Foreward by Andrew Chilvers
For the legal sector, COVID-19 has been a huge catalyst for change globally. Overnight, almost all legal advisors decamped en masse from their expensive mid-town and city offices to their homes to work. Personal meetings suddenly disappeared to be replaced by virtual meetings on Zoom or Microsoft Teams.
As the UK went into Lockdown only 2% of lawyers admitted they worked from home, according to a recent survey by RollOnFriday. com. Those attitudes have now changed radically as countries and territories around the world have gone into Lockdown and the vast majority of people have become home workers. Now almost 75% of legal advisors admit they would happily work from home three days a week and – amazingly – only 7% said they wanted to return to the office full time.
Above all, working remotely may have broken the longstanding links between office and work. Some 44% of respondents said in the long term they only wanted to return to the office for two days a week at the most. Many lawyers also believe working from home is good for their work /life balance. Elsewhere, many have said working remotely significantly improves efficiency, with less commuting time and disturbances around the office. In this virtual series legal members of IR Global gave a fascinating insight into this new world of working and how each jurisdiction has been handling their operations during Lockdown and the post-COVID-19 period.
What steps are you taking to adapt your services to the new remote working environment?
In technical terms we didn’t have to follow many steps to react to the global pandemic situation. We’ve been using a special legal software for many years, which deals with electronic files. If you’re not in the office then each team member is able to connect with our server via a VPN-tunnel and thus have access to the electronic files. This way, you can easily work on team issues. As a result, working remotely and virtually has not been a real problem for us regarding workflow issues.
Virtual commissioning – are we there yet?
Since 2018 German lawyers can use the so called special electronic lawyer mailbox. This is a program, to be used by lawyers in their communication, designed to ensure secure file transfer between lawyers and between lawyers and courts. Every lawyer is obliged to maintain such a mailbox. There is no obligation for active use at the moment but you must check the inbox.
For the signing of correspondence with other law firms and with the courts being transferred via the special electronic lawyer mailbox we use electronic special signatures. In this case the issuer must provide the electronic document with a qualified electronic signature in accordance with the German electronic signature act. What does it mean? A qualified electronic signature is a seal that is affixed to digital data. The seal is generated by a private signature key, which is combined with a public key provided with a signature key certificate of certification authority.
This is the wording of the legislator. What you need, in other words, is a token that means a chip combined with a PIN code or a software token in connection with a PIN code and by this you can electronically sign a document file into the court. For lawyers, this means qualified electronic signatures are issued and certificated by the German bar.
What is happening regarding online dispute resolution in your jurisdiction?
Our code of civil procedure says that a hearing for all the arguments can be done by using images and sound transmissions, ie via video conference. I, myself, do a lot of litigation, but have never attended such a hearing, although several have taken place in the last few months in connection with COVID-19.
The practice for the most part in the first month of the pandemic was that in urgent matters the hearing took place at court in compliance with the rules of social distancing. You had to wear masks, plexiglass partitions were to be on the tables and the number of visitors was restricted. But the hearings took place. In other cases, being not urgent, the courts have been postponed until August or Autumn.
Most courts now have started normal proceedings, always in compliance with the said rules of social distancing.
Many lawyers file their cases by electronic means to the court, but the hearings take place in a normal way, if you can call it normal wearing a face mask.
Regarding the rise of technology, how much do you understand about blockchain for your clients?
At present, the German code of civil procedure does not mention blockchain as a means of evidence, but maybe this might change in future. The federal government published in September 2020 a paper on the use of blockchain technology, and they want to push it. The paper deals with topics such as IT security, smart contracts and applications, and in this context using blockchain technology for the verification of contracting parties and the enforcement of smart contracts. But there’s also an interesting aspect for litigators, as the federal government is considering recognising blockchain technology in the factoring of judicial evidence.
Maybe the German procedural codes might be supplemented by the legislator in this aspect. But this is in the very early stages and we have to wait and see whether it comes in effect.