Digital Dictation and Transcription Primer

Managing time can be a challenge in the best of circumstances, and the changing dynamics of the profession in recent years only seems to be making matters worse.

While lawyers employ many strategies to deal with the time crunch, dictation is one of the most traditional—and for good reason. When used carefully, dictation allows lawyers to save time drafting simple documents, reduce lengthy meetings into useable transcripts, or simply to organize their thoughts as they jump from matter to matter through the course of a busy work week.

If you’re looking to get started with dictation in your practice, or just to refresh your outdated tools or processes, here are a few tips:

Making the Recording

Live dictation is rare these days, abandoned even in some courts.  If you plan to use dictation as a practice tool you’ll likely be recording your words for later transcription.  To do that, you’ll need a decent quality digital voice recorder.

There are a wide variety of suitable models on the market, but some features you’ll need to consider:

  • Recording capacity. Most digital voice recorders today have built in storage capable of holding hundreds of hours of voice recordings.  Since you’ll download those recordings to a computer and remove them from the device regularly, capacity probably won’t be an issue. Be sure to read the fine print, though: some vendors base the advertised capacity on the lowest possible recording quality. Record in higher quality and you’ll find the device holds far fewer hours. If you plan to make lengthy recordings, consider a model that supports removable storage cards so you can expand the capacity as needed.
  • Recording format. Different devices offer different recording formats, including MP3, WAV, AAC, WMA, DSS, and more.  The format is important from a playback standpoint. If you plan to use special software for transcription (discussed below) you’ll need to make sure your recorder produces the recordings in an appropriate format.  If you plan to use outside transcriptionists, talk with them about the format they prefer—they may even have a preferred device for you to use.
  • Headphone/mic jacks. If you plan to make recordings in places that are fairly noisy, like an airport, it may be worth your time to use headphones and/or an external microphone.
  • Size. This is yet another gadget to carry around, along with the smartphone, tablet, laptop, and other gear you may already carry.  Look for something that isn’t too large, doesn’t require overly bulky charging or transfer cables, and preferably one that comes with a protective case so buttons aren’t being pressed while it’s in your bag.
  • Editing/playback features. At the very least, you’ll want the ability to rewind and fast-forward through your recordings so you can listen back to your recording and re-record portions as necessary.  Some of the higher end models will allow you to organize recordings into folders, set bookmarks to easily navigate the files, and lock the device to avoid accidentally recording over something important.
  • Software. Most voice recorders come with free software for your computer. The software may be incredibly simple—just used to transfer the audio files from the device to your desktop—or it may be more elaborate, including organizational/archiving tools, editors, and transcription tools.  Be sure the software that comes with the device is compatible with your computer, particularly if you’re a Mac user.
  • Price. Prices for digital voice recorders can range from $30 to more than $500. Keep in mind that top-of-the-line models are usually geared towards producing near-studio quality recordings for purposes other than simple transcription (like podcasts, or interviews), and are therefore likely more than you need.

Some of the manufacturers of digital voice recorders include:

One other option you may consider on the recording end: smartpens.  Companies like Livescribe make pens that will simultaneously record audio and your handwritten notes (as long as you use the special paper), syncing the two for later review. While such devices aren’t appropriate for all dictation scenarios, you may find them useful if you primarily want to record meeting notes.

Transcribing the Recording

Of course, recording is only half the battle.  To truly realize the time savings, you need a strategy for taking the recording and turning it into a usable document—whether that’s a letter, a draft of a legal document, or a transcription of a meeting.

If your goal is automation, or if your budget simply doesn’t allow for a paid transcriptionist, speech recognition software like Dragon NaturallySpeaking may work. Load your recording into the software and it’ll transcribe it much as it would live speech.  While this method is fast and, software license aside, cheap, it won’t be entirely accurate. Expect to spend a fair amount of time cleaning up transcription errors and putting the document in the right format.

If you want full transcription in-house—perhaps through an administrative assistant, paralegal, or law clerk—you’ll need some software and some equipment.  The basic package:

  • Transcription software with good pause/play and rewind features.
  • A pedal to stop and start the recording.
  • Decent headphones to help the transcriptionist hear the recording accurately.

These tools are generally sold in packages or kits, since one rarely has a use for a USB footswitch outside of transcription.  Two popular packages:

If you already have a foot pedal or don’t mind purchasing one separately, other options include Express Scribe Transcription Software by NCH or Transcriva by Bartas Technologies.  Both Transcriva and Express Scribe are Mac compatible.

Finally, if you’re a true solo or your staff simply doesn’t have time to handle transcription, you can outsource transcription services to a number of companies.  You should exercise care, however, when outsourcing: you’ll almost certainly be handing the company sensitive information.  Two businesses that provide transcription services specifically to lawyers are LegalTypist and Speak-Write.