Everyone has watched a TV show or movie that showed a person sitting in the courtroom, silently typing away. And we’ve all wondered, what in the world are they doing? Midwest Litigation Services, which specializes in court reporting and video services, is here to answer that exact question and more.In honor of National Court Reporting and Captioning week, Midwest Litigation Services gathered numerous questions that people had about court reporters and their field. These questions were then answered by real-life court reporters using their personal experiences.
What do court reporters do on a day-to-day basis?
On a day-to-day basis, court reporters serve as human recorders of every word said in a room by every person, verbatim; we are the human playbacks of those words when someone needs a question/answer or other testimony read back immediately; we are the watchdog of the exhibits, keeping track of numbering them, and making sure everyone knows where they are at the end of the day; we are the referee of making sure everyone take turns speaking one at a time; we are like the best waiter/waitress at the finest restaurant in town, informing our customers what services we offer, taking orders, getting names, addresses, etc., always providing an impeccable experience of legal assistance in a friendly and professional manner.
What do you think is the most common misconception people have about court reporters?
Contrary to popular belief, we DO NOT have symbols that look like Gregg Shorthand on our machines!
The biggest misconception I find is that people not in the business always seem to think I go into court all day and it’s just like TV. Couldn’t be farther from what I really do. I take depositions typically in an attorney’s office, sometimes a hospital or doctor’s office. Heck, I even went to a peach peeling facility once in Central Mexico. Our client took me shopping in one of the largest shoe shops in the world. While in New York City taking a depo, we wound down at night at Times Square taking a horse-drawn carriage ride. So it’s a little different than the court reporters on TV.
I think the biggest misconception people have about court reporters is that they employ a quaint but antiquated method of recording the spoken word. Back in 1978, as I was nearing completion of court reporting school, my father sent me a Wall Street Journal article stating that videographers were going to replace court reporters in the “near future.” Granted, the original version of today’s steno machine was patented in 1911. Yet despite all the advances in both videography and voice-recognition software over the 40 years since that WSJ article appeared, there is still simply no other technology that can match the unique ability of the human brain to decipher foreign accents or differentiate the words of multiple people speaking simultaneously. Some cite the development of digital audio recording as a superior means, but without human intervention, if a recorded utterance is found to be inaudible or indiscernible after the fact, it’s too late to ask someone to repeat or clarify what was said. There have been many examples over the years where, due to audio recording system breakdowns or human error in system operation, a trial recording was lost and the case had to be retried, at great expense to all involved and at the cost of justice delayed. Unfortunately, because of such misconceptions, there is a growing shortage of court reporters today. Far too few people are aware that developing the skills to manually report speech at 225 or more words per minute on “that little machine” can be a fascinating and lucrative career option for intelligent and motivated students. The National Court Reporters Association’s www.crtakenote.com website cites the growing need for this skill.
Another misconception is that court reporters only report testimony in the courtroom. Deposition reporters are actually far more numerous, enjoying great flexibility with their hours and a wide variety of cases. In addition, TV broadcast captioners can work from home, and reporters who provide communication access realtime (instantaneous translation of the spoken word onto a computer screen) enable deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to fully participate in schools, trainings, conferences and other venues. In short, court reporting is one of the best-kept career secrets out there. It’s not only among the most interesting jobs in the world but also one that can provide a handsome living to those with well-developed skills and a superior work ethic…and it doesn’t require a 4-year college degree.
What is the best part of your job?
I think the best part of my job is the diversity. I don’t go to the same place day after day. I work with so many different people and have developed friendships with people I would have never thought possible. The flexibility is also very nice. Being able to make appointments or hang out with my family and being able to adjust my schedule is a great thing.
Getting to travel to unique places and meet interesting people. I probably have hundreds of stories that would provide great examples of this, but two specifically come to mind. The first was one job that allowed me to fly to Texas to take statements in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. I went to both the Johnson Space Center and to the University of Texas at Austin to report interviews with scientists involved in the design and launch of the shuttle. I felt like a witness to history in the making. The second, and by far one of the weirdest jobs in my career, took place at a bull auction. It was a standard auction, but with some very unique items ranging from bulls to actual bull…well, semen.
What was your favorite moment on the job?
I think any court reporter could write a book on their experiences as a court reporter. Our job is pretty hilarious at times. So while I cannot come up with a favorite moment, I can say some more memorable things have been an attorney asking and answering questions TO HIMSELF for an hour; a witness vomiting on my machine claiming she was having a heart attack because she didn’t want to be deposed; while in a filthy home, having kittens climbing up the leg of my pant suit and a 3-year-old child climbing on my back DURING the deposition. And that is only the short version of just a couple of stories you would find in my book!
I had the amazing opportunity to work as one of the court reporters for Pope John Paul II’s visit to St. Louis in 1999. It was an incredible event that brought worldwide attention, including mass media coverage. Former President Clinton as well as Vice-President Gore and their wives were in attendance. The venues included the airport, outdoor plazas, and several huge auditoriums. But even though the terminology and accents were challenging and the security was exceptionally tight, it was a once-in-a-lifetime professional experience.
What was your least favorite experience on the job?
I reported a lot of night hearings, mostly planning and zoning boards. While I found the subject matter generally very interesting, the sometimes contentious nature of the proceedings made these jobs really difficult. For the more unpopular agenda items, NIMBYs (“Not in my backyard!”) would show up in droves. I once reported a hearing on a petition for a medical waste incinerator that was held in the local junior high school auditorium to accommodate the size of the crowd. I was seated on the stage with the attorney representing the petitioner and an engineering witness, while the audience was full of chanting protesters. Because of the noise from the crowd, the questioning attorney had to cup his hands to his mouth and yell at the top of his lungs, “PLEASE STATE YOUR NAME FOR THE RECORD,” and the witness would yell loudly in response. Good Times. It got to the point where I could judge the difficulty of a hearing simply by the number of cars in the parking lot when I arrived.
Why did you become a court reporter?
I was a single mother, and I needed a career that would allow me to provide a nice means of support for my young family, as well as be flexible so I didn’t have to miss out on being a parent; raised two children and never had to miss a field trip or send a sick child to school.
I graduated from college with a social science degree and found myself in a low-paying job that I really did not care for. I had played piano as a child, so a friend of mine said, “Oh, you’re manually dexterous. You should become a court reporter. It’s really easy, and they make a lot of money!” I figured I could hate another job for more money, so I looked into it and found the prospect of learning how to use the steno machine and working in the legal environment really interesting. I eventually quit my job and attended reporting school full time. Becoming a court reporter was NOT “really easy”…in fact, it was not easy at all. The dropout rate is north of 95%, and there were times when I wanted to just give up, because the skill and speed were so difficult to attain. But I kept at it and persevered and eventually ended up in what I think is the most fascinating job on the planet. On any given day, you can report anything from a mundane slip-and-fall to the words of a celebrity or world leader. And for those reporters with realtime skills and a superior work ethic, the profession can be very lucrative indeed!
Do you think there will be an increase in career opportunities for court reporters?
Our legal system is an integral part of the foundation of our country. There will always be a need for judges, there will always be a need for lawyers, and there will always be a need for court reporters. I definitely believe there is and will always be an increase in career opportunities for court reporters. I think by the sheer nature of more people in the world, more issues arise that need legal interpretation/proceedings, more of everyone working in the legal system. Some people question whether technology will ever fill the role of a court reporter. I firmly believe there is no better “machine” for our job than a human! Siri, Alexa, and computer voice recognition systems WILL NEVER take our jobs! To name a few human-only capabilities, those systems cannot distinguish speakers with more than one person talking at a time (which happens at least a little almost every day in a deposition setting), they cannot read back from ten minutes ago when the witness said the word “procrastinate” in his answer, those systems cannot put into writing slang and words that people make up that aren’t part of the human language; those systems aren’t able to only hear words when someone sneezes or coughs at the same time as someone else is speaking. So technology will continue to make us more proficient at our jobs, but will never replace us.