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Chapter 5: The Professional Scopist

5.1 - Overview

Scopists have a lot of flexibility in how they want to work. Being on staff with a reporting firm is fairly straightforward, yet even staff scoping contains many variables in the employment arrangement, such as in training, equipment, work volume and compensation. Many staff scopists also freelance as overflow scopists.

Freelance scopists generally have great control over how much they want to work, where they work, and even what type of work they want to do. Freelancing is building your own service business by matching clientele to fit your work preference while still being able to meet crucial deadlines.

The availability of work for scopists varies greatly from region to region and state to state. Court reporters, and therefore scopists, indirectly, have taken a hit in many areas of the country by a process known as litigation reform. Many states want to limit cost of litigation, in an effort to stop lawsuit abuse and protect parties from exorbitant attorney bills that give the lion's share of an award to the lawyers or drive people into bankruptcy when they get into trouble. However, in the environment of $400 per hour attorneys and $95 per hour paralegals, the attorneys have generally pointed to court reporters and the cost of record-taking as a big evil, so many jurisdictions have mandated pricing for court reporters, mandated page formats (which affect overall income), and the like. Also, because of deposition abuse, either to drum up attorney billable time or to harass a particular individual, discovery time is usually very limited in areas that implement litigation reform or tort reform. This means that there's less work overall for court reporters and scopists in these jurisdictions.

Because of all these factors, a person considering becoming a scopist should really consider what the potential work availability is in their area. Some states, like California, Texas, Florida, and areas like the Great Lakes and New England and the Eastern Seaboard are great for court reporting and scoping, while areas like Hawaii and Montana are not exactly hotbeds of activity. The general population size, local statutes, and the industrial profile of an area have a huge effect on both volume and quality of work. In a city like Houston, Texas, which has a leading medical community, huge oil and gas presence, and many corporate headquarters, you can see a lot of complex medical litigation, exceedingly complex patent litigation, and any number of other high-power cases, as well as the run-of-the-mill stuff like slip-and-falls. In a city like Honolulu, Hawaii, you might receive a bulk of slip-and-falls, as well as the occasional Department of Land and Natural Resources hearing.

In exploring your area for work potential, you should consider major cities in your area. It's true that you can work via computer online for lots of stuff, but sometimes on rush jobs you need the exhibits right away, so you need to be able to receive hard copies. Your best bet will be serving your locality first, then branching out. In considering your area, go online and search your closest major cities, finding court reporting agencies to contact. If there's more than 25 firms listed, you're probably all right; if not, you might need to find other cities to check.

When checking online, you might want to call a few firms and discuss your interest with whoever answers the phone, try to get a feel for how busy their office is, and maybe even inquire as to whether any of their reporters think that there's a need for more good scopists in the area. You might make connections which will come in handy eventually.

Because officials are required to be in court all day, they work in the evenings and on weekends producing transcripts, sometimes having to get pulled from the docket, missing their per diem, so they can get a job out. If an official reporter wants to have a personal life, they'll almost always require a scopist. Many proceedings in the courtroom can go for days, weeks or months, so there's often good volume; the flip side is that most court page formats produce fewer pages per hour of testimony, so your page output per hour might suffer. In my own personal experience, some of my best months were working on an ongoing asbestos trial in federal court, ordered immediate delivery. Every evening we'd output the day's entire trial record. I averaged about $8,000 - $9,000 per month during that proceeding, back in the early 1990s. I was onboard for just the last four months of the trial, but the entire category of litigation kept recurring for several years. Others have seen this type of situation occur with the past waves of breast implant litigation. Both of these categories of litigation generated similar trial situations all over the country.

One last topic to consider at this point is audio transcription. Most court reporters don't care to do audio tape transcription, but really any full service reporting firm should do them for their clients, if just to avoid their client calling another reporting firm, who will do the transcript. A reporting firm could lose that coveted first slot in the client's service provider list under such circumstances. For scopists, audio transcription is just one of several areas that can generate revenue from legal transcription.

Audio transcription is a great way for scopists, both freelance and on staff, to supplement their income. Certification requirements are different from place to place, but in virtually every circumstance in a litigation environment the original audio isconsidered an evidentiary exhibit, while the transcripts are considered as visual aids or demonstrative exhibits, usually marked as a "B" exhibit with the audio. Because of this, there is generally no certification requirement that needs to be met. However, for the attorneys, it's easier to have the transcripts admitted if they're generated by third-party transcriptionists instead of in house.  Scopists are uniquely situated for this kind of work because they usually use audio for backup so they develop a good ear for recorded voices and they work in an environment that generates legal transcripts as part of the normal work flow, so they can deliver a professional product.

In staff situations, the transcription of audio is extra revenue for the firm itself, and most firms pay in the $2.00 - $5.00 per page range for typing audio transcripts. It's also good for the firm because most reporters aren't specifically certified for transcription from audio, and many feel they would jeopardize their certification if they misuse it for such jobs. The scopist isn't in that situation, requiring no certification to perform their work.

Finally, there's one other aspect of audio transcription in existence. Used by the federal government for recording lesser proceedings, the system is referred to as "court recording," and is performed with special transcribers and recorders that are set up on a four-track or digital recording system. Four-track recorders and transcribers use standard audio cassettes but they record on four different tracks, each with a separate microphone feed. When recording, a four-track recorder will record onto a standard cassette but only single sided -- it requires the full width of the tape to record all four sources. This is an older system, being replaced with digital systems which make transcription and file delivery much simpler. Note: Performing four-track requires very specialized equipment.

In the courtroom, the mikes are generally arranged at the bench (in front of the judge), at the witness stand, and one at each counsel table (one for plaintiffs and one for defense). Sometimes they'll also tie in a podium mike.

When playing four-track tapes, the four-track transcriber has the unique ability to isolate any given track, so when people are speaking over each other the transcriptionist can just rewind the tape and switch tracks to recover all the testimony or colloquy. Knowing which track is being utilized helps indicate speaker identity also. Most digital systems emulate this multi-track methodology.

The federal and other court systems use digital and four-track audio for lesser proceedings. To perform this transcription service, you must request, receive and complete an application to be certified as an approved transcriptionist. If your application is accepted, the government will send you a test job and a booklet of federal transcript format guidelines (see Appendix A). You must produce this test job, which will then be graded against a clean copy of the same job. If you're approved, you receive notification by mail and your name will be submitted to the courthouses in your area. This process takes up to a year to complete.

Once approved, you can drum up your own work or you can work out of the courthouse's Court Recording Services office, sometimes referred to as ERO (electronic recording office). The ERO handles transcript orders, pulls the audio, collects a deposit to provide to the transcriptionist, then farms the job out to people on the approved list. When completed, you return the transcripts and bill for the balance, if any. If you handle your own clients, you must handle your own billing. The lawyers will order the audio and provide it to you, and you return the transcripts to the ordering party. In this situation, you can contact other appearing parties to try to sell extra copies.

The ERO pays full transcript price for audio transcripts. Production volume is approximately forty to fifty pages per hour of recording.

5.2 - Staff Scopist

When working on staff for a reporting firm, a scopist will work closely with a reporter, and oftentimes more than one reporter, on a daily basis. Scopists also have to interface regularly with the office staff. In a reporting firm, clients oftentimes are on site, and sometimes scopists have to make an appearance in a courtroom or in a law firm. Because of this, a staff scopist should always dress professionally and maintain a courteous demeanor. More important for a scopist to remember, when chit-chatting with others in the office and especially with clients or strangers around, is that you don't want to discuss details of just about anything you're doing. Many proceedings are confidential, and none are public record until/unless filed, so the details of anything you're working on should remain confidential. The same holds true for your reporters' business practices, clientele, and possibly even some of their more advanced steno tricks or equipment setups.

Scopists in a reporting firm will generally pitch in in virtually every aspect of the office when time permits. This provides new scopists with an excellent opportunity to learn the intimacies of the reporting firm. If working for a courthouse or official reporter, this gives the scopist an excellent opportunity to learn the intimacies of trial procedure.

Most court reporting firms can get very hectic, and there can be a lot going on at once. When people are hustling and bustling, there's usually also a lot of documents floating around. Scopists on staff have to work with others, and everybody has to work with exhibits -- usually original documents that were produced in a proceeding. Because of this, a staff scopist has to try to be neat and organized, keeping the paper blizzard to a minimum so as to avoid getting documents mixed up. And remember, never, ever, spill your coffee on an original exhibit!

Transcripts are usually on a deadline, and there's much work to be done after hours. Scopists on staff should always be prepared to pull long nights at a moment's notice; sometimes even all-nighters. Occasionally a scopist, even a staff scopist, may have to go out of town for a few days to do a proceeding or series of proceedings, if there's a need for expedited service. Oddly enough, the rhythm of work at a reporting firm usually makes for light Mondays and working Saturdays, so some reporting firms might require their scopists to work that schedule.

For the reporting firm, the benefit of having scopists in house are numerous. As the scopist gains experience with the firm and its procedures, not only do they become a valuable part of the general court reporting office but they also become instrumental in helping the firm's newer court reporters, ensuring consistent appearance and high quality from their work product. Also, firms with scopists can oftentimes function with fewer reporters, simply because the reporters can be out in the field, taking jobs, instead of back in the office, scoping a job they've already taken.

5.3 - Freelance Scopist

The freelance scopist has quite a bit of freedom in setting up their service. Eventually a scopist can carry the right kind of clientele to fit their lifestyle. Beginning scopists in the freelance environment do a lot of creative promotions to get their businesses up and running. It's a slow process at first, unless you connect with a really busy courthouse or reporting firm. Word-of-mouth is a scopist's best advertisement. Mailouts are very helpful in acquiring business, and redundant periodic mailouts can be quite effective. Oftentimes it's the timing of the moment that gets you a prospective client, and mailings are an easy way to stay on people's mind. With scoping being a document-oriented profession, written promotional materials are an excellent way of demonstrating your style. Also, you might be surprised at what is available at office supply stores these days, when it comes to promotional materials. While email and social networking is excellent for making contacts, you might consider actually mailing promotional materials to prospective court reporting firms. This helps you stand out from the crowd. And as mentioned earlier, the courthouses can be very good places to contact when freelancing and needing to get a foot in the door. Official court reporters can get tremendously backlogged, which can cost them per diem money. Also, most official reporters have a longer turnaround time than court reporting firms do. For example, the current trend is two weeks for delivery of a deposition transcript, while 30 days is the standard turnaround for federal courts. Phyisical flyers and mailings still work in that environment.

Freelance scopists, like staff scopists, should always be aware that what they're working on is not yet public information, and may never be. Because of this, freelancers also need to avoid talking details about jobs and business practices, especially between clients that are in different reporting firms. You might have a nosy client who wants to know some juicy morsel about another reporter you work for, like who their biggest clients are, for example. Avoid giving details. You might slightly frustrate your curious client, but they'll rest assured that you'll treat their information with the same high level of confidentiality.

When first beginning, a freelance scopist will generally grab every client they can get. In time, as they pick up clients, the scopist can then start to pick and choose which reporters to work for. Some scopists like to do only overflow work, but many will have one "bread and butter" client and several overflow clients. This is how my service is structured today.

When working freelance, again, official reporters are usually easier to work with long distance than court reporting firms are. Their longer turnaround times makes it easier for them to mail jobs out and back, and many still work without audio tape backups. When looking for work outside your area, it might pay to focus on the officials to get things started. Once again, their work is harder, but there's usually lots of it.

Freelance scoping is great for second income in families, and the lifestyle is flexible in the amount of free time you're allowed for other things. Freelancing as a main income is great too, but it takes some getting used to if you've never been in business for yourself. The biggest problems I've seen in freelance scopists getting started is work flow and cash flow. Billing by invoice and/or statements means you're receiving money weeks later than when you do the job, and not everyone pays on time. You may even get stiffed a time or two, and you have to be financially ready for it. The work flow in court reporting is often referred to as "feast or famine," and one can become insecure with the unsteady work flow. This is typical in court reporting, so one should always have other things to do instead of sitting around and waiting for someone to call (for example, Linda and I race motorcycles for a hobby). Then, when the work hits, usually everyone calls you at once and you're slam-dunked for a week or two of 14-hour days and wondering when you'll ever see daylight again.

Needless to say, the cash flow problems result directly from the work flow problems, in that your income can fluctuate wildly from month to month. A good rule of thumb for not getting into trouble is to have about three months' income kept in reserve for the famines, replenishing the reserve in times of feast. It's nice too, because when a year is done and you start your next busy season, if the slow season was decent and you didn't need to tap into the reserves, you have a built-in paid vacation!

When working freelance, it's not like not having a boss; rather, it's more like having several bosses. A good freelancer won't try to juggle too many clients because their reliability suffers when they get too backlogged to get the work out timely. A scopist can lose customers that way, and in worst-case scenarios might develop a reputation for unreliability.

In the general freelance environment, freelance scopists charge by the page, with markups for medical/technical, expedited, daily copy and video. These markups are for various reasons. For example, there's generally a lot of time spent looking in dictionaries and reference books for words and terms of art when working with technical and medical testimony, which brings down your page output per hour. Expedited work is generally considered three-day delivery. Daily copy is overnight work. Video requires painfully verbatim transcription, usually against an audio copy of the video tape, once again slowing you down. Generally, at this writing the average base rate for scoping is seventy-five to ninety cents per page, with a 25 percent markup for medical/technical or video, a 50 percent markup for expedited, and double for daily copy. These markups can be compounded. For example, I do a lot of technical expedited video depositions, so I mark up for video and expedites, and I usually just forgo the medical/technical markup as gratis, although I do have a right to implement it. If a job is particularly grueling, I do implement it as a way to make myself feel better about having to do such a grueling job.

I've been a freelance scopist for over a decade now, and I can tell you that a freelance scopist that considers themselves to be full-time workers will generally make twenty to fifty thousand dollars per year, depending upon how they model their business. No, not enough to get rich on, but the free time and tax advantages are nice, allowing you to do other things. Also, in the freelance environment, when you make thirty thousand dollars (an average median number for an experienced freelance scopist's income in a good environment) you take home thirty thousand dollars. You need to earn much more, working as an employee, to take home the same amount. And there are definite tax advantages for many freelance scopists.

There are many legitimate writeoffs available for the self-employed. For example, I offer free pickup and delivery so I can write off my mileage allowance. For freelancers working with a dedicated home office, the home office space percentage writeoffs are available, even to renters. Homeowners can also use a depreciation schedule on home office space, in addition to their interest writeoffs. | Contents | Next Section