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How to remove the paper trail

The speed with which a contract is signed is often the rate-determining step in a digitally enabled business process

A slick business process can often grind to a halt when people need to be sent a piece of paper to sign. This is a problem that law firm Freshfields wants to tackle. 

Freshfields has deployed DocuSign to enable it to streamline contract signings for clients that are going through mergers and acquisitions (M&A).

DocuSign fits in with the law firm’s ambitions to to use technology to digitise manual processes. Adam Ryan, its chief legal innovation officer, said: “We want to take the best of legal technology and integrate it into workflow processes, then open up tools directly with clients.”

Freshfields is using DocuSign to provide a so-called system of agreement business processes. “We are trying to make it as frictionless as possible to deal with Freshfields,” said Ryan. “We are interested in integrating with client workflow and we want to ensure that the way we work integrates with the services our clients are using.”

DocuSign sees its role as an electronic system of agreement, helping organisations such as Freshfields to digitise the crucial step in their business process where a signature is required for a contract. The idea is that a digital signature can be associated with a digital document, such as a PDF, which can be sent electronically to the recipient.

Once signed, the document is then returned electronically, via DouSign’s signature handling technology. Contract approval can then trigger off a series of automated steps.

Hundreds of documents

M&A transactions represent a major part of Freshfields’ business. M&A lawyer Ryan Taylor, an associate at the firm, said contract signing represents the most visible part of the process. “We have to prepare a huge amount of documentation, which is then sent to the client via email,” he said. “They then make final changes.”

Once the documentation is returned, Freshfieds prepares the documents for signing. This has traditionally been quite an intense process, said Taylor. “There may be 100 documents to sign. All have to be laid out and signed in order. Each signature has to be checked and double-checked by the Freshfield team, and then scanned.”

 DocuSign has completely transformed this process, said Taylor. “The documents  go out to the client, wherever they are. The document is fully searchable and we can see if it has been read and signed.”

In this way, documents can be signed much more quickly, said Taylor. “Hundreds of documents can be signed in a fraction of the time that it would take if done by hand.”

Cloud integration

As is the case with Freshfields’ M&A signing process, DocuSign sees a huge opportunity for taking a process that has existed for thousands of years – putting down a mark or signature to accept a contract – and making it fit for a digitally enabled workflow, where contract agreements can flow between various business systems.

The company has now expanded the signing process into the cloud. In March, it introduced the DocuSign Agreement Cloud, a suite providing integration with 350 popular applications.

Discussing the new cloud offering, Ron Hirson, chief product officer at DocuSign, said the company aimed to help companies modernise their systems of agreement by offering integration with leading packages from the likes of Salesforce, Microsoft, Google, SAP and Workday.

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“We see a clear sense of direction in digital transformation – preparing, signing, acting on and managing agreements,” said Hirson.

The idea is that DocuSign’s system of agreement in the cloud will be able to share data with other enterprise cloud applications, enabling organisations to link contracts with transactional and customer relationship management (CRM) systems.

For the future, Hirson said DocuSign is also exploring how blockchain and machine learning can be applied to systems of agreement to provide intelligence within the document signing process.

For example, said Hirson, when a company signs a subscription contract, metadata can be embedded in the contract documents and used to trigger an alert prior to auto-renewal of the subscription.

Digital forgery

Although digital signatures such as the services provided via DocuSign can be used to replace paper documents with PDF files, and thus streamline digital processes, researchers from Ruhr-University Bochum in German have identified a flaw in signed PDF documents.

The researchers have demonstrated that they could replace content in a signed PDF document, which means the signature could be associated with an entirely different contract. They found that online signature validation services are affected by this type of attack.

DocuSign said the issues with the DocuSign document validator was patched prior to the research paper being distributed.  The company is also using biometric identity for authentication as part of its Identify suite. It said this supports ID verification, SMS authentication, phone authentication, email authentication and knowledge based authentication.

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