After undergrad, I interned at a media company in Australia and wrote three published articles. Below is the piece that appeared in the March 2008 issue of Australasian Legal Business magazine. View the pdf here.

Most firms in the US and UK have changed from analogue to digital for dictation and transcription. The same is now happening in Australia. Dixie Clough guides you through the options

Anyone who has used analogue systems knows the problems associated with tape recording. Digital dictation – the recording of your voice using a digital audio format – solves these problems and is becoming the norm in law firms around the world. Digital dictation devices are small, lightweight and highly mobile, and allow the user to record with high-quality sound to an almost unlimited capacity via memory cards.

A digital voice recorder is used in much the same way as an analogue recorder, with the added benefit of being able to insert extra information without recording over the previous dictation. Once recording is complete, the device is connected to a computer with a USB cord or a docking station and the dictated files are uploaded. Depending on the software, the file can then be named, notes added, and the dictation sent off to the appropriate person to be transcribed. Files are transmitted electronically, can be prioritised and are rarely, if ever, lost.

Portable digital dictation devices

There is not a great difference between individual digital dictation devices. All the top-selling devices have high-quality sound recording and the basic functions of a voice recorder. The most popular devices are made by Philips, Olympus and Grundig, and range in price from A$450–900.

The special features available on the devices differ and the prices increase accordingly. One difference between recorders is the type of controls on the device. Most have only buttons to start and stop recording, but there are devices that have a slider control much like that on an analogue machine. Some devices have ‘folders’ in which you can save different categories of dictation. This way, dictations are organised and easy to access. Some devices even have password protection, ensuring your dictations remain confidential.

All devices come with USB cables to connect to the computer, but some have docking stations as well. A few of the newer docks are LAN (local area network) docks that allow for transfer of the dictated files to a transcriber through a LAN without having to connect it to a computer.

Desktop digital dictation devices

Desktop digital dictation devices solve the problem of trying to dictate on a computer using only the poor-quality speaker and microphone that come with the PC. These devices are not portable. They can only be used when they are connected to a computer via the USB cable.

Most have a powerful microphone, a loudspeaker for playback and buttons that can be used to play, record, fast forward and rewind. Some also have a trackball like a mouse and programmable buttons with which the user can control other Windows applications.

The high-quality audio signal is transferred directly from the device’s microphone to the computer and is automatically stored in the computer, not the device. The device itself has no way of storing the dictation. The most popular desktop dictation devices are SpeechMike from Philips and Olympus Directrec.

Comparing Workflow Software Checklist

  • Ease of use
  • Reliability record
  • Security features
  • Storage and backup system
  • Available technical support
  • Cost of updates
  • Thin client adaptability
  • Compatible devices
  • Software architecture (two-tier vs three-tier)
  • Speech recognition integration
  • Ability to track jobs

The BlackBerry

Yes, your BlackBerry can now be used as a digital dictation device. In partnership with several software companies, the BlackBerry has become the latest development in the digital dictation industry.

Each software company offers the same basic service – a way to send, wirelessly, the files dictated on the BlackBerry to the appropriate transcriber in the office.

The BlackBerry can record around one to two hours of dictation on flash memory and 20 or more hours on an SD card – possibly longer if your software uses BigHand’s highly compressed audio file format “.bhf”. Unfortunately, unlike with a portable digital recorder, the person dictating cannot partially insert, delete, or overwrite a dictation file on the BlackBerry.

Otherwise, the main difference between using a portable dictation device and the BlackBerry is that the files you create on your BlackBerry are immediately uploaded to your office without having to connect it to a computer or dock. This allows the user to get dictated files to a secretary to be transcribed immediately without having to set foot in the office.

The new dictation capabilities of the BlackBerry are already getting rave reviews. Cheryl Roberts, a lawyer at Gilbert + Tobin, one of the firms that piloted the BigHand BlackBerry dictation software, was impressed with the time-saving benefits of “being able to dictate from anywhere and have it ready on your return to the office”.

Roberts’s legal secretary, Jacqueline Burns, also has nothing but praise for the new system. “I personally find the digital dictation voice recording a lot clearer in sound,” she says.

“Even when Cheryl sends me a dictation from somewhere with a noisy background using her BlackBerry, you could tell she was on the move, but it didn’t faze me at all.”

Digital dictation software

The type of software you use is perhaps the most important choice to make when switching to digital. The most basic software for dictation is standalone digital sound recording software in which the audio is recorded as a simple .wav or .dss file that can only be sent to another computer via an e-mail attachment with no encryption or password protection.

According to Tom Nockholds, country manager, Australia, BigHand: “There are limited file management features, no management reporting and no integration features – all key aspects for a law firm.”

Some of the more innovative arrivals in the digital dictation software industry solve all of these problems.

All advanced digital dictation and workflow software offers programs to maximise productivity, encourage mobility, protect client information and ultimately help firms save on administrative overheads. The software works by taking the digital audio file you download into your computer and channelling it through a selection of connections to the appropriate secretary.

For firms with offices around the country or even the globe, the workflow software is able to serve multiple sites. Privileges and securities can be customised on a per-site, per-department and per-user basis, and the software provider can also help set up confidential send options or “ethical walls” to help keep your files secure.

Those who use workflow software find that their secretary-to-fee-earner ratio significantly declines once the software is in full use. One of the users of Crescendo’s Digiscribe XL, Powell Spencer & Partners, did not have to hire a temp to take over when one of their secretaries left for 12 weeks. Diana Du Bruyn, practice manager, explains: “Thanks to Digiscribe XL, we managed to dispatch her work easily and were able to manage the extra workload. Not only do we not need to hire temporary secretaries anymore, but we can now direct our existing secretarial staff to more paralegal, billable activities.”

This is due in full measure to the way the system works. Workflow can be set up differently, but in each system, when a dictation is sent to be transcribed, the secretary can see the priority of a dictation and how long it is. The dictation can either be sent to a specific secretary or to a pool of secretaries who work on specific types of dictation (eg, letters, briefs, high-confidentiality dictations, etc).

Confused? If a firm is uncertain about which hardware choices may be correct for it, there are companies that can assist with evaluating the various hardware options and advise upon the suitability of each option. These companies are able to assist firms that do not have in-house resources to select the digital dictation system which is best suited for them. Digitus Information Systems is one such company. Digitus tests and simulates the user’s environment, researches options and aids decision-making as to the most appropriate equipment.

Speech recognition software

A common misconception about digital dictation is that it is speech recognition. This is not so. Digital recording may allow for speech recognition software to be used, but digital recording is not speech recognition. Speech recognition software, also known as voice recognition software, takes the spoken word and converts it into typed text without person needing to transcribe it.

“As a result of major improvements over the past few years, speech recognition technology is more and more appealing to law firms looking to automate their documentation cycle,” says Duncan Burnett, national product and technical manager of Lanier Voice.

The best way to get the most out of speech recognition software is to integrate it into a workflow management system, not simply to install it onto an individual PC. The two main speech recognition softwares available for integration into workflow software are Nuance’s Dragon NaturallySpeaking and Philips’ SpeechMagic.

Australian-based firm Turner Freeman has been integrating speech recognition into its work environment since 2002 and is very pleased with the results, announcing in 2004 that speech recognition software would be integrated into all of its offices.

Although the integration of speech recognition will reduce the secretary-to-fee-earner ratio even further than digital dictation alone, it will not remove the need for secretaries entirely. Brian Allan, vice president, global marketing, WinScribe, believes that the world of dictation is headed toward speech recognition, but he does not think that it will end the role of the secretary “as there will always be a need for someone to edit the work and check for errors”.

For now, even if a firm decides not to integrate speech recognition as it moves to digital, it is still important to research the options available for future speech recognition integration with whichever workflow management system is chosen.

Who should go digital?

Everyone. An analogue system of dictation is very quickly becoming obsolete. Those left using analogue as everyone else goes digital will be unable to remain competitive in the legal business. Digital firms will be able to complete work faster and at a lower cost than those still on analogue.

Firms that have moved to digital dictation and workflow software often report that the change was one of the easiest technology upgrades they have undergone. Lionel Bird, operations director, Ebsworth & Ebsworth Lawyers, says: “Immediately after the implementation, we started receiving positive feedback about the software. Secretaries were able to more effectively organise and prioritise their workloads … [lawyers] report improved document turnaround times.”

Firms see turnaround times improving, the mobility capabilities of the systems allowing lawyers to visit clients and dictate on the move, and, most importantly, their overhead costs decreasing. Weighing the benefits against the cost, most firms see the system “pay for itself” in less than a year.

Digital technology is the direction the legal industry is taking. In order to remain competitive it is important to look into all digital options.

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