Voice recognition software is the best thing since sliced bread


I only remember two things about the woman who ran HR at Douglas Symes and Brissenden in 1985 when I began my articles, and neither of them involved her name. First, she wore a black suit on Fridays, but only if she was going to fire someone that day. And second, in the days before PCs were on every lawyer’s desk, she told me to use a Dictaphone.

I resisted the Dictaphone at first, because I thought legal letters and memos could be written, revised and edited with more “care” and “thought” in the cursive handwriting that I had been taught (and which I bastardized) from the “MacLean Method” Canadian children like me learned in the 1960s.

I realized after a day or two that drafting a legal memo or letter in handwriting (with a fountain pen, no less) for someone else to type was a monumental waste of time more suited for scribes and clerks in Tudor England than a Vancouver law firm in the 80s. After all, our assistants (then called “Secretaries”) had IBM Selectric typewriters. Some used IBM Displaywriters. The office used a mainframe computer system the size of a small boat. There were at least five full-time “word-processing assistants” typing long documents onto five-inch “mag cards.” Although lawyers called to the Bar in this century might think we worked in the horse and buggy-whipped world of Bob Cratchet, we were state of the art in those days. So I learned how to work a Dictaphone.

Fast-forward a decade or two (pun intended), and I was still using one, despite PCs becoming as essential as chairs in lawyers’ offices. The problem was, I never learned how to type. I blame the fact that “Band” conflicted with “Typing” in Grade 9. Oh, I’ve tried various typing programs, but I kept falling back on the two-finger method, and felt vindicated when I saw Dan Rather and Morley Safer type with two fingers on 60 Minutes once.

Around 2000, I discovered voice recognition software, the first of which was IBM ViaVoice. ViaVoice was finicky and had an accuracy level of around 65%. It didn’t integrate well with large documents in Word, and it crashed too often. IBM got out of the voice recognition business and Nuance’s Dragon Dictate filled the void. Dragon’s accuracy level is about 90% – even higher in emails when it doesn’t have to worry about formatting. It integrates so well in Word, I can dictate directly into precedents or create new documents from scratch simply by speaking in my CBC Radio Announcer Voice. I record my time with it. I review contracts in it by providing my dictated commentary within “balloons” in the margin. I dictate drafts of opinions, hearing panel decisions, and columns like this by doing what I do best; yammering away without anyone listening to me.

Dragon is fast. It’s so fast, I intend on winning Boughton’s annual speed typing challenge this year using Dragon.

The essence of writing is rewriting, and that’s where I still need a mouse and keyboard. Whatever I’m writing, I still have to think, edit, improve, revise and move things around, and there is no substitute for a mouse, a keyboard and two-finger typing a la Dan Rather.

As for typos, Dragon rarely makes them, but if you dictate too quickly, or fail to speak like Ian Hanomansing reading the news, you may get a random word or phrase in your document that makes no sense at all. As they are word recognition errors and not typographical errors, I call these “wordos™,” and expect the term to become word of the year in 2019.

Although I thought the Dictaphone Company went the way of the buggy-whip and Blockbuster, it’s owned by Nuance – the same company that owns Dragon; proving that old technology may be worthless but the customer list is invaluable.

By the way, I still have a Dictaphone or two. They’re in the room in my house with my Victrola, my VHS tapes and my Short-Wave Radios.

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