The Role of the Court Reporter in the Legal System

A Paper by the National Court Reporters Association

Introduction

For generations the reporter was known as the "silent man" in the courtroom, the unobtrusive tapper of keys whose job was to preserve verbatim what people said during a proceeding.

Today, the "silent man" is almost 90 percent likely to be a woman, which alone introduces new possibilities for the way the profession is perceived. And while silence may still be a prevailing trait, many other aspects of the job have changed besides the gender of most of its practitioners.

Reporters have been technology leaders in the legal system for the past decade and more. Commercial use of computer-aided transcription, or CAT, is more than 20 years old. As far back as ten years ago a majority of reporters already were using CAT to capture the spoken word in a computer-compatible format that could be searched for key words and phrases, entered into litigation support data bases and telecommunicated. Reporters were computerized long before most of the court systems and attorneys they serve.

Technology has presented reporters and their customers with a whole new range of services in addition to basic transcript production. Compressed transcripts, indices and concordances, realtime, and imaging have been added to the reporter's repertoire. Some of these activities involve doing old things in new ways. But another part of the emerging role of reporters consists of doing new things. This realization has led reporters to begin rethinking what they do and what services they provide.

What a reporter really does

Reporters are experts at gathering information and preserving it in formats that are quickly accessible and readily usable. They are transmodalists, capturing thought as expressed by ephemeral speech and converting it into text that can be read, searched and studied.

Most reporters apply this skill in a law-related setting in court or a deposition and they have harnessed technology to do so in new and innovative ways. For example, reporters may provide uncertified notes at the end of a day's proceeding to help counsel prepare for the next day. Other reporters have adapted technology and their skills to such uses as providing instant voice-to-text for meetings and live television programs for the benefit of persons with impaired hearing, a service known as captioning.

In 1992-93, Hay Management Consultants, under a grant from the National Court Reporters Foundation, analyzed the work of the entry-level official court reporter and compared it to the skill and complexity of such jobs as computer programmer, accountant and nurse. The Hay study went on to make a point that many reporters failed to notice about their work: Although virtually all court systems have one title court reporter and make pay distinctions only for longevity, in fact the universe of court reporters can be divided along distinct classifications. The Hay study identified four separate job levels:

1. The entry-level reporter who is able to take and transcribe the record under supervision;

2. The skilled reporter who has the speed and knowledge to take complex cases accurately;

3. The experienced reporter who is able to assist court officials to organize and use information in the record;

4. The seasoned reporter who is able to use information in the record and personal experience in the courtroom to assist and advise court officials, including judges.

Hay also identified four end results that all reporters are responsible for:

Hay also identified additional end results for which reporters would become responsible, as they move up the ladder of skill and experience:

Although the Hay study focused on official court reporters, the analysis also pertains to freelance reporters, who provide comparable end results in deposition settings for attorneys and their support professionals.

The hidden nature of a reporter's work

The job of court reporter actually consists of two jobs. There is the part most law-related professionals are familiar with, which consists of taking down what people say in a deposition or a trial. The other part of the job is hidden: It's the part that begins when the attorney says to the reporter, "I'd like a copy of the transcript." By the agreed-on date, the transcript is delivered. But what happens in between? Here is a synopsis of the steps that go into producing a transcript.

1. Translation. This refers to converting stenotype notes into text. Before the advent of computer-aided transcription (CAT), translation took place in the brain of the transcriber as he or she dictated from shorthand notes for later typing, or typed directly from the notes. With CAT, translation is performed by a computer program.

2. Editing. After the notes are translated, the reporter or employee of the reporter (often, a scopist) reviews the translation for completeness. If a stenotype note does not have a match in the reporter's CAT dictionary during the translation process, it will appear on the computer screen in stenotype form. The reporter or scopist updates the reporter's dictionary to include these untranslated words and other problems such as mistranslates, where the computer program selects a wrong form of a word.

3. Research. An important part of creating an accurate transcript is researching items that are ambiguous. This includes spellings of names that were not obtained at the time the record was made; citations; unfamiliar or technical terms, which in many fields of specialty are similarly spelled and pronounced but have vastly different meanings; and other specific references that need to be clarified.

4. Printing. With the translation and research completed, the reporter or scopist prints a draft of the transcript.

5. Proofing. Careful, thoughtful and thorough proofing is an indispensable quality control step. Most reporters do all their own proofing; some hire professional proofers for the first proofing and then do a final proofing themselves.

6. Correcting. Any problems discovered by proofing are fixed before the transcript is printed in final form.

7. Producing indices and concordances. These ancillary products are made available by the computerization of the reporting process, and they are becoming increasingly popular with growing numbers of attorneys.

8. Duplicating, collating and binding. The reporter at this point becomes a publisher, reproducing and assembling the needed number of copies of the transcript and placing the document in a durable binder.

9. Certification. To be filed with a motion or an appeal, the transcript in most jurisdictions must be certified as being complete, true and accurate. Certification is backed by reputation and, in many jurisdictions, the reporter's license, and it guards against multiple versions of the proceedings from entering circulation.

10. Delivery/filing. This final step may include using a local courier or overnight delivery service.

As mentioned, the Hay Management Consultants identified several activities engaged in by reporters that contribute to distinctions among the job levels of different reporters. Many of these administrative or management responsibilities support the specific steps in the transcription process discussed above. They include:

Hiring and training of new reporters and support personnel.
Reporters often employ support personnel to help them with transcript and office tasks. Freelance reporting agencies are most obviously involved in this sort of management activity; but official court reporters also may hire scopists to assist with producing transcripts.

Purchasing equipment and supplies.
Work space, equipment and supplies all cost money and require attention to maintain. Reporters especially need to monitor the constant changes to computers and the specialized programs that reporters use.

Balancing workloads.
To properly produce a certified transcript, the reporter spends a significant amount of time outside of court or the deposition room for each hour the proceeding lasts. And it is not unusual in fact it is normal for a reporter to have no transcript orders pending for a period of time and then get three orders in two days. The uneven flow of transcript requests regularly challenges a reporter's ability to prioritize, and often disrupts both business and personal plans on short notice.

Financial recordkeeping.
The job of providing transcripts is like any other small business operation. Freelance reporters and official court reporters handle deposits, invoicing and collections; track their income and expenses for equipment, support staff, etc.; and file quarterly income tax returns on their transcript income.

Conclusion

Technology has created new applications, such as television captioning, for reporting skills, but most court reporters continue to work in the legal system as either official reporters in court or as deposition reporters. The nature of their job does not permit the same style or degree of interaction that other law-related professions have, which has led to misperceptions of what the reporter's job entails. The purpose of this paper has been to explore what reporters do, in the hope that it will lead to a better understanding of their work and, thus, enhance their working relationships with members of other law-related professions.