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Trend tracker: Digital dictation

When the idea of implementing a digital-dictation system was raised at Barrett & Thompson, Slough’s oldest established firm of high-street solicitors, not everyone at the firm backed the plan.

3 July 2006

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The demands of dictation

If there is one technology area that has pricked the ears of lawyers in recent years, it is digital dictation. And advances in the field look likely to continue to impress. By Jessica Twentyman

When the idea of implementing a digital-dictation system was raised at Barrett & Thompson, Slough’s oldest established firm of high-street solicitors, not everyone at the firm backed the plan.

“I was very sceptical. I could not immediately see the advantages we would get from our investment,” admits Sunny Matharoo, managing executive and head of the matrimonial department.

But the firm knew it had a problem that it needed to solve somehow. It was using an analogue tape system, with secretaries working from audio tapes. Due to their heavy workload, these secretaries were always struggling with a document backlog, sometimes of up to two weeks. “It was not unusual for secretaries to finish work at the end of a week, knowing that they had to come back to seven old tapes before they started on the current week’s typing, which was quite demoralising,” says Matharoo.

Not only that, but it was impossible for them to know what was on a particular tape and which dictations were urgent.

A digital-dictation system, it was felt, would speed up the whole process, with the added benefit that secretaries would be able to see jobs listed on-screen, identify how much work they had to do and prioritise tasks accordingly.

So two years ago, the firm went ahead with the implementation of a digital-dictation system from supplier Speech Processing Solutions (SPS), part of the OyezStraker Group.

The results were impressive. “Suddenly we had caught up with the entire typing backlog and I wondered if we weren’t generating as much work, but statistics proved quite the contrary,” says Matharoo. “There are two reasons why the secretaries can get the work done more quickly. The first, I believe, is a psychological one: if it is getting close to lunch break or going-home time, then the chances are they wouldn’t start on a new audio tape, whereas now they can look at the screen and pick up the shorter jobs,” he says.

“Second, I manage the system and this is very important to achieve maximum efficiency. I know that on average in all departments, except for conveyancing, where packs often have to be assembled, one minute of dictation equates to approximately five minutes of transcription. As I can see the workload for each secretary, I move the work around to make sure that nobody has too much or too little.”

Like Barrett & Thomson, modern law firms make notoriously challenging demands of their personnel. To meet clients’ ever-higher expectations in terms of speed of response, many are looking to technology to make both fee earners and their secretaries more efficient and productive.

“A key factor in law firms becoming more competitive and responsive to their clients’ needs lies in them overhauling how they administer their businesses. By and large the weaknesses lie not in the product – the legal advice they offer – but in how quickly and efficiently they get this out to customers,” says Rob Lancashire, sales and marketing director of digital-dictation specialist nFlow.

Given these demands, it is hardly surprising that in recent years, digital dictation has been one of the UK’s fastest growing areas of legal technology. Firms that have implemented it report a number of valuable benefits: digital dictation, they say, has enabled employees to organise their time more effectively and to work in more flexible and productive ways.

One of the major advantages that digital dictation has over many other new technologies that law-firm employees are increasingly asked to use is that the process of giving a dictation – speaking into a small handheld device – has not changed. Lawyers are still able to record a dictation in much the same way as they did using older, analogue (tape-based) technologies.

Meanwhile, the most complex technology involved in digital dictation is installed on a back-end server in the domain of IT specialists and hidden away from business users. But that technology reaps the greatest rewards in terms of business efficiency for the firms that installs it.

At its core, server-based digital-dictation workflow software handles the intelligent management of dictation files. It receives voice files, which are sent electronically by fee earners across local area networks (LANs), wide area networks (WANs) or the internet, identifies a user and automatically sends their dictation to the most appropriate secretary, secretarial workgroup or outsourced transcription service for completion.

That tends to have a dramatic effect on document turnaround time. “The system is even better than we had hoped,” says Allan Green, IT director at Ricksons, which recently implemented a Winscribe digital-dictation system from SRC. “For example, in our personal-injury department, we hoped to shave off maybe one day of turnaround time – in fact, we have more than halved it.”

Once installed, server-based digital-dictation software can easily scale up to many hundreds of users, but at the same time, many systems are equally suited to smaller practices where a handful of fee earners rely on external typing agencies.

Only a year since its initial deployment, Ricksons has provided a further 63 digital devices for fee earners and 30 more secretary licences, which in itself demonstrates the rapid growth and improved fee-earner-to-secretary ratio.

In both large and small law firms, the hardware is more reliable than analogue technology and files can be exchanged over computer networks and the internet, rather than relying on employees to physically pass around tapes and typed-up transcriptions – and many of the other benefits accorded to digital dictation are just as applicable to smaller firms as their larger competitors.

Benefits assessment
A key attraction of digital dictation is that it enables companies to make substantial improvements in the ratio of secretaries to fee earners. That is largely because, instead of each fee earner sending dictations to their own PA or secretary who typically works exclusively for them, it can be forwarded over the system to a firm-wide ‘virtual typing pool’. In turn, that enables the firm to better allocate its administrative staff and rationalise that workforce where appropriate – so temporary staff are required less frequently.

That was certainly the case at Bennett and Thomson, says Matharoo. “One of the biggest benefits has been in the reduction of temporary staff. The firm has always employed temporary secretarial staff to cover holidays and sickness, but within two weeks, we had no further need for them. As well as saving us a massive overhead, we prefer to use our own staff, who are fully trained and understand our business.”

At the same time, law firms report, new fee earners can be appointed without a corresponding rise in administrative staff and, in the best case scenarios, the working lives of secretaries and support staff become less stressful.

“Digital dictation has allowed us to change our working culture for the better,” says Rob Whatley, partner at Newmarket-based equine law firm, Whatley Lane. “For one thing, our internal support staff are no longer hemmed in by tapes, nor are they under pressure to turn transcriptions around. Moreover, we have been able to use the solution as a means of reconfiguring our support structure away from the expensive ‘one-fee-earner-to-one-secretary’ model.”

Another key benefit: mobility. Because dictation files are held on a central server, they can be submitted and accessed just as easily from a remote location as they can from a desktop PC located at the company’s premises. That is useful where fee earners and their support staff are working while travelling, from a client’s premises or from their own homes.

Take, for example, Plymouth-based Nash & Co Solicitors: the firm implemented a digital-dictation system Digiplex-XL from supplier Crescendo. “One of the huge drives behind digital dictation and our selection of [this system] was the ability to dictate from any handheld digital recorder, telephone, mobile, PC or PDA in real-time. Our laptop users can also dictate wirelessly using a VPN [virtual private network] connection,” says Simon Whitaker, IT manager at Nash & Co.

Says Guy Walker, a senior partner at Nash & Co: “This new mobility feature makes an invaluable difference to our business by accelerating the turnaround time of our reports in a way we never thought possible. Not to mention the benefits from a daily practice perspective. I too have been dictating from home in real-time, which saves me time and makes my life easier.”

Evolving technology
Digital-dictation technology is evolving rapidly, enabling dictation files to be captured, managed and stored electronically with growing sophistication. Suppliers are widening their support for different computing environments, opening up their products to handheld devices such as mobile phones and PDAs [personal digital assistants], and incorporating more sophisticated workflow technologies that can automatically sort dictation tasks for transcription according to priority.

Another area of interest is the integration of digital-dictation systems with voice-recognition technology.

By linking the two systems, fee earners are able to create digital dictation from any PC, without having to proofread, correct, format or print documents – the digital-dictation system will automatically send the dictation to the voice-recognition system, which will transcribe it (typically into a Microsoft Word document) and route it to administrative staff, who can then edit or correct the pre-transcribed texts.

As a result of these advances, it may not be too long before digital dictation is a technology that lawyers insist on using – and in an industry where the turnover of talented professionals can be highly detrimental to a firm’s reputation and skills portfolio, that call must be heeded.

[Box] Case study: Baker & McKenzie
For many law firms, digital dictation will act as a catalyst for outsourcing transcription services. A dictation file that is captured digitally can be sent anywhere in the organisation and beyond – to third-party transcription services in the UK or even in areas of the world where skilled workers are available at far lower cost.

For example, Baker & McKenzie is using a WinScribe system implemented by specialist SRC to automate the flow of documents from its London office to its Manila-based document processing centre (DPC). The document support center provides transcription services to lawyers using digital-dictation technology and also provides desktop publishing and data-processing services to attorneys and staff around the world regardless of time zones.

The software has been installed on servers in the UK and Singapore, says the company’s head of IT, Duncan Eadie, and the company is about to start rolling it out to 350 fee earners and 160 secretaries in London.

It is a tribute to the system’s ease of use, says Eadie, that the process should be a relatively straightforward one. “Early signs are that, because the system is very intuitive, each of our fee earners will only require around one hour of training each to use the system. Their support staff may need a little more – but not much more,” he says.

The system will enable secretaries at the firm to decide which tasks to take on themselves and which to send to Manila – according to their workload, the content of a dictation, or the speed at which it needs to be turned around. “If they are about to leave work for the day, and a dictation comes in, they can pass it to Manila to transcribe, knowing that by the time the fee earner arrives at work the following day, the dictation will have been turned around overnight,” says Eadie.

Given that the true cost of employing a secretary in the UK, and in particular London, can be exponentially higher than elsewhere, for companies like Baker & McKenzie, even a modest improvement in staff ratios can ensure that most digital-dictation systems pay for themselves within a relatively short time span.

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