Outsourcing dictation can save a law firm thousands of pounds, but it must be managed carefully, writes Jonathan Rayner.
On the one hand, there are those who demand to know why anyone would consider such madness. After all, just having a temporary secretary for a day throws you off your stride; it would be much worse if you had to rely on strangers full-time. And anyway, they assert, it is a solicitor’s duty to respect client confidentiality. Why even contemplate farming out commercially sensitive or personal data to another body? It is enough to get you struck off the roll.
On the other hand, there are those who wax eloquent on the subject. Outsourcing, they proclaim, allows you to reduce staff overheads and concentrate resources on fee-earners. Also, there are tried and tested mechanisms in place to ensure confidentiality, quality and compliance with Solicitors Regulation Authority rules. Outsourcing is a no-brainer, they say.
So, outsourcing dictation is either wanton recklessness or law firm management of the highest order. The Gazette sought a balanced view by speaking to users, regulators and providers of the service.
Shifting the dynamic
Gary Storer, practice manager at West Midlands firm QualitySolicitors Silks, says that outsourcing to transcription and digital dictation company dictate2us has been a ‘success’ for the firm and saved it ‘thousands of pounds’ over the last three years. He says: ‘Importantly, it allowed us to shift the dynamic of the firm in the light of the economic downturn. A fee-earner and secretary working as a unit is no longer a sustainable model. Outsourcing meant we could let some people go, while focusing others on becoming multi-functional.
‘The process is easy to use. We dictate as though the secretary is there in our office and then transfer it to the dictate2us website. It’s a quick turnaround and, in our case, the finished job is filed directly on to our case management system.’
Jamie Abrahams, operations director at niche London real estate and commercial firm Harold Benjamin, makes the unusual claim that he would like to spend more money with digital dictation company DictateNow. He says: ‘Our decision to outsource was prompted more by a wish to increase efficiency than to reduce costs – although that was also an important consideration. We have massively increased turnover and profitability in the last two years. If we are spending more with DictateNow, then we must be generating more work.’
Harold Benjamin now outsources everything that previously would have been typed in-house. As a result, the firm no longer employs secretaries in the traditional sense and, despite fee-earner numbers climbing 20% since January 2013, has not needed to put in place a proportionate rise in administrative support. Abrahams says: ‘The people who used to type in this building have been encouraged to move on to become paralegals or legal executives, which again has improved efficiencies.’
So outsourcing has been a success? ‘Definitely,’ replies Abrahams. ‘It is helping us do it better for less with no long-term contractual obligations. The arrangement is based purely on results and can be cancelled at any time.’
The providers of outsourced dictation are, unsurprisingly, equally enthusiastic about its benefits. Take transcription provider Voicepath, which boasts more than 200 law firm clients, ranging from large nationals to high street practices. Many of its client firms have agreed to provide testimonials for Voicepath’s website.
Hertfordshire firm Debenhams Ottaway, for example, says: ‘We have calculated that we have saved £500,000 in salary costs alone through using Voicepath.’ London firm HowardKennedyFsi claims that Voicepath’s services have enabled it to ‘revolutionise our business practices beyond the simple adoption of digital dictation’. Lancashire firm Scott Rees & Co praises Voicepath for the ‘fast and accurate turnaround of the work we send them’.
There are similar paeans on the website of DictateNow, whose clients range in size from sole practitioners to top-100 law firms. International firm Ince & Co praises DictateNow’s reliability and its ‘seamless integration into our operation that engenders confidence and removes the pain’. National firm Lewis Silkin commends the provider’s ‘quality and accuracy’ and adds that much of the firm’s work is picked up by the same typists so that they are more ‘an extension of our team… than an external service provider’. Wandsworth Borough Council, more technically, endorses DictateNow’s ‘hosted server system, which considerably reduced the implementation cost’ and allows the council to outsource whenever its secretaries are absent or busy.
Lost in translation
The only criticisms appear to concern offshoring. Many law firms have brought their dictation back onshore because of time-consuming – if sometimes amusing – errors that have crept into their letters and other documents when processed by non-native English speakers. One solicitor, for example, complained that south-east London’s Brockley came back to him as broccoli. A lawyer from the south-west, moreover, was somewhat taken aback when her letter telling a client that she had ‘calculated the costs’ was returned with the disclosure that she had ‘copulated the costs’.
Rule one of how to outsource dictation, then, is to keep it in onshore with a reputable provider. Rule two is to check that the service is such that the law firm remains compliant with the SRA Code of Conduct 2011. The Law Society’s website carries a detailed October 2011 practice note on all forms of outsourcing, including due diligence, IT, Companies House filing and ‘legal secretarial services [such as] digital dictation to an outsourced secretarial service for word-processing or typing’.
Compliance places a heavy obligation on law firms. Practices remain responsible for all outsourced work – you cannot blame the outside supplier. SRA principles apply: you must provide a proper standard of service to your clients, you must comply with your legal and regulatory obligations, and you must run your firm in accordance with proper governance rules. Your client care letter, moreover, should inform clients what aspects of their work are being outsourced.
On the subject of confidentiality, the SRA code says you can only outsource services when you are satisfied that the provider has taken all appropriate steps to ensure that your clients’ confidential information will be protected. Note the words ‘when you are satisfied’. It is your responsibility to check that the provider is able to do what it says it can do – and is doing it. If things go wrong, it is your head on the block.
Finally, and assuming you have not been scared off by the regulatory obligations, you need to carry out a risk assessment. For example, there are only a limited number of outsourced dictation providers, while there are thousands of law firms each carrying out hundreds if not thousands of transactions a year. How can you be sure that there is no conflict of interest, with the same provider supplying the firms on both sides of a transaction? There is a risk that commercially sensitive information could be leaked. How would you explain that to your client?
Prevention is better than cure, as the saying goes, and so if you choose your provider wisely, then you probably won’t have embarrassing questions to answer. The wisest move is to ask a prospective provider for the name and contact details of one or more of its existing law firm clients. Speak to these firms, ask what difficulties or obstacles they had to overcome to begin using the service. Ask them about the benefits: has it reduced headcount, saved money, protected confidentiality, sped up processes, made life easier or more difficult? Would they recommend the prospective provider?
Graham and Daryl Leigh, legal director and chief executive respectively of Bury-based dictate2us, are confident that their company not only ticks all the boxes, but offers additional features too. Daryl Leigh says: ‘We provide a specialist typist for each legal sector, whether commercial, criminal, family, property or the rest.’
Graham Leigh notes the appeal of the firm’s international service. ‘We provide transcription in any language, such as Cantonese or Mandarin in Hong Kong,’ he says. ‘We can take a Russian language document and transcribe it into Japanese, for instance. This means different time zones and long hours because we have turnaround undertakings to meet – we say that a piece of dictation less than five minutes long will be turned around in an hour, any time of the day or night. We even type in braille.’
He ends by stating that confidentiality and data protection are ensured by ‘military-grade encryption’ and by ‘confidentiality agreements’ signed by typists, editors and everyone involved in the quality control process.
Account manager Jonathan Shiels at Leamington Spa-based Voicepath claims that his company’s legal typing and transcription service ‘helps law firms do more for less’. He says: ‘Firms are not increasing headcount in these difficult economic times. This is unsurprising given that, in London, the average salary for a legal secretary is £45,000. Firms can save up to 60% in costs if they outsource some of the work.’
Change in attitude
Voicepath was established in 1998 and in the intervening years, Shiels says, there have been fundamental changes in attitudes to outsourcing and the way the service is delivered.
‘Outsourcing used to be regarded as back-office support, but now it is seen as a viable extension to a firm’s business model. It frees up fee-earners’ time so they can concentrate on high-value work and on meeting targets. It also gives firms flexibility without commitment – they can choose when or when not to use us, and how urgently they want the work done. We can do it overnight or with a 45-60 minute turnaround time – it’s the client’s choice.’
Shiels adds that developments in technology have also transformed outsourcing. ‘Firms used to use analogue tapes, with one tape per user,’ he says, ‘but the new digital platforms have changed everything. Lawyers can dictate directly to us on their mobile phones, for instance. The evolution of voice recognition programmes has also been epic. The programmes can recognise accents and allow files to be uploaded, which we can then tailor and format in one streamlined process.’
So, how best to outsource dictation? Choose onshore, not offshore, to avoid a broccoli moment; canvass providers’ existing clients for a recommendation or otherwise; ensure SRA compliance – or face the consequences; and check that the provider is using the most up-to-date technology.