A lawyer and blogger explains how he has leveraged Dragon Naturally Speaking to boost his productivity

Dragon speech recognition software

By Geri L. Dreiling

If you don’t like to write, don’t become a lawyer. That’s the advice often dispensed to law school applicants. After all, contracts, briefs, memos and client correspondence serve as the foundation on which most law practices are built. That said, it can be tiresome work: No doubt even back in the days when attorneys dipped quills into ink and scratched out documents by candlelight, they dreamed of having the ability to simply utter legalese and have it magically appear in writing.

Today, though, there’s speech recognition software, including Dragon Naturally Speaking, which promises to do something similar: Simply speak into a microphone plugged into your computer and, Dragon says, the program will translate your dictation into words on the screen.

Lawyer Tech Review turned to Erich Vieth, a St. Louis consumer rights attorney at The Simon Law Firm and Dangerous Intersection blogger, to give us the good, the bad and the ugly on speech recognition software. He’s been using Dragon Naturally Speaking (affiliate link) for a decade — “since,” he says, “the Stone Age” of speech recognition software.

In the years since, Vieth has upgraded the program and is currently using Premium Version 11. Although Dragon offers a special version for lawyers, Vieth prefers the general-purpose version, which costs less. He’s tested it on personal computers and used Dragon Dictate on his Mac, using it for legal documents and blog posts.

His verdict? “When it is well trained by an experienced user,” Vieth says, “it almost seems like magic.”

Speaking vs. Typing

Although he types about 60 words per minute, Vieth was initially interested in voice recognition software because he was looking for a way to dictate deposition summaries and rough drafts of briefs without using a secretary or typing by hand.

Dragon claims that the average person types 40 wpm but can dictate between 140 and 160 wpm. With the use of Dragon, a 900-word document can be drafted in nine minutes. Typing it at 40 wpm would take 22 minutes.

Vieth says that, for him, the estimates aren’t far off: “I suspect that Dragon allows me to cut my writing time in half when I’m summarizing meetings and depositions.”

He notes that when he’s typing, his mind often races ahead of his fingers. With Dragon, he’s able to get all his thoughts down quickly without waiting for his hands to catch up. In that way, he’s been able to churn out first drafts of long legal documents and blogs posts fairly cleanly.

With regard to accuracy, an oft-cited concern of would-be users of speech recognition software, Vieth notes, “Version 11 is more accurate than anything preceding it. It is not at all unusual to dictate entire paragraphs without any errors at all. There will be some errors here and there in long documents (often involving specialized terminology and proper names), but the batting average is impressive.”

In fact, Vieth used Dragon to draft the preceding quote and all of his quotes for this story, without any manual editing — without, he says, having to speak in a robotic monotone. (He does note that it helps to speak like a broadcaster, clearly enunciating words, and that this can take some getting used to.)

Voice Recognition Software Challenges

Magic takes work.

“Out of the box, Dragon invites users to dictate for about 15 minutes as the initial training,” Vieth explains. “At that point, you’re up and running. You can fine-tune and tweak Dragon further, of course, and this is highly recommended.”

At a Glance: Dragon Naturally Speaking

  • With training, the software can be quite accurate.
  • An experienced user can cut document drafting time by half or even more.
  • Versions for PC and Mac are available.
  • English and Spanish language versions are available.
  • Dragon apps are available for the iPhone, iPad, Android and Blackberry.

Although the software comes preloaded with a large vocabulary, including some medical and legal terms, specialized terminology and proper names can challenge the software. There’s an easy workaround, though, Vieth says: Dragon gives you the ability to add your own custom vocabulary.

“I often spend a few seconds before dictating telling Dragon the correct spellings of any new proper nouns that I will be using (the names of people and places),” Vieth says. And when Dragon makes a mistake, he says, “you need to select that word or phrase and then tell Dragon what you actually said,” using either the headset or the keyboard. This training pays off handsomely in terms of productivity.

Dragon’s legal edition comes preloaded with a legal vocabulary, automatic citation formatting capability and several other, more sophisticated features geared to lawyers and law firms.

Though Dragon works with Outlook and Word, Vieth finds that it works best when he dictates into Dragon Pad, the word processing program that comes with the software. He then selects the finished item and pastes it into Word, which has better spell-checking features.

Proofreading is still imperative, though. That’s because Dragon may translate “I scream” into “ice cream,” Vieth explains. Therefore, you need to read your draft carefully to find mistakes that Word might miss.

A Final Word on Speech Recognition

The Dragon software comes with a microphone, but Vieth recently purchased a higher-end microphone. However, he says that he can’t honestly say whether the mike makes a difference in accuracy.

In addition to preparing first drafts, a Dragon user can also edit and polish documents. Vieth finds that it is quicker to make numerous edits by hand, however.

He’s used Dragon Dictate on both an iMac and a personal computer. Although the version for the iMac is slightly different than Dragon Naturally Speaking, Vieth says, it is also highly accurate. Of course, there’s also an app. Dragon has an iPhone app, and Vieth has tested it. Although it worked “reasonably well,” he says, he hasn’t stuck with using it. And, Vieth adds, he’s started using a Sony digital recorder for dictation which Dragon can recognize later. Although not as accurate, the flexibility of a digital recorder has been a productivity booster. “You can dictate a document in the car, or even while walking, then feed it to Dragon for recognition at the office.”

Overall, Vieth says, “It is great to have the option of quickly turning one’s thoughts or scribbled notes or outline into a rather accurate written document.”

Now it’s your turn. Have you used Dragon Naturally Speaking, Dragon Dictate or Dragon Legal? Tell us about your experience with the software.

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