Digital dictation technology has been with us for nearly 15 years and we have seen a steady progression from cassette-based recorders to MP3 devices. It is surprising, however, that the uptake of the technology was so slow in the early years. Indeed, even now, dictation equipment suppliers say that there is a significant proportion of the legal profession that still choose the old mini- and micro-cassette recorders when it comes to placing new orders.

However, the implementation of digital dictation can be reasonably cheap and straightforward and, most importantly, tends to reduce organisational overheads very soon after implementation.

The Olympus DS-4000

The basics

Digital dictaphones provide all the basic functionality of the traditional mini- or micro-cassette based recorders. In fact, the configuration of many digital dictaphones is such that changing from the old to the new is very easy, with similar control positions, slider switches and so on.

In addition to the normal stop, play, record and erase functions, digital dictaphones provide a real innovation as to the way in which dictations can be handled. It is possible to edit recordings, insert dictation in the middle of recordings, carry out partial erase functions, email recordings or transfer them over networks. Dictations can be compressed and a conventional handheld recorder will hold up to 11 hours dictation on a memory card.

The Olympus Digital Dictaphone that I am using to dictate this article enables me to dictate in any one of five folders and each folder can hold well over 100 recordings. This means that I can separate out recordings as I wish. I store my urgent dictations in one folder, the less urgent in another. I can separate out dictations for internal typing or outsourcing and perhaps keep a separate folder for personal items.

A digital dictaphone endorses each recording with various pertinent items of information, such as:

  • the recording length;
  • the priority associated with the recording;
  • the date created; and
  • other data, such as client name and file number.

Standalone use

Where digital dictaphones are used on a standalone basis, the user creates dictations, connects the dictaphone to a PC and transfers the recording from the dictaphone to the PC. The dictation can then be processed by the fee earner’s secretary or outsourced to a transcription agency which may be onshore or offshore.

This level of infrastructure is very easy and cheap to set up. Handheld dictaphones cost on average £200 including all the necessary software. The installation time is usually no more than 10 minutes including personalisation of the dictaphone settings.

Workflow systems

Lawyers may also use digital dictation devices in conjunction with a sophisticated workflow management system, operating across a firm’s network. Alternatively they may dial into the system from a telephone and record a dictation. They create short distinct dictations, each recording comprising a single item such as a note, memo, fax or letter. The moment the dictation of that item is completed, the workflow system routes the dictation to the designated secretary.

The aim is to improve turnaround times and to ensure the best use of office resources. Workflow management systems will determine how much dictation the secretary has in the pending work queue. If there are other secretaries within the office who have greater capacity then the work will be redirected to them. If the system does not find an individual who is able to create the transcript, then it will look for a secretary in one of the firm’s other offices! Workflow systems have been shown to save businesses many thousands of pounds a year.

There are currently numerous companies offering workflow systems in the marketplace. Key suppliers in this field are:

In the words of nFlow:

“Fee-earners, secretaries and workflow managers are able to access the solution irrespective of where they are physically located at any point in time. They can use a wide range of mobile devices including Blackberry and Windows Mobile.

The reduced turnaround time for documents, the geographical flexibility for fee-earners and secretaries, and the better management and control all enable the firm to respond faster to clients.

Workflow managers can see the status of each assignment and can undertake workload balancing so that client commitments are always met. They can also view historical reporting data on work throughput.

The scope and extent of functionality nFlow Version 5.0 delivers is exceptional. The solution does not require client side configuration as all user settings, devices settings and hardware driver configuration are served centrally from the server. Users are able to access the system and maintain their user experience, irrespective of the particular machine they are using within the network.”

A lawyer’s perspective

I have used digital dictation both as a practising solicitor and more recently in business. The technology works very well. There is no physical tape to handle and generally dictaphones have very few moving parts so that they tend not to go wrong. It is easy to track recordings if needed and dictations can be played back to verify what was in fact dictated from the user’s desktop computer. One downside, however, is that digital dictations when they move to a secretary do not carry with them the relevant matter files. It is therefore necessary for relevant details such as addresses and references for letters to be dictated. Where firms use a case management system, however, the secretary will have access to the relevant details on screen.

A legal secretary’s perspective

When a secretary receives a dictation s/he knows how long it is and has the information needed to prioritise work. The problems of damaged tapes or lost tapes are a thing of the past.

Secretaries working from home no longer need to arrange collection or courier of tapes. Dictations are received online and can be processed within minutes from the dictation having been completed.

nFlow say that:

“Secretaries are able to better organise their workload as dictations can be broken into individual jobs and then sorted into job lists. These job lists can then be screened so that only the target secretary is able to view the job, ensuring complete client confidentiality. Microsoft Outlook style alerts warn secretaries, both audibly and visually, when new jobs are added to the job lists and when jobs are overdue – even when the user interface is not open. Also, secretaries are able to view department and workgroup job lists, allowing them to cover for their colleagues without having to leave their desks.”


It is clear that the days of the cassette-based recorder are numbered. Digital dictation technology offers a cost effective solution which can both reduce business overheads and improve efficiency.

Sunil Radia runs UKTyping, a transcription service for lawyers, accountants and doctors which services over 600 clients every day. Prior to this he practised as a solicitor for 13 years first at S J Berwin & Co and then on his own account at The Radia Partnership. The business has clients throughout the UK and also a sizeable client base in Ireland. UKTyping provides free dictaphones for professional users.


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