Q&A: Debbie Warnes on the beginnings and future of legal document automation

For law firms investing in technology to drive innovation and efficiency, document automation is an easy win and, given today’s digitally driven legal landscape, it’s absolutely essential. Manual processes, including document assembly, can cause your firm to lose up to 2.3 billable hours a week, or up to $2760 in lost revenue per month.

For more than 20 years, Softdocs has helped busy practitioners build a reliable and up-to-date set of forms and precedents that help save valuable time. Today, Softdocs has more than 6000 standard legal forms and precedents, and it allows firms to incorporate the benefits of document assembly into their own precedents.

We chatted to Debbie Warnes, creator of Softdocs, Thomson Reuters’ document automation software, on the importance and development of legal document automation in Australia. We also discovered what inspired Debbie’s invention, and heard her views on the future of document automation in the Australian legal industry.



How important is document automation for law firms today?

I believe that it is very important. The main advantage of document automation is improved accuracy and efficiency. Law firms often produce very complex documents with lots of optional paragraphs, referenced text and addendums. Automation reduces human error and time spent laboriously formatting these documents, so lawyers can focus on other tasks, such as client servicing.


How did the legal industry tackle document automation before Softdocs, and how did you become its creator?

Going back to the 1980s, most law firms had dedicated word-processing systems, which were really just advanced versions of electronic typewriters. There was no real automation.

When the first PCs came into market, we saw WordPerfect being used in the Australian legal industry, and it was the dominant legal word-processing system for much of the 1990s and even into the 2000s. It had a function for data merging – which allowed users to create a data file and merge it into an existing document. That function marked the beginning of document automation.

The concept of the product now known as Softdocs started back in 1983–84. The idea of document automation was quite new at the time, so we experimented to try and find the best way to automate sets of precedents.

I then started my own business, Midware Systems, with two others, and that was where we first developed document automation software.


How did you go down this rather niche career path?

I started my career as a junior in a law firm and they implemented a new accounting system. I was immediately intrigued by how the platform automated accounts to make everyone’s lives easier.

I then went to work for Daro Business Machines, which imported computers  from Germany. That’s where I had my first programming experience and started figuring out how to create software that solved people’s problems.

Part of my role at Daro was to design applications that worked on their machines. These applications were customised for and helped commercial businesses to handle their inventory and billing. That was my first taste of designing applications.

By the time PCs were introduced, I was teaching law firms how to automate their documents using WordPerfect. It became obvious then that those firms needed to be able to take a package of pre-prepared court forms or correspondence, and start using them without having to reinvent the wheel. So, I embarked on creating such a solution, and the rest, as they say, is history.


What features and benefits make Softdocs so unique?

Many forms and precedents software are automated to a degree, but then other parts of the document may have to be completed manually.

Softdocs is made specifically for law firms and is highly automated. You simply choose what sort of document you want to create, answer a few questions about what you want included in it (which is then stored for future use), and the system creates your legal document within minutes.

The platform also automatically inserts client-specific information into the documents you want to draft, and is intuitive enough to help less experienced staff members get the job done. Our team of legal consultants offer customers ongoing training and support, so you don’t have to worry about being stuck with a problem you don’t know how to fix post-purchase.

Besides the automation function, Softdocs is all about current, relevant information. The templates and forms are constantly being updated, and our customers are kept abreast of revisions to any court form or legislative change.

In addition to the existing software, a new development in 2016 was making Softdocs an integrated function of  Westlaw AU, our leading online legal content and research software solution. For firms that use Westlaw AU, it makes sense to have a document automation software accompany the breadth of information they need to research and put together on a daily basis.


Where do you see the future of document automation in the legal industry going?

Looking forward, everything will be about producing something and dispatching it electronically. People will log on to portals for everything they do. The paper document will be a very rare thing, but lawyers still need to communicate with courts and clients. There will be documentation and there will still be the need for automation, but the way it’s delivered will be slightly different.

I think day-to-day document production will largely be in the cloud, so lawyers will be able to produce and access their documents anywhere at any time. The legal profession might very well be fully mobile in time to come because of this.

 

About Debbie Warnes

Debbie started her career as a junior clerk in the accounts department at Bartier Perry Solicitors, and worked for various IT companies before co-founding a company focused on IT services for the legal profession. She went out on her own with Softdocs in 2004, which was later acquired by Thomson Reuters, and has held various positions in the company ever since.