Friday, October 8, 2021

Authentication, E-Signatures. and Signet Rings

 A recent article noted the wider adoption of e-signatures by lawyers (you know, our court users). But what is the historic basis for this?  Signet rings. We discuss this below...



A favorite legal technology correspondent of ours, Ms.Victoria Hudgins posted an article “E-Signature Is Here to Stay in M&A. Now More Regulators Need to Allow It” on September 20, 2021, on (paywall after three free articles per month) that said:

The article noted: “I think clients’ trust in e-signature is growing, and so I would predict to see more e-signature in the future and that the days of handwritten signatures are probably limited,” said Manatt, Phelps & Phillips corporate and finance partner Scott Schwartz...

Further: “One of the things the profession has struggled with is that for decades—bordering on centuries—we’ve used written signatures for many documents, in some cases not really knowing why we were using handwritten signatures for the documents,” Whitaker said. “It became a sort of universal process to indicate agreement even if there wasn’t a requirement by law. The profession has had some challenges, I think, in becoming familiar with the rules of electronic signatures and records, which are a little different.”

I think this last point is important because we have many court processes that are clinging to “wet/handwritten signatures” and even physical stamps and paper embossing as their required authentication technology.

Authentication being a prime function of courts, it is useful to understand the history. This last paragraph prompted me to look at the history and use of signet rings (the e-signature of the past) to authenticate correspondence and contracts.

Interestingly, the Gentleman’s Gazette website has a detailed primer on the signet ring and signatures (the entire web page is enlightening BTW).  They write:

"Historically, signet rings played a significant role in business and politics. Used as a seal, a gentleman would use his ring featuring his unique family crest, emblem or monogram to stamp important documents. By dipping the ring into hot wax or soft clay, the ring left a distinct seal that was considered, at the time, to be more official than that of a signature.”

 "Despite legal documents being around, the art of handwriting was not and that’s one reason why the signet ring was so vital and important to members of society who would be responsible for signing such documents. Since the ring was so powerful, it was sometimes destroyed when the man died and often a ceremony or ritual was performed."

E-signatures are our 21st-century signet ring. It is time to fully embrace them in our courts.

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