Ask LH: How Can I Get Multiple People To Sign Electronic Documents?

Dear Lifehacker, My company has work-from-home employees, directors and contractors spread throughout Australia. When we have a document that requires multiple signatures, I ask each person to sign, scan and email their own copy back to me. Common sense would suggest that the collection of each of these individually signed (but otherwise identical) documents equals one fully signed document. But what does the law say about this, if anything? And is there a better way to do this? Thanks, Signing Off

Dear Signing Off,

I am not a lawyer, and depending on the sensitivity and impact of the documents you're referring to, you might want to seek specific legal advice. One problem with your system is that while you have all the documents and could probably muster a case , none of the signatories have that option -- all they have is their own copy. If I've signed a document, I'd like to have a copy that matches the final version, and know who else is involved/committed. (That would definitely be the case if I was signing a document as a director.)

What strikes me about the system that you have is that, legal issues aside, it isn't terribly efficient, especially if everyone is printing, signing, scanning and resending. I'd suggest a different approach: sending a PDF document to one person, getting them to sign it electronically and return it to you, then passing it on to the next person. That way you'll end up with a single document with all the signatures (which you can then send to everyone involved if you wish).

This is admittedly more work for you, since you can't send a single email with attachments, but it's less work for everyone else, since no scanning is involved. It also means you have just one definitive version of the document, not multiple copies.

This doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune on software. Nitro Reader, one of our favourite PDF packages, includes a built-in Signature mode which lets you stamp a signature directly onto a PDF (as well as editing it to add the date of the signature).

If you're regularly dealing with highly complex documents, you might want to invest in a proper workflow management system, but that's overkill for smaller organisations.

Cheers Lifehacker

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    Hi Angus thanks for that. It's been years since I last investigated electronic signoffs and it was very clunky then, I'll need to take another look.

    But the most of the people I get to sign are external to the company, are one-offs, and generally not very tech-savvy. Most have access to a printer and scanner though.

    In terms of the legality - what you need is a "counterparts" section - e.g. "This deed may be executed in any number of counterparts. All counterparts taken together will be taken to constitute one deed. An executed counterpart may be delivered by facsimile or other electronic means."

    "Signing Off"


    I've not seen anyone implement electronic signatures with any success - but then again, I wouldn't say I've analysed this with a microscope either.

    I'm assuming the company you work for is big enough to have a global intranet. if this is the case, you most probably have decent Configuration Management tools that allow you to baseline. If this is the case, simply,
    1. Lock in your baseline
    2. Have each person retrieve the artefact from the baseline, then sign against that.
    This is sufficiently iron clad that you will be covered (yes, have sought the legal advice in the past).

    Another alternative, which is not as iron clad, is that you send them a copy of the document. This is harder to confirm as email systems are not configuration tools, and can be forged.

    Another alternative is to create your own hardcopy file and use references (typically referred to file/folio references), and include this reference in the email. Whilst not iron-clad, it can show that rigour was applied. Again, this can be forged.

    If you have the luxury, use the Configuration Management tools within your company.

    Adobe reader has had the option to insert a digital copy of a signature for ages.

    Printing and scanning is crazy talk.

    We have been using a service called Hello Sign for our business for the last 6 months or so and have found it to be extremely useful. It is probably the best out there if you need multiple people to electronically sign-off on a document and manage a workflow. We used Adobe Sign before but that one simple couldn't cope very well when MULTIPLE people needed to sign-off on something. Integrated fully with your Google or Google Apps account so all signed documents are also kept on Google Drive for future reference.

    Last edited 09/07/13 11:07 am

    wouldn't it be more efficient to store it in the cloud? send everyone the link and tell them to digitally sign the pdf document in their own time? that way, less transmissions and the document is stored centrally where everyone can access it later.

    Or you can use an online service where you submit your document and invite relevant parties to sign digitally via electronic signature. Once everyone signed, you send them the electronic copy.

    I'm in a similar situation to the op, all work from home.

    We use Rightsignature and find it to be efficient and reliable for signing documents.

    Guys, I use Echo Sign and I think it's fantastic... I haven't used Hello Sign though, it may be similar. With Echo Sign, the document manager sets what information and where it is required by each party (sign, date, initials, etc). Once all parties sign electronically, it automatically send a fully signed copy to all parties. It also records each party's IP address, time stamp and either verified email address or facebook account. I'm not a lawyer, but I bet all these records should be "more" enforceable than print&scan unverified emails.

    Obligatory THIS-IS-NOT-LEGAL-ADVICE disclaimer.

    Right, then: it's very common in legal documents (ever since the days of the fax, and even more in the days of email) to have clause explicitly permitting signing "by fax and electronic counterparts". Which, in plain English, means that everyone can sign and return a separate counterpart (copy) of the document and provided they are all identical then the document is legally signed by all once everyone required has signed their counterpart.

    Because it's rather messy to use 3, 4, 5, 6+ copies of a document with one signature each when you're trying to prove to a bank or a court or a business partner that such-and-such document was signed by all parties, it's also common practice to circulate the document by mail for everyone to sign in turn so that a fully signed version is created after the fact, but signing by fax/email counterparts enables you to have a legally binding contract sooner so people can start acting on it.

    [Disclosure: I work for CoSign by ARX the digital signatures company. See ]

    There are multiple issues with your current system:
    1. A signed agreement should includes the signatures of all of the agreement's signatories. Your "common sense" argument that the "collection" of the individual copies, each with one signature adds up to a signed agreement is contrary to the legal business processes that I have seen for over twenty years. I'm not a lawyer though, so seek your own legal advice.

    2. A basic issue with having people add their scanned signature to a document is that neither you nor the signer have any assurance at all that either:
    a. The document was signed by the person who you think signed it or
    b. That the document was changed either before or after it was "signed"

    Bottom line: the real issue for agreements is what recourse do you have when someone breaks the agreement. Without a solid agreement, you have many fewer options for redress.

    SOLUTION: use open, standard digital signatures to sign the documents. An open digital signature is a signature that conforms to the international standards for digital signatures. When a document is signed using open standard digital signatures, you (or anyone one else) can verify the signers' identities, their intent and confirm the document's integrity (prove that the document was not changed since it was signed).

    These proofs of signature verity can be done using many different software apps including the free PDF Reader from Adobe. My company makes easy to use digital signature software, see Other companies do too. Beware of "electronic" signature companies such as EchoSign, HelloSign, etc. They do not use the open, international standards for digital signatures.

    Look for conformance to the ETSI TS 102 778 (PAdES) standard. See

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