The pandemic has changed so much about how everyone is doing things, from wearing masks in public to homeschooling as the norm. That applies to the legal field as well. Here in Jefferson County, judges are holding hearings using webinar software, all jury trials have been vacated, and legal paperwork that can’t be filed online has to be delivered to a dropbox. I read recently that https://kdvr.com/news/coronavirus/tennessee-judge-turns-parking-lot-into-courtroom/.
Our law firm is no exception. We have changed a number of procedures for the safety of our clients and our team.
Pre-pandemic, I resisted efforts to have conferences by phone or web conference. I felt I could get to know my clients and prospective clients better with in-person meetings. I think that’s still true, but now we offer telephone conferences and web conferences for any meeting where a witness or notary is not needed. It’s not as bad as I feared, and I am getting better, but I still miss the chance to connect personally with clients.
Many of the documents we prepare still need to be signed. Where we can, we have replaced wet ink signatures with electronic signatures. But almost all estate planning documents still need witnesses, a notary, or both. Colorado’s governor has issued an executive order allowing for remote notarization, but it’s clunky and still requires that everyone have access to web conferencing tools and a scanner or fax machine to electronically transmit the document back to the notary the same day it is signed. Remote witnessing is also possible in very limited circumstances, but any will that is witnessed remotely will have to go through a formal probate process when the decedent dies.
Remote notarization has some unique problems. For example, I have a client whose medical condition has removed his ability to speak. Yet, the remote notarization order requires him to make certain “declarations” in a web conference. Can I notarize the document if I watch him write a statement to that effect and then he holds it up to the camera?
So far, I have managed to avoid remote notarization by using “socially distanced witnessing and notarizing” (my newly-minted phrase). I have taken documents to a client’s home, dropped them at her door, and then stood at the end of the driveway while I watch her sign it. Then she leaves the documents at the door along with her ID, I take the document, look at the ID, and then notarize. Other times we have had someone sign a document on our office patio, with witnesses looking on from the other side of two patio doors. Clunky? Definitely. But we are getting pretty good at it.
Before the virus took over so much of our lives, I was insistent that our conference room table be small. I wanted our client meetings to approximate the intimacy of a talk around the kitchen table. But now the small table is gone, replaced by two larger tables. Clients who are comfortable coming into the office sit at least six feet away from me. Where I could once just reach over and point something out to them in their documents, I now project the documents on our electronic whiteboard and they follow along that way.
Once a client’s documents are complete, we still scan them for our records and put them into a 3-ring binder for the client. We then let that binder sit for a few days before the client comes to get it or we mail it, reducing the chances that transmission can occur through touching the binder.
All of this has taken some of the fun out of practicing law, but I appreciate the chance to continue to help clients with some of the most important planning they will do.