Dictation: Past, Present and Future

Article Originally Posted on LAW.COM
Twenty years ago, almost all lawyers dictated their letters and briefs into a desktop tape recorder, and secretaries spent hours wearing headphones, tethered to ubiquitous transcribers. But these days, a computer is the tool no lawyer can work without. E-mail has replaced letters, electronic filing eliminates trips to the courthouse, and word processing has revolutionized the process of writing documents. Dictation, some say, is a beast best allowed to go extinct.
Rumors of dictation’s demise might be greatly exaggerated, but there’s no doubt today’s lawyers work differently from their predecessors. Of the dozen attorneys I consulted for this article, only one reported regularly recording dictation. A few had used a Dictaphone previously but abandoned it, and many had never dictated.
An overwhelming majority of young lawyers have never seriously considered dictating. Their generation is more tech-savvy than any that preceded it. Having used computers throughout college and law school, they see themselves as competent word processors (although their secretaries might disagree). Accustomed to instant gratification and eager to impress their superiors, they grow impatient at the prospect of dictating something, waiting for a secretary to type it, marking up a printout, and then resuming the wait. They are more comfortable composing at the keyboard than they are with speaking extemporaneously into a microphone.
Yet dictation does hold some new frontiers of its own. The handheld digital voice recorder is just as easy to use as the handheld tape recorder, except it is lighter and does not rely on fragile cassette tapes. Specialized software and a foot pedal that connects to the secretary’s computer facilitate transcription of WAV files transmitted by e-mail.
A few lawyers I talked to have experimented with alternative document creation processes. An Iowa family and criminal lawyer tried voice recognition software but found it could not learn his speech patterns and conflicted with other software he used. But a New York attorney is delighted with the outside transcription service that processes work he dictates by telephone.
Recording dictation can have at least one unintended benefit. A California litigation and real estate attorney points out that dictating “was great training for oral advocacy.” A California civil rights lawyer agrees, although neither of these lawyers dictates currently.
As for secretaries, asking 10 of us how we feel about transcribing dictation will probably yield 10 different answers. Some prefer the straightforward nature of transcribing, while others view it as not only outdated but undignified as well. Still others would not mind transcribing if their lawyers would only enunciate clearly, hold the microphone the right distance from their lips, and not dictate in noisy environments such as open cars, sporting events or men’s restrooms.
I have grown to dislike transcribing. Years ago, when I had more responsibility but a smaller salary, I welcomed an afternoon of transcription as a break from more demanding tasks. It also helped that my boss spoke clearly and wrote thought-provoking briefs on interesting legal topics. Now that I work in a rather arcane practice area and spend most of my day on routine data entry, an hour of transcription tends to weigh down my eyelids.
Therein, I think, lies the future of dictation. Some secretaries might see voice recognition technology, outsourced transcription services and lawyers who type as threats to job security. But I see an opportunity that can liberate secretaries from mind-numbing chores and leave us free to contribute real value to our firms. Some of the lawyers who say they type their own documents mention that their secretaries format and finalize their work in addition to drafting some documents on their own. An in-house lawyer says administrative support is rarer in that environment, and the assistants in his legal department function more as paralegals.
While these trends might signal fewer new legal secretary positions in the future, they also hold the promise that secretarial work can evolve into an interesting and challenging career, rather than the brain-starving slog it sometimes feels like now. And — good news for firms — interesting, challenging positions are easier to fill and keep filled than those that consist of mindless drudgery.
But the elephant in the room is the fact that few lawyers are, in fact, good at word processing. Many think they are, but any experienced secretary knows most are not. Further, it’s the attorneys who think they know a lot about word processing who pose the greatest danger to document integrity. They “dupe and revise” old, badly formatted briefs. They introduce corruption into documents by copying and pasting tables, text and graphics from questionable sources. They know just enough to be dangerous.
One potential solution could satisfy lawyers who compose better at a keyboard and secretaries who do not like transcription. The attorney can type his brief into the body of an e-mail to the secretary, who can then turn that text into a formatted document. When Outlook is set to create plain text messages (rather than HTML, the default), it makes a fine, distraction-free text editor. The resulting unformatted text can be pasted into a Word document with minimal fuss.
There is nothing inherently right or wrong about recorded dictation. A lawyer should work in the way she feels most effective, and secretaries need to seek positions that suit their abilities and preferences. Ultimately, specific methods are less important than simply establishing a process that works for everyone and carrying it out with courtesy and professionalism.