Firms like Winnipeg’s Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP that have been using digital, networked dictation for a few years may wonder why any law firm would continue to do it the old way — or, indeed, how it survived before installing its Olympus DS-5000 transcription management system in 2006.
TDS partner Bill Olson enumerates the many advantages. He no longer has to worry about losing the tiny mini-cassette tapes the firm used to use, or getting them mixed up and having to listen to all of them to find the one he wanted, or having the tape wear out — as it inevitably did over time — so his recordings were unintelligible to his assistant. “The sound quality with those old tape machines wasn’t particularly good either,” adds Olson.
He also no longer has to remove the tape from the dictation device, get up, take it out to his assistant, and give her instructions. Or go searching for another available assistant if his is already busy or off sick or on vacation. Perhaps best of all, if he wants to head to the cottage for the weekend or the week but still has dictation work to do, he can take the system with him and e-mail recordings back to the office instantly. “In the old days, you had to drive the tapes back to the city or courier them,” notes TDS’ manager of information technology, Trevor Anderson. “We don’t have to do that anymore — it’s all automatic.”
With the Olympus system, Olson dictates into the hand-held digital device, places it into a cradle attached to his PC, and that’s it. The system automatically sucks the audio recording off it, stores it on the firm’s network, and backs it up — and there it remains in its pristine digital quality until deleted. If he ever needs to listen to it again, it will sound exactly the same.
The system also automatically sends the recording to his assistant’s desktop — not as a tape with a bunch of other recordings on it, but as a discrete transcription job, so no instructions required. It shows up in her Windows system tray as a new job. If she’s not available, the system will reroute her work to other assistants.
If Olson is at the cottage, he connects the DS-5000 to his laptop with a standard USB cable and when he’s finished recording, attaches the resulting audio file to an e-mail. It’s sent to the office, and put into the transcription management system as if he had put the dictation device in the cradle in his office.
It was easy to learn the new system, says Olson. “Surprisingly easy, and I say ‘surprisingly’ because I’m one of the old guard and generally slow to adapt to new technology. But this was very painless. It took me about 15 to 20 minutes at my desk to get the basic operating characteristics down. Ever since then, it’s been clear sailing.”
Anderson was also impressed by how simple the system was to implement and how easy it is to manage. “When I look at all the technology products we support, this one is a long way from the most painful,” he says.
The impetus for the project came from the lawyers and the firm’s director of operations who brought it to Anderson when they realized digital transcription was the wave of the future. Before that, dictation had been analog so outside his purview. The firm hired a consultant, Vancouver-based Speakeasy Solutions Inc., a specialist in digital dictation/transcription and speech recognition systems. “They were pretty good — they held our hands from Day 1. It was easy to install the software, and it doesn’t require much [computing] horsepower,” says Anderson.
The implementation was done remotely by Speakeasy technicians in Vancouver. It took about an hour, says Anderson. Consultants trained users in web conferences. “They did a good job.”
The Winnipeg firm started piloting the Olympus system in 2006 with a few lawyers using it. By 2009, it was virtually firm-wide, with about 65 of its 75 to 80 lawyers using it. Some of the younger lawyers who are adept at the keyboard rarely if ever dictate so don’t need it.
To equip a team of lawyer and assistant, a firm needs to purchase one dictation kit and one transcription kit. The dictation kit includes the hand-held DS-5000, a desktop cradle, USB cable, and software. The transcription kit includes a headset, foot pedal controls, and transcription software.
Olympus includes a perpetual firm-wide licence to the software in every kit. It even provides software updates and maintenance at no additional charge. “It’s very bizarre for a technology company,” says Anderson. Most charge annual maintenance fees and extra for major upgrades. It means that however many dictation and transcription kits a firm buys, the price per seat remains roughly the same, although resellers may offer volume discounts. Olympus’ Canadian suggested reseller price is $529.99 for the dictation kit, $399.99 for the transcription kit. TDS paid $450 and $280, says Anderson.
The firm has no doubt the system is paying dividends. The single biggest cost-benefit, which probably justifies the investment in the technology on its own, is that lawyers can keep doing billable work when they’re away from the office. General workflow efficiencies and elimination of workflow breakdowns contribute additional savings.
Dean Murfitt, a technical systems analyst at TDS, reckons the difference in capital cost between replacing an analog recorder and buying a new Olympus digital dictation kit is about $125. “But to keep a lawyer working [when they’re away from the office], that’s a small difference to make up,” says Murfitt.
Digaulle Elhaje, a product manager with Olympus Imaging America Inc., which markets the product in North America, says in fact the DS-5000 kits cost roughly the same as analog replacements with comparable features — if you could find replacement tape players, which is increasingly doubtful. Elhaje claims the payback period in law firms is typically six months to a year. One firm found it benefited because lawyers started using a minor feature that allowed them to separately dictate their billable hours, which assistants could then input into the billing system. The resulting increase in billable hours alone paid for the system, says Elhaje.
So if this is such a no-brainer, why isn’t every firm rushing to replace rickety analog dictation equipment? Olympus, which used to sell tape recorders and tapes (but doesn’t anymore), admits it has been surprised at how many law firms have “come out of the woodwork” as analog holdouts. “It all comes back to human nature,” says Elhaje. “If people find a comfort zone, they don’t want to change — they’ll say they don’t have time, or they’ll ‘think about it down road.’ Well, now many know that analog won’t be available down the road. So they’re scrambling to figure out what to do in the next six months to a year.”
Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Ont. Read his blog at http://afterbyte.blogspot.com.
Editor's note: Certain portions of this article have been amended to reflect more generic terminology, as intended.