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Escalating frustration with the limitations of analog dictation equipment prompted leadership here at Hawkins & Parnell to adopt a digital dictation solution midway through 2006. Our objectives were threefold: to eradicate mechanical failures associated with tape recorders, recover lost productivity due to damaged or erased cassettes, and eliminate bottlenecks that were interfering with timely work completion. Digital dictation technology offered a multitude of benefits. Digital recorders now operate almost identically to traditional tape recorders, so the learning curve for attorneys is short (and the frustration is minimized). In addition, digital technology allows the completed voice dictation to be downloaded electronically to a computer or server for later transcription by a secretary. This removes any possibility that the file could be damaged or destroyed in transit, and reduces the time between the dictation being completed and when a secretary begins work. We likewise found that digital files simplified distribution of work among secretaries for increased efficiency. The impetus for our conversion from analog to digital dictation technology came when an influential partner experienced a rash of problems with his dictation. He was traveling and had grabbed several tapes so he could complete his dictation on the road. Two or three of the tapes failed, however, causing him to waste precious time. Frustrated, he asked us to implement more reliable alternatives — although those were not exactly his words. THE DANGER OF MOVING PARTS This was not an isolated incident. We had used a tape-based dictation system for years and began to notice how many problems we were having with the hardware itself. The recording units had moving parts, which broke with some degree of regularity. Our reliance on tapes also interfered with the secretary’s ability to delegate files. If a single tape contained multiple documents, only one secretary or transcriptionist could access the work. Urgent dictation could not be easily divided up and distributed among the staff. To address these concerns, we began to investigate alternatives. We had read about advances in digital technology and recognized the benefits these systems offered. In fact, we had anticipated making the change for some time, but were waiting for the right opportunity. The partner’s problem with tape failure provided the opening we sought. We relied upon two primary resources as we reviewed various products and systems. First, we participate in a number of Internet forums. We also attended the Association of Legal Administrators national conference in Montreal in May 2006. Contacts in both arenas highly recommended Philips Speech Processing. We ultimately purchased the Philips Digital Pocket Memo 9400 units through TranscriptionGear.Com. Each digital recorder costs about $400, while transcription units are $200. A PILOT PROJECT We began our conversion with a pilot project involving four attorneys and two secretaries who support them. One of the attorneys was the partner who experienced the tape failure, while the others were known to be amenable to using new technology. This was an important consideration because we wanted the introduction of the digital dictation system to be successful. No matter how well you plan this sort of transition, there are bound to be a few bumps in the road. Initially, we wanted to involve attorneys who were open to considering a new approach and who had what might be called a high pain threshold so that they would continue to work with us even during minor setbacks. The launch was highly successful. All four attorneys were up and running within a couple of days, and two sought us out specifically to tell us what a vast improvement digital dictation was. We had planned to roll out the system gradually and were looking for a positive grass-roots reaction to support this approach. Almost immediately, other attorneys and their secretaries began to ask when they could begin using digital dictation — they all wanted to be at the top of the list. Our firm did encounter one problem as we launched the digital dictation system with the pilot group. When attorneys complete dictation, they insert their handheld digital recorder into a docking station and all files are automatically downloaded. Because of our inexperience, however, we had not established appropriate routing methods for the pending transcription. We had not thought through how secretaries would be alerted about incoming files or how the attorneys would be notified that their dictation had been transcribed. This lack of structure caused considerable confusion. We took a step back and created default methods that direct each attorney’s dictation into folders stored on the firm’s file server. The attorney alerts the secretary about incoming work. The assistant then can view the dictation and determine which dictation needs to be done first. This allows the secretary to determine his or her own work priorities, and distribute additional urgent projects to another staff member or the word-processing pool. Likewise, attorneys can access the files online to check completion status or review drafts. With this challenge eliminated, the conversion from analog to digital proceeded smoothly. It continues today: We bring about four to six individuals onto the system at a time, based on their geographic location within the office. Hawkins & Parnell is laid out in “pods,” with two secretaries (who support two attorneys each) sharing a work station. This allows for maximum flexibility so one secretary can cover for the other if necessary. We implement the digital dictation technology in one pod at a time, with priority given to attorneys who are heavy dictation users. Younger attorneys, who are more comfortable with technology, have also been among the first to adopt the digital system. INCREASED PRODUCTIVITY Currently, more than half of our attorneys who dictate — about 30 people — are using the Philips units. We anticipate that the remainder will adopt the system by mid-2008. Almost without exception, attorneys and secretaries have embraced digital dictation enthusiastically. The attorneys tell us they appreciate the digital recorder’s single-handed operation and ergonomic design. They also remark that they no longer need to worry about mechanical or tape failures that interfere with productivity. In addition, all appreciate the convenience of downloading their dictation automatically. Our firm has a national practice represented by offices in Atlanta, Dallas, and Charleston, W.Va., and so our attorneys travel frequently. When we used cassettes, they would have to find local support to have their dictation transcribed, ship tapes to their secretaries overnight, or carry the tapes until they returned to the office, creating a lag before the tapes were transcribed. Our secretarial staff also views the conversion to digital dictation as highly beneficial. Digital produces greater sound clarity, which make their job much easier. They can understand the dictation so they spend less time rewinding and listening to the recording repeatedly. This also means they make fewer errors. The first draft of each document more closely reflects the original dictation and the attorneys, therefore, need to make fewer changes. Secretaries can also better manage their workflow. The digital dictation system allows the attorney to flag priority items. Secretaries can easily access any file and, because a list of pending dictations appears on the computer screen, they can easily see which carry a priority designation. This also allows them to share workloads and route dictation more effectively. Two secretaries can be working on a single attorney’s dictation, for instance, and time-critical projects can be distributed among transcription or word-processing staff. In short, we have found that digital dictation fulfills virtually all of the promises made in vendors’ advertising and marketing materials. Attorneys find it easier to complete and forward dictation, and they are no longer frustrated with mechanical or tape failures. Secretaries appreciate enhanced sound quality and the ability to more efficiently manage their work flow. And the firm enjoys improved productivity and accuracy throughout the dictation and transcription process. To streamline the transition and ensure success, firms that are considering digital dictation technology should: • Identify their priorities and objectives, and evaluate available systems carefully to ensure these goals can be met.

• Select a product and vendor recognized as a leader in digital dictation technology, and that offers comprehensive support and service. • Develop an implementation plan that takes into consideration current workflow patterns, as well as staff and attorney receptiveness to change. • Identify a project champion — an attorney who is amenable to change, who is not intimidated by technology, and who would serve as a credible spokesperson with his or her peers. • Consider work flow processes that will be affected by the adoption of the new system, and develop new patterns to streamline the transition or remove obstacles. • Establish a feedback mechanism so end users can provide comments, request assistance, and offer constructive criticism.


Bob Elliott is the administrator and Ted Gerber is the director of data systems for Hawkins & Parnell, a 100-attorney defense firm specializing in civil litigation. They are located in the firm’s Atlanta office.

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