Legal Transcripts: What Legal Teams Need to Know to Get the Right Transcription Service
Law firms face a noteworthy conundrum when seeking out transcription services. They often have particularly sensitive data that requires security guarantees. They need high accuracy standards for recordings that can contain obscure legal jargon. However, law firms often find themselves with huge quantities of recorded material that they need transcribed on any given case. Quick turnarounds can be necessary and costs can quickly add up.
Beyond that, the legal sector, particularly mid-sized law firms are struggling to compete with alternative legal service providers (ASLPs) and in-house corporate law firms. Since the Great Recession, law firms have seen declining profit margins and fewer billable hours. Legal teams are looking to cut corners wherever they can, increase efficiency and improve outcomes. Are transcription services an area where cost savings can be made?
Although just one small segment of a law firm’s budget, the small things add up. Astute observers will have noticed that software solutions have delivered new, automated and cheap transcription service solutions, and a peripheral glance at human transcription services will show a wide variation in price points. How do these services stack up against the more premium choices? This is a legal team’s guide to updating your understanding of transcription services and get the solution that meets your transcription needs on a budget that fits.
Speech to Text Software for Legal Transcripts
For anyone looking to reduce their transcription service budget, the use of automated speech recognition (ASR) software will be the first point of investigation. Some of these services are free, while the paid variations cost between five and twenty times less per minute of recorded audio than human options. With the explosion of speech to text devices (Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant), it seems this technology has finally come into its own.
Unfortunately, although accuracy has substantially improved, it still lags far behind what human transcriptionists are capable of delivering. To be honest, this should be obvious. Imagine every conversation you have ever had with Alexa and every misunderstanding you have had trying to find a song or look up the weather. The truth is that even the best automated transcription services struggle to hit accuracy rates above 80%, even under ideal circumstances. Factors such as poor audio quality, accents, background noise, or simply multiple speakers can quickly deteriorate those numbers — sometimes rendering the end transcript indecipherable.
It will likely be some time before law firms are able to access ASR solutions for all of their transcription needs. Although an individual lawyer might benefit from using ASR to transcribe personal dictaphone notes, ASR is not really yet up to the task of handling important case matter or depositions. ASR does not deliver the kind of outcomes that a law firm can count on.
Secure Transcription Services: A Legal Transcript Must
Most quality transcription services say that they deliver a secure service. The truth is that engaging with transcription services is a relatively safe operation. However, as a law firm, you need to weigh your tolerance for failure against the need to keep costs down. The reality is that, when engaging with human transcription services, you are placing your sensitive case material in the hands of a third-party. It is your responsibility to ensure its safe-keeping.
Things you cannot compromise on are HTTPS URLs, the use of SSL or TLS encrypted log-in portals and encrypted storage procedures. Most transcription services are willing to sign an NDA, and it is considered best practice to get one signed. You should also keep an eye out for ISO accreditations — specifically ISO 27001 & ISO 9001 accreditations. These reference management system standards and information security management. All of these features are relatively common among transcription services, and should broadly be considered deal breakers if not present.
If you want the highest security standards and guarantees, you should also look to contract solely with transcription companies that keep their transcriptionists in-house and are based in territories with robust judicial systems. In response to digital communication and globalisation, transcription services have followed trends seen across industries and offshored segments of their workforces — turning lower labour costs into lower customer facing prices. Using companies that engage in such practices can allow you to save money, but it will come at the cost of data security.
The introduction of multiple legal jurisdictions (and simply distance) can make it very hard for transcription service companies to enforce and monitor any guarantees they make regarding privacy policies — such as an NDA. For many law firms, segregating their ‘highly’ sensitive material from more ‘bog standard’ files delivers a good compromise that allows them to access the greatest protection for the data that they really cannot afford to compromise, but still keep costs down. However, this does introduce greater administrative burdens, forcing teams to contract and liaison with multiple transcription service firms.
It is also important to note that the apparent variations in cost aren’t always as dramatic as a tertiary glance at transcription rates and price points might indicate. The lowest priced services can come with hidden fees, including price jumps based on complex subject matter. For recordings filled with legalese, this can be a problem. It is also fundamentally true that finding quality typists with legal sector experience can deliver better quality outcomes in the first place — something else that will likely cost more and brings us directly to the next point:
Experienced Transcriptionists vs. Any Old Typist
More so than most people looking for transcription services, legal firms benefit from experienced typists with a history of working within the legal sector. Legal speak can be confusing, causing issues for those with no experience. This is particularly problematic within an industry with such little toleration for errors.
Legal firms will get the best outcomes if they look for transcription services that advertise legal specific transcription services. This is often only provided by the higher-end transcription services, ruling out the use of the budget services that are most likely to engage with offshore workforces — closing some of the price gap needed to engage with the most secure transcript options.
The industry-specific experience, however, delivers a higher-quality outcome. It also opens up opportunities to engage more freely with some of the edited transcription service options on offer. The industry standard for transcription services is called ‘intelligent verbatim’. This delivers a slightly abridged transcript that removes stutters, repetitions, and filler words like ‘um’. This is easier for transcriptionists to type and easier to read — also often costing slightly less per minute than true verbatim transcripts.
To make these edits, however, without damaging meaning, transcriptionists actually need to understand what they are typing. Transcriptionists with legal experience are able to do this more accurately — not misunderstanding something as simple as ‘matter’ to mean ‘what matters’, or even being able to introduce legal abbreviations into the final transcript.
By using legal-specific transcription services, legal firms are even able to engage with summary transcripts for notes. These are cheaper services that simply summarise the meaning contained within a recording, rather than the specific words. This is great if you have a lot of material to get through and are more interested in deciding which recordings are worth listening to yourself, or simply help you to compile another document. But, for summary transcription services to be of any use, they do need to be made by a professional who understands the subject matter.
Summary: There are Few Shortcuts to a Quality Legal Transcript
Unfortunately, we are not at a place technologically to really enable safe, secure and reliable legal transcripts at any significantly reduced cost. Law firms looking to reduce transcription budgets will have to compromise the quality of the outcome or the security of the process — neither of which are often viable options. Luckily, however, the safest services are often also those that specialise in legal services, allowing law firms to access transcription services that deliver exactly what they need at the highest standards of security. It is simply important to make sure that a transcription service that advertises as a “transcription service for law firms” actually backs that up with robust security procedures and experienced transcriptionists.
However, two things that law firms can do in order to cut costs are to look for transcription companies that deliver discounts for slow turnaround times or bulk orders. If you can plan ahead with a big order, you can sometimes save upwards of 20% by allowing a transcription service to transcribe your files when it is easiest for them. But, you will often have to wait in excess of a week to get your transcripts returned. Equally, some companies will offer a discount for repeat customers. So, find a service that works, use them for a while and then see if they will give you a discount.
In the long run, speech to text software will improve. One of the earliest successful implementations of speech to text software was called Audrey, created at Bell laboratories back in 1952. Our penchant for naming our automated assistants hasn’t changed. But, since then, we have gone from the ability to recognise the numbers 0-9 and six simple commands all of the way to Siri. With the ever-accelerating curve of technological development, there may be hope yet for reliable ASR in only a few years. It is always important to keep an eye out for those kinds of advancements.
Our preemptive advice, however, for the future use of legal ASR would be that all of your security concerns that apply to human transcription services apply equally to providers of automatic transcription services. Just because a machine will be the main transcriber of your data, you have no guarantee that a human won’t look at your data unless it is explicitly stated, and encrypted storage and data transfers are always important.