options for businesses are a little on the expensive side, beginning at $20/user/month, although they offer an individual option beginning at $10/month.
About the Author
Brian Focht is a civil litigation attorney and technology enthusiast. In addition to being the author of The Cyber Advocate, he is also the producer and host of the Legal Technology Review podcast, and co-founder of B&R Concepts, a small business technology consulting company.