When COVID-19 forced state legislators to relax certain requirements around legal documents, Sydney startup Lawpath was quick to act, creating new tools for remote witnessing.
But, for founder Dom Woolrych, these changes have been a long time coming, pandemic or not. And he would like to see things stay this way.
Already, many legal documents can be signed electronically, Woolrych tells SmartCompany. But there are still some documents, such as wills, deeds and powers of attorney, that require a ‘wet’ signature — that is, one made in person, with a pen.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and the social-distancing requirements that came with it, meant this was no longer a possibility.
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At the same time, a health crisis like COVID-19 tends to make people focus on these kinds of documents, and want to get them finalised and signed off.
“It was quite a big pain point. People were starting to get quite worried,” Woolrych explains. “So, essentially they changed the laws.”
In response to the pandemic restrictions some states, including New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, have approved emergency legislation, valid for six months, that allows all documents to be witnessed remotely, via video software.
Woolrych and his team had seen this change coming, and had been quietly working on a solution. On the day the new legislation came into effect, the startup released its electronic witnessing system.
The tech allows people to connect with a lawyer remotely, through a video chat. Together, they can draw up the documents. The client then signs and sends it to the lawyer for the witness signature, who returns the document with a certificate of authenticity.
The whole transaction is recorded, Woolrych explains, ensuring it’s “all above board”.
“In the big scale of things, in terms of products that we build, it wasn’t a big one,” he says. “But, it was solving a really specific pain point with some of the existing software that we already had up and running.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has arguably changed the way in which businesses interact with lawyers. Firstly, of course, face-to-face meetings have been off the table for some time, and in many states and territories, they continue to be.
Since the start of the crisis, Lawpath has seen a 400% increase in the use of its electronic signature system, Woolrych says.
The startup has also seen a significant increase in people signing up to its subscription service, offering ad-hoc access to legal tools and documents, and calls with lawyers.
A slowdown in business can cause owners to re-evaluate their expenses, Woolrych theorises. Some, he suggests, are looking for an alternative to their traditional relationship with lawyers.
“They’re either looking for cheaper alternatives, because they’re a bit worried about cash flow … or it’s just a good excuse to change the way you’ve been interacting with lawyers,” he says.
“Maybe you don’t need that lawyer in your same city anymore. That really opens up who you can work with.”
For Woolrych, the COVID-19 pandemic has given the legal sector a nudge towards modernisation. And, while the changes to the law are temporary, he’s hoping this is just the first step towards a permanent shift.
“Moving forward, a lot of things will potentially change in terms of legal services,” he predicts. “Law is pretty archaic, and there’s a lot of laws there that probably should be changed. But there was nothing there to force it to be changed.
“What [COVID-19] has done is put a firecracker up a few areas.”
Woolrych sees this as “almost a bit of a trial period”, during which traditionalists in the industry can see the benefits of online services.
And online witnessing is a good example, he suggests. The argument for wet signatures was to prevent fraud — it’s difficult to create a forgery with someone looking over your shoulder.
“Once you take it online, in terms of security, you can see them through the Zoom call, you can check their ID, you can record everything, you can check their IP address,” Woolrych notes.
“There are actually so many more protections doing it online.”
He says COVID-19 has created an opportunity to assess what works well and what doesn’t, and to use technology to improve legal processes for both clients and lawyers.
As for whether or not that’s going to happen, Woolrych is 50/50.
“I think it’s probably a bit early to tell,” he says.
The response to the startup has been “fantastic”, he explains. And for him, it’s just common sense.
“Someone wants to make a will, but they’re restricted from making it because they can’t get it signed? That seems like a crazy blocker,” he argues.
“Here’s hoping it changes.”