With the growth in digitisation of legal processes, Legal IT Insider held a special interest group session with Adobe to look at how its users can scan, generate, review, mark up, securely share and sign documents in a cradle to grave workflow. We spoke during the webinar, which included a significant discussion around regulatory updates surrounding eSignatures, to Rawan Hantash, enterprise account executive at Adobe; John Jolliffe, who leads strategic development for the Adobe Document Cloud; and we were joined by Anthony Vigneron, director of legal technology solutions at Clifford Chance, which is leading the legal sector in using the entire Adobe platform. Vigneron led a team in the Global Legal Hackathon this year that has created a playbook for the use of eSignatures.

Hantash joined Adobe from Huddle last year and looks after legal enterprise clients and accounting clients. Kicking off the discussion, she said: “What I’m trying to help firms do is drive paper out of their organisation: at its simplest, paper is the route of all evil in my eyes and in driving out paper you improve the client experience.”

Shift to digital

Many law firms still use largely traditional, paper-based processes but Hantash observed: “Over the past six months there has been a shift in perception around going digital. I’m not saying it wasn’t on the agenda but it’s being accelerated now everyone is working from home and remotely and you don’t readily have printers there.”

It’s fair to say that there is growing pressure from clients to become more efficient and Hantash said: “If your clients are doing it, you should be doing it. In the financial services industry, which the legal industry serves, they are changing very quickly. They want to give their customers choice.”

The client view

One of those customers is TSB Bank. Hantash said: “TSB’s challenge was that they weren’t able to give their customers the choice to be serviced in whichever way they wanted, whether that be digital, phone call, in person or in a branch. If a customer isn’t being forced to do something in a set way it gives them a better experience. That was in the works before COVID but what happened is that COVID accelerated it with the branches closing, so everyone who would have gone in couldn’t, which would have created high volumes into the call centres. With everyone being asked to self-isolate you can’t have many people in the call centres. They were working on that, but the traffic was unprecedented.

“With Adobe they were very able to get webforms up digitally, so customers didn’t need face-to-face interaction. The great thing is that while people get worried about putting in a new piece of technology, it was all done in six weeks.”

The financial sector often leads the legal sector when it comes to the adoption of new technology but in many ways it is curious that they are ahead when it comes to the adoption of eSignatures, where they are equally bound by the same regulations. Jolliffe whose role includes engagement with government, regulators and clients around the use of eSignatures, said: “Law firms occupy this really important role of trust and are the backstop to their clients and are rightly extremely cautious. On the other hand, we see the law firms’ clients, who are also our clients, forging ahead with their use of electronic signatures in different use cases, maybe even in the face of legal advice. Law firms have this challenge to remain as agile as their clients while never forgetting their role of trust. It’s an unenviable position to be in but the COVID position has definitely challenged that thinking.” He adds: “There is more room for maneuver than current best practice seems to allow.”

Legal sector digitisation and eSignature adoption

Within the legal sector there are a number of law firms that are integrating Adobe Sign within an automated offering. Beswicks Legal, based in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, is one of the UK’s leading sports law firms and represents a number of Premier League teams. Led by business operations manager Tim Wright, the firm integrated Adobe Sign into its practice management system Tikit P4W, automating the generation and signing of its terms of engagement. When the document is signed, it is automatically stored in LexisNexis Visualfiles.

Hantash said: “The director of operations was looking at where they could plug-in technology to create more efficiency and improve the client experience. They started off integrating Adobe Sign – this is something that I think is quite important, sometimes people just adopt Adobe eSignatures ad hoc, but there is more value if you integrate and automate them, it creates an exponential difference. Beswicks started with a use case that everyone can relate to, which is an engagement letter. They were able to create a three-party signature process and be able to do it in under 20 minutes, which is ridiculous. Even the Big Four can wait two weeks.”

Meanwhile at the largest end of the scale, Clifford Chance is using all three Adobe clouds – the creative, experience and document cloud – for client marketing, business development and document generation and analytics, including in many scenarios embracing Adobe Sign. Speaking during the webinar, Vigneron said: “As we move to be more online and more digital as a business ourselves, we’ve had to move to a more digital process and that includes for signing employment contracts or bringing in trainees; that all has to be done digitally and there has been a massive increase in usage in those scenarios. Also, we saw quite early in February an impact in particular when financial institutions and large corporates got stuck at home together with law firms, and keeping in mind that the security constraints mean we can’t take a document and print it at home – we can’t connect a printer to our machines – so all of that puts a lot of stress on the ability to complete on transactions and for law firms to help to get signings organised across different parties.”

Breaking down cultural (and regulatory) barriers to eSignatures

While eSignature technology is far from new there are still regulatory and cultural hurdles that stand in the way of adoption. Jolliffe said: “Well in advance of COVID we were engaging with The Law Commission when they were consulting on the execution of electronic documents and we’ve also had conversations with The Law Society in the UK and The Land Registry, so we talk to different parts of government and people who look after the sector to explain how electronic signatures can unlock further innovation.”

Issues remain around witnessing, although during the webinar The Land Registry posted a blog to say – hot off the press – that they will soon start accepting digital signatures, which is a major step forward.

EIDAS – which regulates the use of eSignatures in the European Union – is likely to continue to bind the UK after its exit from the EU. Jolliffe said: “The point abut EIDAS is that unless you have a common system for recognising sources of trust, you’re not going to have documents signed in the UK accepted or recognised in a court in the EU so it would be a massive own goal not to maintain adherence to that part of EIDAS, which allows for the common flow of secure documents and recognition of trust in the EU.”

The Global Legal Hackathon

This year, Vigneron and his team at Clifford Chance took part in the Global Legal Hackathon, focusing on creating a practical playbook for the use of eSignatures to help break down some of the barriers and move the dial on the use of eSignatures. Vigneron said: “We spotted an opportunity to solve a problem because it’s not something that just one party in the ecosystem can fix. What we wanted to do was partner with people who can impact the market and make it happen.” Vigneron put together a team that included Barclays Eagle Labs, the Law Society of England and Wales, Ashurst, Norton Rose Fulbright, DocuSign, Adobe and Neota Logic. “The aim of this project is to provide an overall framework with practical and actionable information on eSignatures, targeting (but not limited to) financial institutions and corporates with an international network and cross-border operations, with the aim to facilitate and accelerate business decisions and execution,” the prelude to the playbook says.

The team did a survey of over 200 people on some of the practical issues they had come across when using eSignatures and moved on to finding solutions. Vigneron said: “We created a little playbook that’s not finished or perfect and the parties are still committed to driving adoption of eSignatures.” You can take a look at the playbook here: https://challenge.globallegalhackathon.com/gallery/5ec84b11202da60044c03d72

Questions in the session

Listening to the session, Vanessa Theaker said: “Why is digital signing so scary in regard to law firms, it’s taking a while to be accepted.” Jolliffe said: “It’s cultural practice and doing something different when perhaps no-one else is, being the first to look at something takes a bit of courage and you have to bring your client on that journey to say ‘this is ok’. But huge advances have been made in the last few years around usability. There was always a trade-off between complexity and certainty. Digital signatures were more complex because it required that identification step, but there are much better ways of doing that now that make the barrier to adoption much less.”

Also listening into the webinar, Matthew Walsh said: “The requirement for a witness to be in the same room as a signatory to a deed and the current inability to verify that has prevented us from adopting digital signatures for transactions.” Jolliffe replied: “It depends on the context. Section 91 of the Land Registry Act effectively says that you don’t need witnessing in that particular context because the source of trust is from that particular kind of certificate but more broadly out of that context that is a fact of life and that’s why there is a government working group set up to look at that and Adobe will be part of that. We don’t know where it will end up: there are good rules as to why witnessing needs to take place in terms of safeguarding, it’s not just about identity and we’ll be part of that conversation and that’s what I mean about being a good partner to the sector because we will want to balance all of these consideration and make sure that technology is enabling rather than inhibiting.”

He added: “These days we’re talking about cloud signatures so you no longer have to have a USB key or lawyers smart card like you might have in Scotland. If you have your signing certificate in the cloud, all of a sudden, you’re untethered from any mobile device, but you get the certainty you need. It’s much easier to do this before and the drivers to do it are a lot stronger than before. Unless there is a good legal reason why you can’t do a witness co-present with someone then there are lots of reasons why you could use digital signatures, particularly in a cross border complex transaction, and of course, many law firms have cross border clients.”

And Danny Williams observed: “As a firm that’s heavily invested in iManage the lack of native integration prevents us from using Adobe Sign.” Hantash replied: “Most of the firms I work with use iManage and we work with a partner called Zylpha and it’s we’ve worked with them for a while and the integration is there and it works. Users don’t have to leave the iManage platform and you send the signatures straight out from it.”

A further listener asked: “Adobe uses EU datacentres for document storage, with uncertainty around Brexit are there plans for UK data centres?” Jolliffe said: “Our datacentres are EU based but we’re an agile adaptive company and if there was a threat to business continuity you can bet we would respond but our anticipation at the moment is that it would unthinkable that there wouldn’t be a data continuity agreement between the UK and the EU.”

Hantash added: “A lot of these documents can be stored locally so if you have something on premises or online instead of the Adobe document cloud then you can and it’s super easy. The integrations with Microsoft are there and it’s a matter of a couple of clicks four it to be saved into a SharePoint folder.”

Polls

In a poll conducted during the webinar we asked what the barriers to adoption of eSignatures is, and by far the biggest barrier is the perceived risks involved. Jolliffe said: “If my law firm wasn’t risk adverse, I would be a bit concerned, that’s their job. The question is how they quantify that risk, understand it, and nonetheless find a way forward. What we’re seeing is an increasing inclination to look at different eSignatures even if they are not prescribed or mandated under the common law system.”

The Adobe-Microsoft relationship/Teams

Concluding with a ‘one to watch’ – Adobe has a long-established relationship with Microsoft and Hantash says: “One thing I’m hearing is that a lot of my customer base have almost completed rolling out Microsoft Teams and we think there’s huge potential there to unlock some internal use cases. Because our product already naturally integrates, you can send a form inside the Team and have it managed without necessarily leaving the Teams platform. I’m excited about what this partnership is going to unlock and we’re trying to work out what else we can unlock in the legal space.

You can watch the webinar here: https://vimeo.com/437844340