Written on October 11, 2004 by Scott Bassett
Technology has changed the way we practice law, but not necessarily the end product of our efforts. We still spend most of our time producing a paper product for consumption by our clients, the courts, and others. But how we produce that product has undergone a revolution in the last 50 years.
In 1954, there were no computers in law offices, and few lawyers typed. Instead, we dictated letters and other documents to our secretaries, who took it down in shorthand and then typed it on manual or electric typewriters. Eventually, those “dumb” typewriters gave way to memory typewriters with magnetic card storage or dedicated word processing machines with large 8-inch floppy disks in the late 1970’s. By the mid-1980’s, some firms were beginning to dabble in the first personal computers from IBM (the PC and XT) or even Radio Shack (the TRS-80 series).
Electronic dictation equipment began to appear in the early 1950’s. Dictaphone offered a “Travel-Master” Dictabelt recorder that ran on rechargeable batteries in the early 1950s, and Soundscriber also made a battery operated vinyl disk recorder. But the really successful products used magnetic tape.
Having recovered their consumer electronics manufacturing capability in the 1950s, German, English, and Scandinavian firms entered the U.S. market with low cost office recorders using magnetic tape. While most of them lacked the features of the traditional equipment, they appealed to many smaller offices where there was no need for typing pools and standardization of equipment.
The miniature, portable recorder also continued to evolve, and an important development was the standardization of the recording medium. The Philips company of the Netherlands, which already had a line of dictation equipment, also introduced a “general purpose” tape cartridge in 1962 called the Compact Cassette. It was not intended to compete with their dictation equipment, but many manufacturers of dictation machines adopted it. What no one expected is that the Compact Cassette would, by the late 1960’s, have a huge impact on the music industry when Advent released the first true high fidelity cassette recorder/player.
Japanese companies were particularly aggressive in adopting the Philips cassette standard and its successor, the micro cassette, as the basis of miniature business recorders. A Dictaphone ad from the 1970s pictured the shrinking of portable dictation devices and the continuing “executive dictating on the go” theme touted by manufacturers. As was typically of advertising in that era, all of the users in the ads were men.
When computers became more available, reliable, and affordable through the 1990’s, many predicted that voice recognition would replace traditional dictation and typing. I began using Dragon’s first speech program, called Dragon Dictate, in the early 1990’s. It was a “discrete speech” engine that required a short but very unnatural pause after each word. By the late 1990’s, Dragon and others developed “natural speech” engines that work best if you spoke in natural flowing phrases. Until recently, inadequate computer hardware prevented voice recognition from replacing all typing, but the technology has matured to a point where most newer computers equipped with enough RAM (memory) and a USB microphone can do a very accurate job of turning the spoken work into a Word or WordPerfect document. I have dictated entire appellate briefs using Dragon Naturally Speaking.
Of the leading dictation machine manufacturers of the past, only Dictaphone remains. Dictaphone was acquired by Pitney Bowes in 1979, but spun off a few years ago. The desktop dictation machine has virtually disappeared. Those few who still prefer dictation are rapidly switching to digital dictation systems. There are some exceptionally useful and affordable products for small law firms from companies like Olympus and Sony. The recorders are portable, and if used in a sufficiently quiet environment (not a moving car) can produce recordings or sufficient quality to be used with speech recognition software to automatically created editable word processing documents. The process can be automated to the point that simply plugging the recorder into the USB port on a computer can automatically download the dictation file, open the software, and have the words appear magically on screen.
For those lawyers who don’t want to deal with speech recognition software on their own computers, there are digital dictation foot pedals that connect to a secretary’s or legal assistant’s computer via USB or serial port that work like traditional tape based pedals. A digital audio file has many advantages over tape, including easy storage and portability. A lawyer on vacation or out of town on business can dictate into a handheld digital recorder, automatically transfer the dictation to a computer, and instantly email the audio file containing the dictation to his or her secretary hundreds or thousands of miles away. The document is then typed and returned by email to the lawyer for final proofing and editing. The edited version can sent by return email back to the office to be printed and mailed. There are solo and small firm lawyers using this technology every day.
The lesson is that we don’t have to do things the old way if there is a new way that will make us more efficient. The digital dictation revolution is one of those new ways.