Practice Tips: Voice recognition: transformational technology

by David J. Bilinsky, Practice Management Advisor

There have only been a handful of technologies that have had a profound effect on the practice of law. The typewriter, telephone, dictation machine, computers and email are five that immediately come to mind. However, I believe we are on the verge of another. Voice recognition has held promise for some time, but has suffered from slow recognition engines, substantially less than perfect recognition rates, laborious training periods and other problems endemic to an emerging technology. No longer. The latest version of Dragon’s Naturally Speaking (version 9) has reached the “tipping point.” The deficiencies of earlier versions have largely been addressed.

This latest version is fast, accurate and much easier to use compared to prior versions. Moreover, it isn’t limited to just dictating directly into Word or WordPerfect — you can use it with email or issue voice commands that work directly inside applications. I use Dragon inside of Amicus Attorney — not only to dictate telephone call notes but to open and close dialogue boxes, search and save contact information and the like.

Voice recognition is often seen as the “holy grail” of technologies — allowing lawyers to speak to their computers and see their words appear as if by magic on the monitor. It increases work flow by eliminating the triple bottleneck of dictation, transcription and revision and it enhances profitability by reducing or eliminating transcription time and allowing law firm staff to concentrate on higher value services for clients.

Despite the promise of voice recognition, there are limitations to the technology. For one, notwithstanding the power of a computer and voice recognition, it is still a non-thinking machine. It cannot fold a letter, answer a telephone or respond to a client’s inquiry. To a certain degree, using voice recognition means taking on some of the tasks normally assigned to an assistant in exchange for the quick turnaround of document production. This trade-off may, however, be more illusory than real since firms have been reducing staff levels for some time now and lawyers are doing a great deal of drafting by keyboard these days. If you are already a fast typist, you may, in fact, just be replacing your keyboard with a headset.

Okay, so what do you need to start using voice recognition? An Intel or AMD powered PC (Dragon doesn’t work on Macs — only Via Voice does). My basic recommendation is for a Pentium 4 or Pentium M at 1 gigahertz and 512 RAM. However, for any decent performance I would increase these substantially to, for example, a Pentium 4 at 2.4 gigahertz. Personally I use a Pentium M at 1600 MHz, and 2 gigs of RAM. You also need at least 1 gig of free hard drive space.

Your operating system needs to be Windows 2000 (SP4) or Windows XP (SP1). You will need a compatible sound card, a headset microphone and speakers for playback. I use a USB Andrea headset and PCTI switchbox that allows me to use the same headset for both telephone answering and voice recognition, but there are many other options here. Some users opt for a Bluetooth-enabled headset that allows them to be wireless and not tethered to the desk.

You should have a grounded power supply (a three pronged plug) to eliminate any “noise” generated by the power supply. This is essential for laptops that don’t typically come with a grounded power supply. Instead use a Targus generic laptop power supply.

There are several versions of Dragon’s Naturally Speaking v.9 suitable for lawyers (Professional, Legal, Preferred and Standard). While the Professional and Legal versions offer greater vocabularies and other features (Legal is tweaked for legal citations, for example and Professional offers network and Citrix support), I recommend using the Preferred version and then acquiring the upgrades if you feel you need them.

Training is something I always recommend for any new technology. There are providers who will supply the software and train lawyers on Dragon (contact me for details). The time and money is well spent — training can get you up to speed very quickly and allow you to gain back the time spent training many times over.

Voice recognition is indeed a magic dragon whose power can be harnessed for all lawyers, whether or not they choose to live close to the sea.

Pacific Legal Technology Conference

The theme for this year’s conference is “... Come Together: Technology Face to Face.”

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