27th October 1960:  A Munich secretary simultaneously typing and making a phone call with the aid of the Beoton telephone amplifier.  (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Chad Burton has given up his laptop and his iPad and now works exclusively from his iPhone. He manages software and consulting firm for lawyers with it. On a recent podcast, two lawyers discussed whether they could travel with just a phone and still get their work done. The debate for them came down to whether they needed a tablet and phone or just a phone. I noticed that the computer was not really a part of the discussion.

The interesting insight is that I took away from both pieces is that older lawyers may have an edge when it comes to working with minimal technology. Older lawyers developed the skills to compose by voice. And now, between Siri and Dragon Anywhere, lawyers with dictation skills can get work done without much infrastructure.

Long ago, when I was a high school student working at a law firm (1988), I can remember that the paralegals had computers but lawyers didn’t. The lawyers composed into a dictaphone or a microcassette recorder. And the paralegals typed it all up. When I was in law school and working in various law offices, the lawyers and paralegals both had computers. And I had my choice. I could type everything myself, and I could dictate. I had a foot in both worlds. It is a rare office now where lawyers dictate for others to transcribe. Though dictation is alive and well in medicine.

Now, things have both advanced and come full circle. It is possible to compose by dictating but without the need for staff. The software on a smartphone does the work of the 1988-era paralegal. But for a generation of lawyers trained to compose on the keyboard, dictation is a skill not yet learned.

The irony is that you could likely cut out a great deal of overhead in your office if you embraced some old-school legal skills that once required a large staff to support. And it may be dependence on desks and desktop computers that is driving up your costs.

14244199385_7f444f30f1_zToday, I attended a continuing legal education seminar featuring Ross Guberman. Ross is the author of Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates. When his book first came out, I briefly reviewed it and interviewed Ross here on the blog. I have enjoyed Ross’s book immensely and have used it as a reference over the last few years.

I could write many blog posts on the points that Ross covered today. However, it was a minor point that intrigued me the most. Ross believes that briefs today are not as good as they were in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Why is that so? Ross said that briefs were better when lawyers dictated their work rather than sitting at the keyboard and writing. When lawyers dictated, the product was conversational and direct. When lawyers sit behind the keyboard, our work tends to be less conversational and more cumbersome.

I believe that Ross is on to something. I have been on the fence about using Dragon Dictate, the Mac version of Dragon Naturally Speaking. I have had the software in some form on my computer for years. I go through spurts where I try to use it. In each instance, I have ultimately shelved the project for months before picking it up again. Now, dictation is a feature of my phone and iPad. I have been willing to dictate short projects and found it to be a good way to get work done.

However, I find the exercise of dictation to be easier for short documents or for lengthy summaries than for substantive writing projects such as briefs and complex motions. Even blog posts are difficult to imagine doing using any form of dictation (However, I am preparing this blog post using dictation software on my laptop.) I have feared that dictating a brief would be inferior to typing because of problems with citation and keeping the document organized as I write it. I’ve actually been afraid of dictating briefs and more complex writing.

Things may soon come full circle If the heyday of brief writing was a time before lawyers would sit down and type out documents, then software may actually be taking us back to a new golden age. Dictation, not to an assistant, but to the technology itself, is becoming easier.

I have had the fortune of being mentored by lawyers who dictate much of their work. These lawyers are good writers. They have encouraged me to dictate. While I do some dictation in a traditional setting, I think there is an opportunity for dictation to the technology itself. I can’t wait to give it a serious shot.

transcript sumary.jpgIn the past two days, I had two Briefs due at the Supreme Court of Georgia. Both were murder cases. Yet, I was able to complete them both with very little stress.When it came time to apply the law to the facts. I was able to find the exact facts that I needed. It would not have come together so well without a transcript summary.

Why do a transcript summary? Think about your last appellate record. About 80 percent of it consisted of useless forms. Even the transcript is made up of a bunch of meaningless dialogue with pages of riveting stuff like the judge giving the jurors a bathroom break and and telling them when to return. Witnesses weren’t called in any particular order that makes sense. Witnesses were sometimes called at a time most convenient to them and not in the best narrative arrangement (That’s what openings and closings were all about) It’s hard to craft a compelling narrative from raw trial transcripts. And you can always tell the briefs that were written by lawyers who did not prepare a transcript summary and those who probably did.

You’ve read those briefs right? You know them by the way the statement of facts is drafted. Have you ever read this brief:

The State’s first witness was Officer Smith. Officer Smith testified that he pulled Joe Defendant over because he was weaving within a single lane of traffic. He pulled Joe Defendant over. As he approached Mr. Defendant, he smelled marijuana in the car. The State’s next witness was Bob Doghandler. Officer Doghandler was a certified canine officer. He took his dog, Cujo, and had him conduct a free-air sniff around the car. Cujo alerted on the rear quarter panel. The officer testified that he opened the trunk and found a suspected controlled substance inside. The next witness the State called was Dr. DrugTest. Dr. DrugTest is a forensic biologist. He works at the crime lab. He tested the item and it was positive for cocaine.

If you’re writing statements of fact like this, it’s because you either don’t know any better, or it’s because you didn’t have time to learn the record, and you’re going through the paces regurgitating things from the record in a summary fashion and the brief is due in a few hours.


Transcript summaries allow you to distill the record down to its purest form.

By writing a transcript summary, you digest the record down to what is essential. In so doing, you can leave those ten volumes behind and carry around a thirty page transcript summary. When it comes time to write the brief, you aren’t shifting from volume to volume to find the most important parts of the record. You’re flipping through the transcript summary. When you’re in court, if asked a question, you can find the answer more quickly. The lawyers who cart in crates full of the file to oral argument always make me smile, particularly if they are opposing counsel.


It’s a learning experience.

Appellate lawyers are late to the game. The client has been thinking about her case. Trial counsel and the prosecutor have lived with the case longer than you have. The act of reading the transcript and summarizing it will get you up to speed. And you’ll be the master of the record. Your opposing counsel will likely not draw up a transcript summary. So, you’ll quickly have the advantage over her.

In fact, knowing the record is different from remembering what was in the discovery or what some witness said in an interview. On appeal, mastery of the record trumps knowledge of the case, its players, and what the witnesses were like. The reason: none of that stuff matters anymore. And it’s often difficult to distinguish in your memory between a fact you know to be the case and a fact that actually got into your record.


It makes a difference

I haven’t always done transcript summaries. The cases where I didn’t do them are growing into the distant past. Unfortunately, much time often passes between critical stage in the proceedings. Months and sometimes longer pass between when I worked heavily in a file at the motion for new trial stage and when I work heavily on it again at to write the brief of appellant. I literally high five the people around me when I pick up a file with a transcript summary in it. The difference between doing a transcript summary in a case and not doing one is as big as the difference between not reading the transcript at all and reading the transcript.


So, how do you write a transcript summary?

Transcript summaries are taylor made for dictation. You simply get your transcript or load up the pdf version or e transcript into you Kindle, iPad or computer. Then you can begin to read through and dictate the material things from the transcript. What you do can vary by style.

Of course you can type it up, too. But it can be nice to sit outside in your back yard with a little coffee, a digital recorder and your transcript and dictate a transcript summary


What do they look like?

It depends on your style. I like to put a column on the left side for page numbers and a column on the right side for content. I put chapter headings for each witness and subheadings for cross-examination, redirect. I generally bold face type out objections and rulings, or exhibit numbers. I also put in chapter headings for voir dire or things in jury instructions that stand out. Your goal is to create a free-standing reference that you can use in place of the transcript to discuss your case at argument, use as a reference for client meetings, or use as a reference during oral argument or during examination of witnesses at the motion for new trial hearing.

Seriously, making a transcript summary on my cases has made the biggest difference of anything that I do on my appellate practice. It will transform yours too.

dictation dude.jpgA few weeks ago, I met with a respected colleague about a case we are doing together. The lawyer is one of the best criminal defense lawyers in Georgia. As I entered his office, I noticed something conspicuously absent from his desktop — computer monitors. Where a monitor might go, there was a dictaphone with, get this, micro-casette tapes. I know from working with the lawyer before that he is a prolific writer. He engages opposing counsel, witnesses, and his client frequently with written correspondence. He files creative motions on his cases, and he is always prepared.

The experience got me thinking about dictation. I’ve never mastered it as many lawyers my age and younger have not. I’ve dabbled in it and always found that I was very productive whenever I have. I pulled out my digital recorder and dictated a few letters. Suddenly, my productivity spiked. 

Even if you don’t have the support staff in place to transcribe dictations, it has probably never been easier to dictated documents. I use an Olympus Digital Voice Recorder WS-400S that I bought from an office supply store about a year ago. At under $100, it takes clear recordings, and it has a built in retractible USB connector. From there, I upload files to Speakwrite, where the dictations are outsourced, transcribed, and returned to me as a Word file. The service is fairly inexpensive. 

If you don’t want to use a service like Speakwrite, there are other options. I use MacSpeech Dictate for voice recognition on my Mac. For Windows users, there is Dragon Naturally Speaking. There is also a free Dragon app for the iPad.

A few weeks ago, the Mac Power Users Podcast devoted an entire episode to dictation with the Mac.

Right now, I am doing motions and letters via dictation. Eventually, it would be nice to do briefs and trial trasncript summaries that way also.