Start Page: Tech tools to turn talk into transcribed text

WilsonMy family and I moved recently. During the move, I felt unsettled. The familiar was gone and the little things that had become habits were not there. I constantly found myself asking, “Where is this or that?” One of the ways I kept my sanity was to use a voice recorder or iPhone to capture my thoughts and actions that needed done. Over the next few articles, I want to share some thoughts on turning your thoughts into text using technology.

Fast talkers

Dictating is faster than typing. It’s no surprise that people can talk faster than type. As an example, audiobooks are read around 150-160 words per minute. Given that the average typist can type around 35-40 WPM, dictating is often the most efficient way to turn thoughts into text.

That’s only part of the discussion, as you want to be effective, not just fast. Dictating takes someone (or something) to transcribe your voice into text, whether that is someone in your office or someone that you outsource to (be mindful of ethical obligations for nonlawyer assistants, MR 5.3). This article will address dictation in the traditional sense and with computer or smartphone dictation.

Old school v. new school

Traditionally, dictation was done by recording your voice into a recording device. In my practice time, that involved the use of a digital recorder, though some attorneys still used tapes. Other lawyers I have practiced with recall asking an assistant to “take a letter.” Now, you can dictate into your smartphone, digital recorder or web-based service. There are many options, which is the easier part of dictation.

Being able to dictate effectively requires some planning and structure. You must have staff or a service that can turn your words into text. You will need to have clear instructions on how the files are saved and what format you want the document to take. And, you need to set expectations for how long it will take to have the document/email/etc. typed up and sent back to you for review.

If you, like me, grew up using computers to put words on the screen, learning to dictate is a skill to develop. I was used to drafting and editing documents in real time. It took me a while to get used to dictating some thoughts and waiting a few days before I received the text back to review and edit. Some planning and checklists for the procedure will help ensure a consistent and efficient result.

Dictating is faster than typing and frees the lawyer to focus on the content, not the formatting. As a result, dictation can be a great way to better manage your time and be more effective in your practice.

Dictate to dictate ordictate to transcribe?

Given the development of voice-to-text technology tools, I think it’s important to distinguish between dictating to dictate and dictating to transcribe. If you have an assistant, you have experienced the extra value of dictating to dictate. In this mode, you can dictate instructions, not just words to transcribe. So, “I need a letter to the opposing attorney with the following information and/or form.” You have now avoided the need to open the letterhead file, save the file, find the addresses, put in the reference line, type text, save the file, print the file and so on.

Dictation for transcription occurs when you simply want what you said typed verbatim (or close to it). This is where technology is so powerful. Try dictation on your smart phone. There’s a good chance the built-in technology can turn your words into text fairly accurately. Tools like Dragon Naturally Speaking can take voice recordings and transcribe them into a file on your computer with the text of what you said (see my notes on planning your dictation above).

The following section will offer some suggestions for traditional dictation (record, send to transcribe, review, edit) and what I will call a “hybrid” dictation model (using a computer/smartphone to transcribe text).

Decide on hardware, software

Many of you may have an assistant who handles your transcription needs. If so, you can probably skip this section. If not, this is a general overview of the system you can put in place to help turn talk into text.

Our office uses Olympus hardware, which includes digital recorders and the foot pedals used by the assistant to control the playback of the dictation. We also use the Olympus software that allows the attorneys to “upload” the digital file to the network.

The assistant has software on his/her computer that accesses that file and allows the assistant to control the playback of the dictation while it is transcribed. By pushing on the foot pedals, the assistant can start/stop, rewind and fast forward through the dictation, all while keeping hands on the keyboard.

A dictation system can be “hacked” together using open source software and cheap digital recorders. However, using a purchased solution will often save you time over the long run. That said, my technology philosophy is to get the most out of what you already have. Many of you have smartphones with some pretty amazing dictation capabilities. I’ll address those in the next article.•

Seth R. Wilson is an attorney with Adler Tesnar & Whalin in Noblesville. In addition to practicing law, he helps manage the day-to-day technology operations of the firm. Seth writes about legal technology at and is a frequent speaker on the subject. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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