The SPCC circle has grown this past year to include businesses of all kinds, but we began exclusively as a legal conference center. We have an abundance of friends in the legal community and are intimately familiar with processes and procedures.
But even if you’re not part of the legal world, you’re probably familiar with the legal system. Maybe it’s through jury duty, a courtroom film like My Cousin Vinny or TV series like The Practice, or you’ve watched TV coverage of a famous trial like OJ Simpson. The parts that lawyers, judges, and juries play are well-known to just about everyone. But what about the person sitting quietly by the bench, listening to everything said and typing it down on their small, strange keyboard?
That’s the court reporter, one of the most integral parts of the legal process.
Court reporters are some of the hardest-working people both inside the courtroom and out. They stay up late to finish rush transcripts, get up early to beat the traffic to appear at a hearing, and in between they do their job with utmost professionalism and a smile on their faces.
And they do it all at 200+ words per minute.
February 5-12 is Court Reporting and Captioning Week, so we thought we’d take a moment to talk about the amazing people we work with every day.
WHAT DO COURT REPORTERS DO?
Simply put, a court reporter’s job is to take down the record: a transcript of everything said during a court proceeding. They are also notaries empowered to swear in witnesses in the absence of a judge, such as at a deposition. They travel to courtrooms, conference centers, and doctors’ or attorneys’ offices to do their work.
If you’ve ever paid attention to closed captioning on live, unscripted TV (not auto-generated captions), you’ve seen stenography at work. Overall, stenographers are verbatim transcriptionists who use a steno machine with a specialized keyboard (such as in the photo to the left). Many reporters and captioners liken steno writing to playing chords on a piano because they type whole words or even phrases at a time rather than letter-by-letter. Often, court reporters work as captioners and vice versa, because they are all stenographers trained to listen and type in real time to a high degree of accuracy.
Just how high? The National Court Reporters Association standard is 225 words per minute (which is about 4 words per second), and a minimum accuracy of 97%. The standards are even more strict for Realtime reporters who, like captioners, have their work displayed on screens for the attorneys to read back. Besides court reporting and captioning, stenographers also lend their talents to transcription services for deaf or hard of hearing individuals (CART captioning).
TRAINING, KNOWLEDGE, AND DISCIPLINE
Court reporters attend school to train for that magic 225wpm threshold. Not everyone moves through at the same speed. It depends on their aptitude and how quickly they take to the steno machine. The grueling training results in elite, highly-specialized individuals, but it also results in steep drop-out rates–even among those who are most passionate about court reporting. At the end of the day, it’s not about whether someone wants to become a reporter, it’s about whether or not they can meet the required accuracy and words per minute.
But reporting isn’t just about speed. Court reporters must have a good handle on English grammar and punctuation, as well as knowledge of legal procedures and terminology. Over time they also build a working vocabulary of everything from medicine to home improvement, for when a doctor or contractor is deposed. The demands of the job also result in incredible stamina. An intense deposition can go for more than eight hours with only 5-10 minute breaks throughout.
GUARDIANS OF THE RECORD
Despite the name, court reporters don’t only work in the courtroom. They are also present for other legal proceedings like depositions, hearings, and compulsory medical exams. After the proceeding is over they proofread their work and create a certified transcript for the attorneys to read. If a doctor uses a complex medical term or a witness says a unique name, the reporter must get the spelling afterwards. To proofread their work, they listen back to their own recording or get an audio file from the videographer to assist them. On top of all that, they may also have to organize exhibits from the attorneys.
If you’re curious about what transcripts look like, you can sometimes find them online. If a transcript is filed as an exhibit for trial, it becomes public record. You may have even seen excerpts from high-profile cases on the news (the recent release of Ghislaine Maxwell’s deposition transcript comes to mind). But whether the witness is a famous name or someone’s grandmother, a court reporter’s job is to be a neutral third-party and take the record without bias. They or their firm is hired by an attorney, but the real power they work for is the court.
THE FUTURE OF COURT REPORTING
Despite their vital role, the United States is facing an alarming court reporter shortage. The industry has a higher-than-average median age which means a greater number of reporters are approaching retirement without enough young newcomers to fill their places. The usage of Zoom and other platforms during the pandemic has allowed reporters to double or even triple up on jobs for the day to keep up with the deluge–but every job completed means more transcript pages to proofread and finalize, while also accepting jobs for the next day. One of our videographers spoke to a reporter in December who had almost a thousand pages of transcripts backlogged because her agency desperately needed her to work every day.
The good news is that there is never a bad time to get started! Some reporters train right out of high school or college, while others make the career change after decades in another field. New reporters are always appreciated. Court reporters are a community of kind, giving, helpful people who welcome newbies with open arms. If you’re thinking about getting into court reporting yourself, or know someone who is, both the NCRA and the FCRA (Florida Court Reporters Association) have accredited resources on their websites
THANK YOU, COURT REPORTERS!
We open our doors to court reporters every day, and can say with certainty that they are remarkable, resilient people. If you know a court reporter, thank them! Without them, the legal landscape would look very different.