Friday, October 07, 2005

The Top Three Reasons Law Firms Aren’t Using Digital Dictation Technology

In my profession, it is common to ask a lot of questions. Truly, it’s necessary. A Virtual Assistant is someone who has to know as much as possible about a particular client’s systems or way of doing things in order to best configure and make use of available technology to help them do it better, faster, for less cost – whatever the client is looking to gain.

I started my VA career almost five years ago and limit my practice to virtual assistance to the legal industry. I do so as I have over 15 year’s brick and mortar experience in the legal “business”. Over the past five years, I have asked many attorneys, law firm administrators, paralegals, HR managers, private investigators, IT administrators, managing partners, office managers, secretaries and others about the processes used at their firms. Some use document management software, some don’t. Some have websites, some don’t. Almost without fail, when asked what the attorneys use for dictation, the most common response: a tape recorder.

That’s good! Dictating is a very efficient process, even with a tape. According to Dictaphone, in 1952 recorded dictation was established as "a time saver over handwriting and stenography among attorneys, physicians and other professionals". The first mini-cassette recorder was marketed in 1973. Do you believe it? That same little recorder still in use at most firms in the US today is the technological equivalent of listening to music on an 8 track!

In any event, if your firm uses tape based dictation, then upgrading to digital should be a serious consideration. If your firm does not use dictation, perhaps you should start with digital so keep reading….

Why Upgrade To Digital Dictation?

Although 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? Upgrading to a digital dictation process provided hospitals, clinics, doctor’s offices and insurance companies with:

  • the ability for doctors to work remotely with nothing more than a phone or portable recorder and internet connection
  • centralization of document workflow for multiple user, multiple site operations
  • the ability to monitor work in progress and overall productivity
  • the ability to track and report various metrics and criteria
  • the ability to utilize remote transcriptionists and save on personnel costs

The way I see it, any size firm has as much to gain as a comparably sized medical practice by upgrading to a digital dictation process - so the question remains, with so much to gain, Why haven't they!? (Read that list above again – with your firm in mind.)

Why Aren’t Firms Using Digital Dictation?

The main reason, I believe, is no one has put 2+2 together yet. Since digital dictation technology isn’t “new”, not much attention has been paid to it outside the medical industry. Just recently, however, British and other European law firms have been in the news discussing how upgrading to digital dictation has provided benefits and improvements. Some recent headlines include: DWF switch to BigHand System for Firm Wide Digital Dictation ... and Intelligent Workflow Advantages Prompt Roll Out of WinScribe ...

What About Here in the US? Listed below (in reverse order) are the top three responses I have received over the years to the question:

"Why hasn’t your firm upgraded 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 converts it to text. Speech recognition software requires training to each specific user - hours of training for most applications, making the implementation of this technology not practical in most firm settings.

Digital dictation is the recording of your voice with software or equipment that provides dictation functions - stop, rewind, insert and so forth. With digital, however, the recording does not go onto a tape, it gets saved as an audio file (i.e., .wav, .dss). Unlike speech recognition, digital dictation requires a transcriptionist and software to type the recorded thoughts.

By the way, one reason why I firmly believe speech recognition software can never replace a good legal secretary/transcriptionist - no matter how much you train it, it can never catch when you say "defendant' and you should be saying "plaintiff"! ;)

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

Number 2: "If it ain't broke..."

Yes, it is true that tape dictation works and has worked for decades, but so does a typewriter, an abacus, even a compass for that matter! Upgrading to digital dictation is not a fix, it is an improvement to a known process. It is the natural evolution of dictation - from human being (secy), to recorded (tape), to digital (sound file).

When upgrading to digital, what should be highlighted is that those making the recording no longer need to be in the same physical location as the person doing the transcribing - or in today's lingo: can work remotely! Since the dictation file created with digital is electronic in nature, it can be manipulated much the same as any other computer file -- stored, routed through networks, attached to e-mails and so on. This makes the dictation file itself much more convenient and user friendly in today's electronic environment (networks, multiple offices, document management software, retention requirements). Therefore, depending on how the capture process is set up, so long as firm’s dictators have access to a telephone or the internet, they can produce billable time from wherever they are. :)

Along with remote work opportunities for firm dictators, upgrading to digital dictation provides reporting and tracking on each file as it travels through the process or all of the metrics that a tape based dictation system simply cannot provide. Hold up a tape and ask an attorney what’s on it and see what s/he says! If it were a digital file, however, you always know the date and time a file was created, by whom, how, how long it is, what client it is for, what matter it pertains, and more.

So, from an administrator’s as well as dictator’s perspective, upgrading to digital dictation provides quite an improvement in how they do their jobs.

and….my all time favorite response to…..

"Why hasn’t your firm upgraded to digital dictation?"

Number 1: "We don't like change."

I have heard this exact phrase more times than I care to admit!

Other than, of course, this response helping me to realize that firms can take forever to reach a decision, it presents quite a conundrum. Why? When upgrading to digital, not much actually changes in the process for the dictator. In fact, just recently Olympus added a portable digital recorder to its professional line that has a slide switch, for the first time producing a digital recorder which truly mimics an analog recorder. Therefore, when properly configured, other than the fact that an attorney does not have to get up from his chair to hand a tape to his secretary (or leave on her chair), when upgrading to digital, dictators do not “do” anything different! That is why implementation of digital dictation is a relatively trouble free and "easy" technologically-speaking, even for large firms.

Wrapping It All Up

At some point, every firm has to weigh the pros and cons of any technology upgrade. With more and more equipment and software necessary to stay competitive, IT budgets are already strained; and with so many firms quick to jump on the recent legal technology wave only to be disappointed, it is no wonder no one is looking for another upgrade.

Unlike so much of the technology available to firms today, however, digital dictation technology is not “new”. It is very stable and has been robustly tested, successfully implemented and utilized in various sized environments for over a decade, providing improvements to workers, administrators and managers. There simply is no reason why law firms should not beneift from this technology. This is why, IMHO, every firm should make an upgrade to digital dictation a must for their 2006 technology plan.

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