The COVID-19 pandemic changed many aspects of our personal and professional lives. Some of these changes challenged our assumptions about how business can be done, leading to long-overdue improvements. This is especially true of legal services. The COVID-19 pandemic led law firms, governments, courts, and clients to adopt new technology and try different ways of doing things, many of which turned out to be equally effective yet less costly and more efficient. This article describes the changes to legal services that Saskatchewan businesses will likely find are here to stay.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many lawyers and clients turned to technology to conduct commercial and real estate transactions. With videoconferences, virtual data rooms, and electronic signatures, it is possible to execute a letter of intent, perform due diligence, and execute all transactional documents without the need for a client to meet their lawyer in person or drop off a minute book or banker’s box of documents. In many cases, this is significantly more convenient for clients and reduces the cost and time required to close a transaction. As a result, we expect lawyers and clients to continue relying on technology to streamline transactions.
For documents that clients previously had to sign in front of a lawyer, Commissioner for Oaths, or Notary Public, such as affidavits, wills, health directives, powers of attorney, and land title transfer authorizations, the Saskatchewan government made temporary emergency regulations to allow them to be signed electronically and witnessed via videoconference. These temporary regulations were then made permanent.
As a result, in most cases, clients no longer need to travel to their lawyer’s office to sign documents in person. This not only reduces the time clients must devote to their legal matters, but also frees clients to work with lawyers based anywhere in Saskatchewan.
Virtual Director and Shareholder Meetings
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the norm that private for-profit and non-profit companies held director and shareholder meetings in person, with many stakeholders looking forward to their participation in the company’s annual general meeting. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these in-person meetings were no longer able to occur. As a result, companies looked to their bylaws and articles to determine if virtual meetings were permissible, and where this ability was restricted, directors were tasked with modifying the bylaws or articles. The Saskatchewan government has also made regulatory amendments to explicitly authorize nonprofit corporations, condominium corporations, co-operatives and new generation co-operatives to hold annual general meetings by telephone, videoconference or other electronic means subject to a company’s articles or bylaws.
The result is that directors and shareholders are no longer required to attend or send a proxy for in-person meetings to conduct a company’s business. This not only eliminates the time and expense of travel but enables directors and shareholders to conduct business remotely.
Litigation by Videoconference
Prior to COVID-19, litigation relied almost exclusively on in-person meetings. Lawyers, and often their clients, had to personally attend mediation, questioning, and hearings. During the COVID-19 pandemic, most of these events became videoconferences. In many cases, videoconferences were acceptable substitutes for in-person meetings and saved time and expense by eliminating travel.
While mediations and court hearings are now transitioning back to in-person as the default, in Saskatchewan, the opportunity to use videoconferences in appropriate cases remains. Many lawyers are continuing to use video conferencing for questioning. We expect this to continue long after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the legal services industry had earned a reputation for its reliance on tradition and massive volumes of paper. COVID-19 thrust this conservative profession into the digital age in a matter of months. It is now the norm for most lawyers and clients that a videoconference link will accompany a meeting invitation, that documents will be exchanged electronically, and that travel is optional. Due to the increased efficiency and convenience of these new ways of delivering legal services, we expect many clients and lawyers to continue these practices long after the pandemic ends.