Ditching Paper Signatures: Are All Electronic Alternatives Equal?

More than 90% of the world’s digital data has been generated within the last two years. Everything around us is moving faster. Our on-demand, in-an-instant mindset has zero tolerance for bandwidth limitations and mobility constraints. And then, we suddenly find ourselves facing a stack of paper that should have been signed yesterday…

Paper might be dying, but the tried and true process of ‘printing to sign’ continues to linger. In fact, according to a recent ALM Media online reader survey on signature-dependent processes and the use of digital signatures, 49% of all documents are printed for the sole purpose of adding signatures. And with 47% of respondents signing documents at least four times per week, you can quickly figure out what that means in terms of wasted resources, precious time, and money. Speaking of time, the survey also revealed that processes involved with obtaining physical signatures were extended by 1.24 days on average, spelling potential disaster for time-sensitive transactions.

ALM survey_DS efficiency

Fortunately, electronic signatures are making an impact on the industry and allowing us to skip the “print-sign-scan or mail” process in favor of faster and more efficient approaches. In fact, the ALM survey indicates that 52% of surveyed corporate counsel and small, medium and large firms are either already using an electronic signature solution or plan to implement one in the next 12 months. That’s good news for the paperless office and process automation advocates. But take note: not all electronic signatures are created equal. Here’s a little story of why (and why you should care).

What’s in a name?

Though often used interchangeably, the terms “electronic signature” and “digital signature” describe two very different technologies.

Electronic signatures can be as basic as a typed name or a scanned image of a handwritten signature that is attached to an electronic document. As you can imagine, because they lack the required measures for preventing forgery and information tampering, electronic signatures can be very problematic in terms of maintaining security and integrity.

On the other hand, digital signatures, also known as standard or secure electronic signatures, provide the highest levels of security and represent openly vetted and peer-reviewed techniques that provide a higher level of confidence and reliability. By providing clear evidence that the signer’s identity is bound to the document and that the document was not altered after it was signed, the act of signing a document with a digital signature can transform any document into a legally enforceable record.

ALM Survey_DS factors

Unlike electronic signatures, digital signatures allow organizations to securely and responsibly automate signature-dependent processes.

6 Questions to Ask Now

Once you’ve decided to bring your signature-dependent processes to the 21st embracing automated signing solutions, what should you consider before making the choice between digital and electronic? Here are six topics to keep in mind:

  1. Can you natively sign the document formats (e.g., Word, Excel, PDF, etc.) that are already being used within your firm or law department, and will the native applications recognize and verify your digital/electronic signature?
  2. Does the signing solution make signing easy? A quick and intuitive signing process, which should take no more than a few seconds or 1-2 mouse clicks, will encourage broad and smooth user adoption.
  3. Does the digital signature work with existing content/workflow management systems? The right solution must seamlessly integrate with the electronic content/document management and/or workflow automation systems you’re currently using.
  4. Does it enable the firm to keep sensitive documents inside its secure IT domain? For security purposes, the digital signature solution should ensure that documents remain inside the firm’s domain and are never saved on external third-party servers. Solutions that require documents to be saved externally expose them to the risk of tampering, privacy compromises, and are subject to additional document collections and electronic discovery related rules.
  5. Does the solution give you complete control over its implementation? The digital signature solution should be able to adapt to your firm’s specific processes, technologies, user management systems and authentication requirements—not the other way around. This will enable you to easily manage your signers in the ways that best suit your internal governance policies and standard operating procedures. The solution should also readily integrate with your standard HR, IT, security and user-screening policies.
  6. Does it provide the ability to digitally sign via the web and mobile devices? Users must be able to digitally sign anytime and anywhere using any device, whether they are at the office on their PC, at home on their tablet, or in court using a mobile device. The right solution should enable everyone—including partners, clients and others—to digitally sign their documents without having to install software.

There’s a lot more to know about digital signatures, so stick around for next month’s article, where we’ll explore specific use cases in our “Digital Signatures at Work” post.

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