In today's era of YouTube and MySpace, legal contracts are still routinely processed the way they were hundreds of years ago: on paper. Even when written and edited electronically, final contracts usually are printed out for signatures. Timber!
Tractis, a service based in Europe that launched in October, wants to drag contract drafting and management into the digital age. Lawyers and potential clients can meet at Tractis's website (www.tractis.com) to create, sign, and manage contracts entirely online. The site offers a one-page view of each contract negotiation's entire history, along with comments from the various parties. Users can share standard contract templates with each other, invite others to edit or alter working drafts, or lock others out. Digital signatures-which are legally enforceable in many jurisdictions, including those in North and South America and the European Union-can be affixed to any online
contract. There's no charge to create, edit, manage, and share contracts at the website-the only fee is 1 for each electronic signature.
So is Tractis a friend or foe of contract lawyers? Probably a bit of both. As an online community, Tractis can be a good place to drum up business, says cofounder David Blanco. For example, attorneys can post a standard contract, along with information about how potential clients may contact them for further consulting. "When users ask questions about a certain contract, it's the perfect opportunity for a lawyer to step in," Blanco says. At the same time, Tractis may steal business from bottom-feeding lawyers who provide clients with boilerplate contracts-but with little, if any, legal expertise.
Already the new company has competition: Within a month of Tractis's debut, Docstoc (www.docstoc.com) launched a beta version of a similar service.
Still, trying to update the tradition-bound world of contracts will likely be a hard slog for any service. After all, making something technically and legally possible may not be enough to eliminate entrenched attitudes and reluctance about new ways of working. As Curtis E. Smolar, managing attorney at Bay Capital Legal in San Francisco, asks, "What do you do when you have multiple versions of [an online] contract-as you often do-and you don't have a signed paper copy?"