Top three reasons law firms don’t use digital dictation technology

In my job, it’s common to ask a lot of questions. Really it is necessary. A virtual assistant is someone who needs to know as much as possible about a particular customer’s systems or practices in order to optimally configure and use the available technology to help them do it better, faster, cheaper – whatever Customer seeks to win.

I started my VA career almost eight years ago and confine my activities to providing virtual support to the legal industry. Over the years I have interviewed many attorneys, firm administrators, paralegals, human resources managers, private investigators, IT administrators, managing partners, office managers, secretaries and others about the processes at their offices. Some use document management software, some don’t. Some have websites, some don’t. Almost without exception, when asked what the lawyers use for dictation, the most common answer: a tape recorder.

That’s a good thing, because dictation is a very efficient process, even with tape. According to Dictaphone, recorded dictation was introduced in 1952 as a “time saver over handwriting and shorthand for lawyers, doctors and other professionals”. The first mini cassette recorder was launched in 1973. Do you believe him? The same little recorder still used in most businesses in the US today is the technological equivalent of listening to music on an 8-track!

In any case, if your company uses tape-based dictation, it’s already clear that recording actual company work products is a great way to get things done, and if your company doesn’t use dictation, you might want to start with digital, so read on.

Why switch to digital dictation?

While not as old as dictation itself, digital dictation has been around for quite some time. The medical profession has been using digital dictation technology (call-in and portable recorders) for over a decade. Why? By switching to a digital dictation process, hospitals, clinics, medical practices and insurance companies received:

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o the ability for doctors to work remotely with nothing more than a phone or portable recording device and an internet connection

o Centralization of document workflow for multiple users and multiple locations

o Ability to monitor work in progress and overall productivity

o Ability to track and report various metrics and criteria

o the possibility of using external typists and saving on personnel costs

In my view, any size business has as much to gain as a comparably sized doctor’s office by moving to digital dictation – so the question remains, with so much to gain, why don’t they have it!? (Read that list again above – with your company in mind.)

Why don’t companies use digital dictation?

The main reason I think is that no one has put 2%2B2 together yet. Since digital dictation technology is not “new”, it has not received much attention outside of the medical industry. More recently, however, UK and other European law firms have been in the news arguing that the move to digital dictation was easier and better than expected.

What is here in the US?

Below (in reverse order) are the three most common answers I’ve received over the years to the question, “Why hasn’t your company switched to digital dictation?”

Number 3: “Digital dictation, isn’t that speech recognition?”

No, speech recognition is not digital dictation. Speech recognition is software. It takes the human voice and turns it into text. Speech recognition software requires training for each specific user – hours of training for most applications, making implementation of this technology impractical in most corporate environments.

Digital dictation is the recording of your voice using software or devices that provide dictation features – pause, rewind, insert, etc. However, with digital recording, the recording is not saved to tape but as an audio file (e.g. .wav, .dss). Unlike speech recognition, digital dictation requires a typist and software to type out the recorded thoughts.

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BTW, one reason I firmly believe that speech recognition software can never replace a good legal secretary/transcriptionist – no matter how much you train her, she can never catch when you say “defendant” when you should say “plaintiff”. ! 😉

So while you may have heard or read about the pitfalls of speech recognition technology, digital dictation is a whole different beast.

Number 2: “If it ain’t broke…”

Yes, it’s true that tape dictation works and has worked for decades, but so does a typewriter, an abacus, even a compass. Upgrading to digital dictation is not a solution, but an improvement on a known process. It is the natural evolution of dictation – from human (sec) to recorded (tape) to digital (sound file).

When converting to digital, it should be emphasized that the recording person no longer has to be in the same place as the transcriber – or in today’s jargon: can work remotely! Depending on how the capture process is set up, as long as the corporate dictators have access to a phone or the internet, they can produce billable time.

Because the digitally created dictation file is electronic in nature, it can be manipulated much like any other computer file—stored, routed through networks, and so on. This makes the dictation file much more convenient and user-friendly even in today’s electronic environment (networks, multiple offices, document management software, record keeping).

In addition to remote working capabilities for corporate dictators, the upgrade to digital dictation provides reports and tracking for each file as it moves through the process, or any metrics that a tape-based dictation system simply cannot provide. Hold up a tape and ask a lawyer what’s on it and see what he/she says! However, if it is a digital file, you will always know when a file was created, by whom, how long it has existed, which client it is intended for, what matter it concerns and much more.

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From both an administrator’s and a dictator’s perspective, upgrading to digital dictation offers quite an improvement in the way work gets done.

and… my favorite answer of all time to…

“Why hasn’t your company switched to digital dictation?”

Number 1: “We don’t like change.”

I’m not joking! I’ve heard that exact phrase more times than I’d like to admit!

Apart from of course helping me to realize that companies can take forever to make a decision, this answer is quite a puzzle. Why is that? When switching to digital, not much changes in the process for the dictator. In fact, Olympus and other major manufacturers even have portable digital recorders in their professional line that have a slide switch. Truly a digital recorder that emulates the functions of an analogue recorder.

Therefore, when properly configured, apart from the fact that a lawyer does not have to get up from his chair to hand his secretary a tape (or leave it on her chair), dictators “do” nothing else when they upgrade to digital .

Pack everything

At some point, every business needs to weigh the pros and cons of a technology upgrade. With more and more equipment and software required to stay competitive, it’s no wonder no one is looking for another “upgrade”. However, unlike many technologies available today, digital dictation technology is not “new”. It is very stable and has been robustly tested, successfully implemented and used in environments of different sizes for over a decade.

I believe this should make upgrading to digital dictation a must for any company’s 2009 technology budget.