The Covid-19 pandemic has become known as the great accelerator, speeding up change in our lives and our workplaces. Change has advanced overall by an estimated 3 to 4 years, and more like 7 years for digital acceleration.
People, businesses, and institutions adapted more easily than anyone imagined. Most of us developed new strategies to get work done. We quickly became comfortable interacting digitally. Elder law practices, often thought of as traditional and staid, had to change, too.
Digital Acceleration at F&C
At Fleming & Curti, we have experienced digital acceleration in the following areas:
- Talk. Our app-based phone system (8×8) works on desk phones, computers, and cell phones. We can make calls from anywhere as if we are at our desks. We now have built-in video conferencing and texting.
- Meetings. We mostly Zoom because that seems to be what most people know. But we also have GotoMeeting and can use other services if a client wishes.
- Remote Connections. The ability to connect to our office computers from remote locations has become mandatory, and we do it with RemoteToPC.
- Documents. We scan every paper document with our desktop scanners so, should we have to work from home (or anywhere else), we have access to the digitized documents.
- Bill pay. Clients can now pay their bills via our website.
- File sharing. We are implementing a secure file-sharing portal called FileCloud. It’s more secure than e-mail or a service like Dropbox.
- Forms. Prospective clients can fill out forms online before their initial consultation, which helps make the process efficient and paperless.
- Deeds. We now have a service that allows us to record documents with county recorders in a matter of minutes.
Acceleration, Maybe Later
There have been other digital acceleration developments that we have not jumped into. They include:
- Remote Notarization: Many employees of the firm are notaries and adding the digital option has some appeal. The process works like this: Instead of being in the same room, the signer and notary connect digitally (video and sound). A Remote Online Notarization, or “RON,” provider hosts the transaction. The RON/notary upload the document to the RON platform and verify the signer’s identity. The notary and signer communicate via the technology, the signer and notary sign electronically, and the notary affixes an electronic seal. The RON creates an electronic journal entry, records the notarization, and keeps the records for the required time. At Fleming & Curti, notaries are needed mostly for estate planning documents, which also require in-person witnesses. Notarizing without a witness is rare, so we opted not to add digital notary credentials.
- Electronic Notarization: This scenario is even rarer in an elder law practice, where wills and trusts are memorialized on paper. With this option, documents move to electronic form for signatures and storage. Otherwise, the elements of a traditional, paper notarization apply. The notary and signer must be in the same room.
- Digital Wills. Arizona law allows digital signatures on an electronic will. The process still requires two witnesses who are physically present, so the signing process is not that much more convenient than a traditional paper will. The bigger complications come post-signing. The document must be maintained electronically in the continuous custody of a “qualified custodian,” and there are lots of requirements. Because of the complexity, Fleming & Curti so far has opted not to venture into that territory. To our knowledge, no one else has either. (If you know of anyone, let us know; we’d love to talk to them about it.)
Digital Acceleration at the Courthouse
The courts, another aspect of legal practice thought to be traditional and staid, have been one of the biggest drivers of digital acceleration.
Arizona had already been rolling out digital filing of documents, with only a few (albeit the largest) counties still to go. When the world locked down, courts quickly transitioned to all-telephonic and video hearings. The result was not only more efficient (saving attorneys’ time and clients’ fees), but hearings became more accessible to people who ordinarily would be reluctant or unable to appear. And in January, Arizona became the first state to adopt a product known as the “Digital Evidence Center.” With that system, parties upload trial and hearing exhibits to a portal, where they can be easily accessed.
Changes at the courthouse are expected to be permanent. In-person hearings will be rare instead of routine. At Fleming & Curti, we are mostly back to normal, working in the office and meeting in person with colleagues, clients, beneficiaries, and others we serve.
Trend-watchers have been wondering which accelerated shifts are likely to stick around after the effects of the pandemic fade. In one survey of executives, these top trends seemed to have staying power:
- Changing customer expectations.
- More remote work and collaboration.
- Increased migration to the cloud.
- Continued customer demand for online services.
- Additional spending on data security.
No one really knows what the future will bring. But we do know that the pandemic has proved just how flexible and adaptable we can be. The “great accelerator” has given us a variety of digital tools to communicate and collaborate. It also helped us streamline processes and procedures. But we also are keenly aware that there’s no substitute for face-to-face connections. Zoom will never change that completely.