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Hey, You! Speak Up--Clearly--
If You Want to Talk to Computers

National Law Journal - June 8, 1998

THE JOKE ABOUT voice-recognition software is that it is about six months away from being truly usable--and always will be. Dictating to your computer "is like having your work transcribed by an eighth-grader," says La Jolla, Calif., sole practitioner Alfred Waldchen, who has used speech-recognition products for about two years.

But the technology has made great strides lately. Mr. Waldchen, a former general counsel at a high-tech company, says it used to be like dictating to an uneducated eighth-grader.

This week Corel Corp. begins shipping its WordPerfect 8 Legal Suite, which includes a continuous-speech dictation program. Microsoft says that next year its Office Suite will contain a voice-recognition component, according to InfoWorld, at www.infoworld.com/cgi-bin/displayArchive.pl?/98/17/t21-17.26.htm. To compare different programs, and chat about voice recognition, visit www.voicerecognition.com.

Soon lawyers will be able to say, "Computer, on" and--just like Scottie in Star Trek--give verbal commands, such as, "Create a letter to Bob Smith." Their words will appear on their computer screens with about a 90-percent accuracy rate.

Many attorneys are already doing so or trying to. For the first time, AmLaw Tech, a magazine affiliated with this newspaper, included a question about voice recognition in its technology survey of the country's 100 largest firms. The survey, which will appear this summer, reveals that almost 30 percent of the firms are testing voice recognition in pilot programs.

Hold Your Tongue

Unfortunately, a 90-percent accuracy rate still means that 1 in every 10 words is wrong. Worse, almost all voice recognition software is marketed so that attorneys think that after an hour or so of reading words into a microphone, the program will function well. But "it took me several weeks of continuous use" to get the program to work at an acceptable level, says Ken Freeling, a partner at New York's Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler L.L.P. "It was like training a pet."

Victor J. Franckiewicz Jr., a litigation partner at New Orleans-based Deutsch, Kerrigan & Stiles, says he recently "gave up in frustration" on one of the latest programs after several years. A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he likes to fiddle with computers, but says he invested an unproductive amount of time in trying to train the program to handle Louisiana's French names. "I'm now going to try to use less sophisticated tools more efficiently," he says, though he adds that he is still open-minded about the software's potential.

The latest legal program contains a legal dictionary, so the software will recognize legal citations like "New York Second," which will appear on the screen as N.Y. 2d, and hyphenates like "attorney-client" and "landlord-tenant." But any speech program may still not distinguish between two close words like "successful" and "unsuccessful," says Mr. Waldchen, adding, "That scares lawyers." Proofreading needs would increase.

Unlike a new secretary, lawyers expect technology to be perfect. They may grow disappointed--and even angry--to see their words appear as perfectly spelled, error-filled documents.

Mr. Waldchen recently dictated the word "entity," and the program wrote "assumed to be." When he printed the document, he was puzzled. "What in hell was I talking about?" The equipment demands great precision in the distance that the microphone is from his mouth and in the consistency of pronunciation.

Still, he perseveres, emphasizing how useful the software is for anyone who has problems using a keyboard. Those who like to dictate may also find it useful to have a dictation tool that requires no salary, let alone overtime, and never goes to lunch.

Kaye Scholer's Mr. Freeling likes the software's speed. But he prefers dictating to a secretary. "I'm more entertaining when I'm talking to a human being."

Mr. Waldchen would like a future version of voice-recognition software to allow him to dictate into a portable microcassette tape recorder, and then plug the tape into the computer to be transcribed. "Now that would be a timesaver," he says. It would also allow him to work the way he usually does, with a portable dictation tool.

Lawyers, even the technically adept, are reluctant to change the way they work. And voice-recognition software demands a change: to watch a screen more carefully, learn commands, and grow tolerant of initial errors.

Those demands may be why--in a profession filled with verbal, voluble and even verbose people, many of whom have been dictating for years--voice recognition has yet to catch on.

"I've seen pilots; I've seen demos. But I haven't seen people use it" regularly in their practice, says Tom A. Gelbmann, a consultant with Hildebrandt Inc.

The optimists want to believe that when the software matures, it will be like e-mail without a keyboard. Stuart Rickerson, president and general counsel of DefenseNet, a legal technology company in San Diego, sees voice recognition as "an inevitable step" for those many lawyers who have yet to be comfortable with a keyboard. "A lot of lawyers have a fear of technology, but they're comfortable dictating to a secretary, or making arguments to court. And they will grow comfortable talking to their computers ."

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A review of voice recognition programs is available at www.abanet.org/lpm/magazine/tu981.html#tag3.

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This article is reprinted with permission from the June 8, 1998 edition of The National Law Journal. © 1998 NLP IP Company.


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