How e-signatures helped keep one UK law firm working during the pandemic

Two lawyers from transatlantic law firm Womble Bond Dickinson explain how DocuSign helped make the document-signing process more efficient during lockdown.


Getting a signature on a legally binding document has long been a cumbersome process. Either the document would have to be sent by courier to the relevant parties — with the lawyer hoping the signatory would sign and initial in all the correct places. Otherwise, those involved would have to physically travel to the law firm to provide a "wet ink" or physical signature.

In March 2020, the country-wide lockdown prompted by the COVID-19 outbreak made the whole process even more challenging.

Womble Bond Dickinson, a transatlantic law firm serving corporate, individual, and non-profit clients across every business sector, already had DocuSign in place for a limited number of teams for cases where wet-ink signatures weren't immediately possible.

Initially part of the firm’s long-term strategy to streamline and digitise legal processes, the platform has allowed lawyers to continue working efficiently and safely from the comfort of home.

“Prior to lock down, we were mainly using DocuSign to collect the signatures of absent parties,” said Katherine Crowley, a practice development lawyers at Womble Bond Dickinson. “But when lockdown hit, we had to transition quickly, almost overnight, and use it to manage the entire transaction process.”

Legal challenges

Crowley had long been curious about the use of e-signatures in the legal sector. Unlike other industries, however, a law firm can’t just decide to roll out a technology such as DocuSign on a whim because of legal implications.

In mid-2018, the Law Commission, an independent group that pushes for legal reform, published a consultation concluding that electronic signatures were valid on legally binding documents. Consequently, Womble Bond Dickinson began to deploy DocuSign in December 2018 and was “up and running pretty quickly."

Mary Burke, vice president for customer success EMEA, said that alongside consulations from the Law Comission, HM Land Registry’s announcement was another factor behind the adoption of e-signatures.

"Last year, we’ve witnessed businesses change their strategic plans almost overnight in order to adjust to the new working environment," Burke said. "Technology has been an important enabler to making this possible and transforming the way we do business moving forward."

Suzanne Gado, another practice development lawyer at the firm, said the rollout came about through internal interest but was spurred on by a client need to have an e-signature function in place.

After the initial onboarding, Gado spent a month working with the firm's risk team on legal issues, getting familiar with potential risks and learning how to mitigate or flag them to the relevant parties. After running a series of demos and training sessions to ensure users were comfortable with the platform and could explain it to clients, the system went live in early 2019 — mainly to collect the signature of an absent party rather than managing it for all signatories.

Although not every team was using DocuSign when the pandemic hit last year, having it already in place in some sections of the organisation meant it could be quickly expanded to those unfamiliar with the platform.

It also meant minimal disruption for clients, as the firm could largely carry out business as usual, despite the wide-spread upheaval the pandemic was causing.

The legal sector isn't alone in re-examining technology in the wake of the pandemic. According to research by Gartner in September 2020, 69% of boards of directors accelerated digital business initiatives in the wake of COVID-19 disruption.

"Driven by the onset of COVID-19, digital technology initiatives will serve as the top strategic business priority for [boards of directors] over the next two years, followed by customer engagement and managing the remote workforce,” Gartner said.

Efficiency is key

Crowley said that the latest data from Womble Bond Dickinson show that with DocuSign in place, 66% of documents are now signed and completed within less than an hour.

“Normally, once we've sent a document out for a wet ink signature, we don't know when it's coming back until it lands on our desk. Whereas now, what [DocuSign] has done is giving us transparency. We can see who is due to sign it, who hasn't signed it and where it's sitting,” she said.

DocuSign has built-in automatic reminders, meaning lawyers no longer have to chase clients over the phone if documents aren’t returned in a timely manner. The platform also provides an audit trail, allowing lawyers to see exactly who has signed, when they signed, and to ensure all necessary signatures are on the document in the right place.

Additionally, by auto-generating electronic copies of completed documents, the lawyers no longer have to send out physical versions to everyone. Additional interested, but non-signatory, parties can also be copied in once the document has been signed, eliminating the need to manually inform individuals that the process has been completed.

“The legal sector is one of the industries that has embraced digitization for critical processes such as agreements," said Burke. "At DocuSign, we’ve been working alongside firms like Womble Bond Dickinson to ensure their processes are efficiently streamlined and they maintain operational continuity."

“Clients will not pay us for some aspects of admin work, so by having an automated process in place, we’re saving money by reducing our write offs,” Crowley said, adding that it’s also helped to show the legal sector that it “overvalued paper."

“I think some clients thought, ‘We can muddle through use scanners and printers and couriers,’ but actually, it's become very clear that working from home is a long-term position,” Gado said. “Even when we're allowed to go back in our offices, I don't think we're ever going to return to full time office work so e-signatures are here to stay. We're not going to go back to paper.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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