The Great Dictator

In an earlier blog, I made a remark about some firms still using cassettes for dictation, which attracted a couple of comments. Therefore I thought I’d go over the moderns options, pros and cons.

The first decision is to dictate or not to dictate in the first place. The advantage of not dictating is a possible reduction of costs in equipment and staffing, but this is set against having to deal with the production of text yourself. This ranges from typing everything yourself (where output depends on your typing speed), to document creation systems which let you simply pick from banks of styles (which reduce ability to make bespoke documents) This is not an either/or proposition, but a continuum, and the more work a document creation system does for you in general the dearer it costs, possibly outweighing the savings of have less staff.1

Even if you are using such a system, you may still want to use staff to type, or to carry out the routine work. For example if you have a paralegal, you may simply sent email messages saying “deal with this file”, but alternatively you might want to dictate a somewhat more lengthy description of what you want them to do.

If you are dictating, then there is absolutely no benefit to using analogue cassette dictation machines. Digital dictation machines (a) are similar price; (b) are operated in a similar way; (c) do not need cassettes. They also have several distinct advantages.

Firstly, you can separate your dictation into separate files. On a cassette dictation system you can put a “beep” separator between files, but the whole stream of dictation is one string that you have to run backwards and forwards. If you dictate work on a file, then another file, then remember something in the first file, on a cassette you need to dictate the amendment after the second file. Sometimes that means a typist will finish the first bit of dictation, print it off, and not know about the amendment; result either wasted paper, or an incorrect document sent through as “completed” work (where hopefully you cathc the error). With digital dictation, you just go back to the first file and insert the amendment.

Secondly, as these are electronic files, instead of physically delivering a cassette to the typist, you can email it or download it to a central computer location. A typical setup will have a computer folder for each typist on a network computer; one puts the electronic file in there, and it pops up on the typists workflow automatically. If you do want to physically hand over something, you can alway get a digital dictation machine that uses memory cards – note that these can often hold hours of dictation equivalent to dozens of cassettes.

Alternatively, if you’re out of the office just email your dictation and it can all be typed by the time you return. You can make arrangements for typists to work from home (either regularly or just for those snowy winter days when someone can’t get in), or you can use a typing service that you email dictation to and they email back the typed document.

Further as these are separate files, you can easily put them in order of priority so that your typist knows immediately what order to work on them or direct different files to different typists. Plus the typist can immediately see how long the dictation is when it arrives rather than when the work is finished. All of these allow a more efficient workflow.

Instead of a dedicated dictation machine, many modern mobile phones can be set up for this purpose. You may need to check what file format it uses, so that your typist can actually play it back on a computer, and you may want a specialised app on your phone to give you extra functionality to make dictation easier.

For playing back dictation, the bare essentials for your typist are simply the computer itself, but the basic playback software that comes with most computer systems is not really ideal. There are a number of programs specifically to deal with dictation, you may even get one with your digital dictation equipment; otherwise take a look at http://www.nch.com.au/scribe/index.html for ExpressScribe2 Add headphones and a USB footpedal and your secretary should have no problem at all with the transition.

Of course with a digital dictation machine you never get a scrunched up tape losing all the dictation; on the other hand you can, very rarely, get the digital recording corrupted. On balance with decent equipment this happens less often that a cassette wearing out, snapping or suffering any other type of mechanical failure.

If this isn’t technologically advanced enough for you, you can look into voice recognition systems, where you speak and the computer types. While systems have improved over the last decade, in my humble opinion they are still not at the stage needed for regular use in a legal office. Most of these systems have a “training mode” where you speak and the software “learns” what word you said, and this does help the previous problem of inability to understand non US accents. However they still have problems with technical (e.g. legal) language, and each user needs to invest quite a period of time teaching the software to understand them. There are a number of products to try, and as a general rule of thumb the quality of speech recognition and reduction of training time required correlates to the price i.e. better product, more money.

Here a word of warning about Siri, the voice recognition facility provided by Apple. This works by routing data through their own data processing facility, which is of course a great way of allowing a comparatively low powered device make use of a very powerful system. However, this means whatever you say to the device is routed out of the EU with implications for data protection and client confidentiality; reading through the software licence it is NOT a good idea to use this for client data at present.

This brings us to data protection generally. The flexibility that digital dictation brings also means you need to be aware of data protection issues. If you take your dictation machine about with you, the same care is required whether it is a cassette or digital. If you are emailing a dictation file (outside your own office systems) it would be advisible to password protect it; the simplest method of doing this would be a put all the dictation files into a password protected Zip file (which also reduces the size of the attachment) before sending. Any staff working outside the office should be made aware that they should delete the file after completing the work, and if you are using outside typing services check their terms of business carefully to ensure that all issues of client confidentiality and privilege are covered. It is also advisible to use an EU based service, otherwise you should advise clients that their data may be sent outwith the EU, even if the service does agree to EU data protection rules.

So go forth, spread the word!

1.The bonus of staff of course is they can do things no computer can do. Forget about answering the phones, when was the last time your laptop made you a cup of tea/coffee

2. I have no personal or financial interest in this product, it is simply the one that my own staff liked best when trying various options.

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