Practice Management

Speech-to-text dictation: A 21st-century twist to a traditional law firm tool

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Nicole Black

Nicole Black.

Technology is a blessing and a curse. For some lawyers, cutting-edge technologies can seem overwhelming; however, with just a little research and know-how, you can incorporate modern technology into your law firm to streamline your practice and increase efficiency.

Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? The problem many lawyers face is determining which tools to research and invest in first. If that’s an issue you’re facing, then speech-to-text dictation is a great place to start.

How does it work? It’s simple: hit the record button and then start talking—the software does the rest. It registers your words and inputs them into your document. When you’re finished, stop speaking and your file is ready instantaneously. You can edit the document once you’re done dictating. Importantly, input errors will diminish over time as the software adapts to your voice.

Voice-recognition technology is one of the easiest ways to cut hours out of your daily workflow and is an especially useful tool for small firm lawyers who have moved toward a paperless office. This cost-effective efficiency driver has truly come of age in recent years. Gone are the days of dictaphones, miniature cassette tapes and the time-consuming back-and-forth between you and your administrative assistant. The advent of voice-recognition dictation has ushered in an entirely new and streamlined way to dictate documents. And the good news is that today’s lawyers have more choices than ever when it comes to 21st-century digital dictation tools.

Some may hesitate to use these tools due to perceived security issues or concerns about waiver of attorney-client privilege, given that this type of technology typically sends your recorded speech to the provider’s servers in order to process it and convert it to text. And in some cases, the providers may also seek to retain the voice data in order to allow their speech processing programs to “learn” from the speech input provided.

While these concerns are understandable, I would suggest that they should not be an outright barrier to using this method of dictation.

To the best of my knowledge, no ethics opinions have been issued on the specific issue of whether data sent to and retained by third-party providers for voice processing purposes constitutes a violation of legal ethical obligations. Even so, I would argue that based on prior ethics rulings that address analogous situations, using speech-to-text dictation may be permissible in many jurisdictions.

For systems where the text is stored and processed locally on your firm’s servers, it’s clear that it’s permissible. But even where the voice data is sent to cloud servers to be processed, there are arguments in favor of it being ethical.

The processing of speech by third party servers is similar to the way that Google scans emails sent via the free version of gmail to deliver relevant ads. Notably, in 2008, the New York State Bar Association, in Ethics Opinion 820, gave this practice its blessing, concluding that it was ethical for lawyers to use the free version of gmail for most confidential client communications. The rationale was that it was permissible since the contents of emails were being processed by a machine, not a person, for the limited purpose of serving up relevant content.

Similarly, the third-party servers that process voice data are arguably analogous to the third-party servers through which emails between lawyers and clients travel. And, the use of email by lawyers to share most confidential information with their clients was given the green light by ethics committees as far back as the late 1990s. (See, for example, ABA Formal Opinion No. 99-413).

That being said, a more recent ethics opinion has indicated that unencrypted email may be insufficient for certain types of client communication (ABA Formal Opinion 477). In this opinion, the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility advised lawyers to assess the sensitivity of information on a case-by-case basis and then choose the most appropriate and sufficiently secure method of communicating and collaborating with clients.

Additionally, it’s always important to review and fully understand the applicability of your jurisdiction’s ethics rules. Whenever you entrust your law firm’s data to a third party you have an ethical obligation to thoroughly vet the technology provider that will be hosting and storing your data. This includes ensuring that you understand how the data will be handled by that company; where the servers on which the data will be stored are located; who will have access to the data; and how and when it will be backed up, among other things.

But don’t let that scare you off. After carefully considering your ethical obligations, including the sensitivity of the information about which you’ll be dictating, consider giving the voice recognition tools discussed below a chance. They’re convenient time-savers, and for some lawyers, especially those in small firms, they’re sure to have a positive impact on firmwide productivity and your firm’s bottom line.

With that in mind, here are a few of the more popular speech-to-text tools that are worth taking a look at.

There are a number of free options available if you’d rather not invest in this type of software prior to trying it out. For starters, you can use your smartphone or tablet to access its free, speech-to-text dictation. Both iOS devices and Android devices include this feature. This method leaves a lot to be desired, in part, due to the small screen size or mobile devices. Even so, it’s a great option to consider when you’re on the go.

Additionally, both Macs and PCs now have built-in voice recognition tools, which can be used in conjunction with certain applications, including Word and Pages. You can find information on using speech recognition in Windows 10 <a href=”>here, and the speech-to-text Mac tool, Dictation here. Both offer the option to set up your computer so that speech processing can occur locally, on your device, rather than in the cloud. This allows you to dictate even while offline and also addresses the security concerns that you may have regarding the voice processing occurring on a provider’s server. Note that the dictation isn’t always as accurate when it occurs locally versus on a cloud server.

If you’re interested in a more robust system, then the most obvious contender is Dragon Speech Recognition, which is the arguable leader in the voice-recognition software category. Depending on the version you choose, it will cost at least a few hundred dollars. But it’s worth the price you pay since you’ll be investing in a quality product that gives you the option to have your speech immediately processed locally. The company offers legal-specifics options (Dragon Legal Individual and Dragon Legal Group), and a cloud-based mobile option, Dragon Anywhere.

There are a few other options available if your larger firm is seeking legal-specific dictation software other than Dragon. It will cost you, but depending on your firm’s needs and size, the additional features offered by some of these providers may be what your firm needs. A deep dive into the systems is outside the scope of this article. But if you’re interested in speech-to-text tools that can also be used alongside more traditional digital-dictation tools as well—for some of the more seasoned attorneys in your firm who may be reluctant to test the waters with voice recognition software—then the voice-recognition offerings of BigHand, Winscribe or Philips might be a good fit.

So your firm has a lot of options when it comes to speech-recognition software. By investing a bit of time up front and carefully researching your options, you’re sure to find a speech-to-text tool that’s a good fit for your firm. And once you do, you’ll be on your way to a streamlined and cost-effective document creation process.

Nicole Black is a Rochester, New York, attorney, author, journalist and the legal technology evangelist at MyCase, legal practice management software for small firms. She is the nationally recognized author of Cloud Computing for Lawyers and is co-author of Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier, both published by the American Bar Association. She also is co-author of Criminal Law in New York, a Thomson Reuters treatise. She writes regular columns for, Above the Law and the Daily Record, has authored hundreds of articles for other publications, and regularly speaks at conferences regarding the intersection of law and emerging technologies. Follow her on Twitter @nikiblack, or she can be reached at [email protected].

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