Against a backdrop of Covid-19, law firms have come up with a plethora of client-facing instruments, encompassing wills and probate, property and insolvency. Is this the ‘new normal’?
Are you ready for the next normal? That is the question posed by a website created last week by Leeds firm Walker Morris offering free advice to businesses on how to survive the Covid-19 crisis and thrive thereafter. The site, developed with expert advice from accountancy firm Armstrong Watson and digital agency Calls9, is just one example of client-facing innovations that law firms have produced during the pandemic.
For obvious reasons, wills and probate has seen a spurt of creativity. Bristol firm ELM Legal Services has created a ‘webcam wills service’ in which clients have a virtual meet-and-greet followed by a 90-minute webcam consultation to devise an estate plan, all of which is recorded. Once the will has been drafted it is converted into a password-protected PDF file and – when lockdown is over – issued as a hard copy.
Latimer Hinks Solicitors has gone one step further, opening a kerbside will-signing service outside its office in Darlington. Clients simply pull up in front of the firm’s office and are handed documents through the car window. Two solicitors wearing gloves then witness the execution of the will from the roadside. Solicitors elsewhere have been witnessing wills through office windows.
In the US, the private client team of international firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner is tackling the rapidly changing situation by offering an app which sets out minimum requirements needed for the execution of wills, trusts and powers of attorney. The firm says it provides users with direct access to current information – including which US states allow electronic or remote notarization.
‘Signing with the bare requirements would not be best practice in the normal world,’ said private client partner Stephanie Moll. However in the current situation ‘we may have to settle for the minimum requirement for execution, with the caveat that everyone should follow up with their estate planning attorney after things go back to “normal” to see if they should re-execute any of their documents.’
Following a timely endorsement by the Law Commission last year, remote signing of documents is increasingly becoming the norm in England and Wales. A new service for insolvency practitioners from 360 Law Group enables solicitors to hold video calls, validate identity documents, and digitally sign documents such as declarations of solvency in the same session.
We may have to settle for the minimum requirement for execution, with the caveat that everyone should follow up with their estate planning attorney to see if they should re-execute any of their documents
Stephanie Moll, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner
The sessions are recorded, and a .wav file is made available to the insolvency practitioner and their clients along with the signed and witnessed document.
Companies House confirmed last month that it will accept declarations of solvency sworn via video. Although 360 Law’s system was initially developed for insolvency, the firm says any statutory documents may be signed remotely, with the exception of a deed.
Robert Taylor, chief executive, said: ‘Our recent work will reshape the future of an industry which traditionally has been driven by face-to-face meetings.’
Meanwhile, top-100 commercial firm Lewis Silkin has unveiled LS Assist, a fixed-fee commercial law service comprising an online portal and document library, helpdesk and fixed-fee service for bespoke project work. Jo Farmer, partner and co-head of LS Assist, said: ‘No business is unaffected. With organisations of all shapes and sizes putting cost control at the heart of their operations, we as a firm know that it is critical we take steps to innovate and to adapt our business model and offerings in anticipation of evolving client demands.’
Global firm DLA Piper has created a rent concession portal to help real estate clients weather the current economic challenges. This system manages the drafting of multiple rent concession letters using contract automation technology and can be accessed remotely by landlords.
Real estate partner Katie Jacobson said: ‘The portal will help to address one of the immediate issues faced by landlords and tenants, and bring an element of desperately needed certainty to both parties in the lead up to the June quarter day and beyond, until the point where the market starts to stabilise.’
The interesting question is how many of these innovative ways of working will continue when life returns to normal – whatever the ‘new normal’ eventually looks like.