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How to become a great legal dictator

Maxine ParkA guide to the perfect dictation

When it comes to accurate dictation, a few simple guidelines will help not only make transcription of your files easier and more accurate, whilst saving you money into the bargain. 

The first choice is the equipment you use, but whether it’s a dictation machine or a Smartphone with the latest dictation app., it’s important not to hold it too close. The microphone should be about six inches (15cm) from your mouth to prevent words becoming muffled by other sounds, like the burst of air that hits the microphone when you use ‘plosive’ words like ‘punish’ or ‘benefit’. Also, if you get too close, your breathing can muffle your words.

Many dictators now find that thanks to a drive for greater efficiency and productivity they are perhaps working more out of the office, which can present a problem for the transcriber, but at the very least dictators should avoid shuffling papers or tapping keyboards.

Background noise should be minimised, which can be difficult in a busy practice, but finding somewhere quieter, is generally better than constantly having to stop and start recordings when your colleagues get too noisy. You should experiment with the sensitivity settings of the recording device to reduce the distance at which the microphone will pick up sounds, to ensure your voice remains the focus.

It’s important after you press record (and before you stop) to pause slightly before speaking so your first and last words are not clipped. Then once you get going, remember to speak slowly and as clearly as possible; the better your diction, the better the dictation; too many ‘ums’ and ‘ers’, will lengthen your dictation and cost you more accordingly. 

Punctuate only under instruction

Experienced, qualified legal transcription typists know only to insert punctuation as requested by the dictator as a comma or apostrophe in the wrong place could significantly change the meaning of what was intended.  You must dictate all punctuation and use consistent instructions: 

Full Stop  .  Align (direction)   
Comma  , Indent  
Exclamation Mark  ! Open Parentheses  (
Question Mark  ? Close Parentheses  )
Colon  : Apostrophe  
Semicolon  ; Quotation Marks  “ ”
Paragraph   Slash  /
New Line   Ampersand  &

You can speed up the formatting of the finished document by adding it to your dictation; when you want to underline, capitalise or bold certain elements of your text, simply say STOP and then issue instructions for how the next word, words, sentence etc., should be treated.

STOP  Centred 
STOP In bold type
STOP In italics
STOP Underline type
STOP Spelled/Spelt
STOP In capitals

In general, you need only spell obscure words, names and addresses, etc., as most experienced, qualified transcription typists will have a good working knowledge of the English language and commonly used legal expressions, including Latin terms. 


When spelling words, the recommended phonetic alphabet to use is the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet:

A Alpha  November
B Bravo O Oscar
C Charlie P Papa
D Delta Q Quebec
E Echo R Romeo
F Foxtrot S Sierra
Golf T Tango
H Hotel U Uniform
I India V Victor
J Juliet W Whisky
K Kilo X X-Ray
L Lima Y Yankee
M Mike Z Zulu

Numbers present a different set of problems for transcription typists and should always be dictated in the same way to reduce the chance of confusion. 

0  Zero or Nought - Never ‘O’
1,000 One Thousand – not a Thousand
1977 Nineteen seventy seven
3.18 Three point one eight
12,700 Twelve thousand seven hundred

You will also need to dictate any relevant reference numbers at the start of your dictation to identify the client or case to which the work refers. If you are utilising outsourced transcription services, the typists may have access to your system remotely, allowing them to complete work within the relevant files utilising existing templates.

Service providers will usually have typists spread throughout the country, not only to help increase confidentiality for dealing with matters that are locally sensitive, but to be able to match a dictator’s strong regional accent with that of a typist.

Working remotely with the IT team’s help

Many service providers will be given templates by the law firms they work with, which not only ensures every document is completed with the exact layout required, but does not require standard paragraphs to be dictated – this helps keep transcriptions to a minimum.

However, there is a growing trend in the market, particularly amongst mid-sized and larger law firms, where instead of templates, the firms provide service providers with the ability to login remotely and transcribe dictations directly into their document management and/or case management system.

The remote logins are usually a secure VPNs or Windows remote desktop login, which allows typists trained in all the major document and case management systems to undertake dictation transcription as if they were sat in the office with the fee-earners.

The number of logins provided depends on the volume of work the client expects to outsource, but typically would be from 5 to 20 logins to allow typists to work simultaneously in the client’s system. When a dictation arrives, it will be automatically allocated by operations software to the typist with experience in the appropriate case management system, who will then remotely login, and type up the dictation, which may also involve some copy typing.

It varies by client and IT system, but generally on completion of the job, a notification of the job will be emailed to the fee-earner, informing them that the dictation has been transcribed and that it can be viewed on and printed from their system. 

To receive accurate transcriptions that save time typing for hard-pressed in-house resources and time correcting the returned work, the best advice is for fee-earners to pay attention to the quality of their dictation and remember to press record and speak clearly.

Maxine Park specialised in commercial litigation and was made partner at her firm in 1992. When Maxine had her first child she worked from home. After the birth of her second child, she left legal practice, attained a PGCE and lectured law to legal executives, HR personnel and journalism students.She launched DictateNow with husband Garry, to offer an enhanced and efficient transcription resource to businesses in a wide range of sectors including legal, medical, public sector, charity and parliament. Maxine’s experience as a solicitor and home-working parent directly led to the formation of DictateNow which currently employs over 300 home-based typists in the UK, to provide fast, reliable and confidential digital dictation and transcription services. A well-respected and published author, Maxine has a talent for delivering insightful, detailed and engaging articles covering topics of interest to owners, managers and individuals of businesses and organisations of all sizes across all sectors. She is able to shape articles to ensure they remain relevant to each audience and meet the needs of editors with regard to the originality and length of her articles.  

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