We are enduring historic times; an unprecedented era requiring everyone and every institution to adapt--and we are having to do so on the fly. Life as we knew it has changed; whether it returns to what it was is anybody’s guess.
The legal profession is not immune. Although we lawyers are considered to be an ‘essential service’, the way we practice most certainly required change. Currently, lawyers should not be conducting in-person meetings. Meetings are now handled through Zoom (or other video-conferencing technologies).
Meetings are one thing; executing important documents—‘executing’ means signing, dating and witnessing—is another. Formerly, a sine qua non of executing documents: the lawyer, and possibly a second person, needed to be physically present to be witnesses. Obviously, one is throwing caution to the wind during this pandemic era meeting with clients to execute documents. The law (in ‘Darwinian’ fashion) has adapted and done so very quickly.
The ‘powers-that-be’ have passed legislation allowing for the signing of important legal documents—such as wills and and powers of attorney--remotely. A testator can now sign off on his/her willl and powers of attorney by audio-visual communication technology. The witnesses, preferably the lawyer who created the will and a legal assistant, would watch via video conference as the testator signed. This process would have been unheard of before; but now it is acceptable. There are certain protocols to be followed, certain caveats of which to be aware. Your lawyer should be apprised of these protocols.
Once we have moved on from this harrowing COVID situation (and we will) documents will once again have to be executed ‘in-person’. This being said, I think audio-visual communication is here to stay in the legal profession. Many client meetings do not have to be held in person. Why would clients have to cart themselves off to the lawyer’s office, contending with traffic, parking, etc, if a Zoom meeting would suffice? For that matter, lawyers and clients can even prepare documents together through Zoom. Even when in-person meetings are again permissible, lawyers should offer their clients the option of a ‘virtual’ meeting (when appropriate to do so) as opposed to an in-person meeting…with all due respect and may it please the court.
Blake R. Lyngseth, Ottawa lawyer & mediator. Blogs primarily on issues of Ontario & Canadian family law & estate law.