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Stenographers try to maintain courtroom continuity while dealing with a profession in flux

Stenographers try to maintain courtroom continuity while dealing with a profession in flux

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Two current points about the business of court reporting intertwine fruitfully: The work pays well, and there is a significant, ongoing need for those who excel at it, both in Virginia and across the country.

“Anybody who is a trained steno reporter could have a job tomorrow,” said Cynthia Bragg, a stenographer in both Virginia and Tennessee. “Not only is this a job with 100% placement, it’s also very portable.

“I know many court reporters that are making over $100,000 a year. Some are making $50,000, which is still a good living,” Bragg said.

Indeed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay is $57,150 a year, about $27.50 an hour, and the field should see a growth rate of 7% by 2028, a rapid increase for any occupation.

“If you are a stenographer of any age, you’re set,” Jim Cudahy, former CEO of the National Court Reporters Association, said recently. “You’re going to be in market demand for as long as you want a job.”

While that degree of security and compensation might be a comfort, the work is also demanding, multifaceted labor that’s often misunderstood.

Added to which, advances in technologies — and different approaches to using them — have sparked division within the ranks of Virginia court reporters, despite their shared goal which is, above all, to preserve the legal record.

‘You’ve got to get the record’

Unless you’re a lawyer or a judge, or a recent plaintiff or defendant, it’s likely the last time you saw a court reporter was in a movie or on TV.

In fiction, they toil in the shadow of the bench, hunched over what looks like an old adding machine, usually just waiting for a prosecutor to grab a spool of their text or to bark at them: “Read back what the accused just said!”

Chalk that up to dramatic license.

“It’s really archaic,” said Mary Butenschoen of her profession’s typical depiction and perception. She’s transcribed legal proceedings since 1989 and currently documents federal cases in Roanoke.

“It’s seldom that you’ll even see a machine that looks like what we use,” Butenschoen said.

What they do is create painstaking word-for-word transcriptions of depositions, mediation meetings and trials, using digital stenotype machines, recording devices or a combination of technologies.

The Virginia Court Reporters Association estimates that between 800 and 1,000 court reporters work in the state and, in general, they do not recite testimony for the court, incriminating or otherwise. In fact, the vast majority of cases they cover in Southwest Virginia are civil, not criminal, and the days of typing onto paper rolls are long gone.

Most of them are women, many act as independent contractors, and as they travel through courthouses and offices, they frequently have the look of a one-man band, rolling cases that carry collapsible chairs and desks, laptops, hard drives, even portable wireless routers.

The stenotype itself has just 22 character keys, representing the most-used consonants and vowels. They can be pressed in groups, like piano chords, to form other letters or words phonetically. The devices is also predictive and can draw from a database of hundreds of thousands of words.

On a stenotype, “Have you ever had your deposition taken?” can be written in as few as 10 keystrokes, but a busy court reporter can make as many as 90,000 strokes during a day at trial. By comparison, the average novel usually consists of about 70,000 to 120,000 words.

While standard typing speed on a “Qwerty” keyboard is roughly 200 characters a minute, a trained stenographer can produce in excess of 200 words per minute.

Productivity at that level requires discipline, especially in serious, real-time settings in which there’s no volume control, no rewind or pause button.

“It’s not just one person speaking slowly,” said Roanoke stenographer Katherine Ford. “It’s often several people talking quickly at the same time.”

The reporter has to capture testimony often spoken quietly, or blurted out in anger, or sometimes through tears, all with as little interaction as possible. “Can you repeat that?” is a last resort.

“It’s got to be a really big deal to stop,” Ford said. “But you’ve got to get the record.”

Another potential speed bump is far more mundane but no less hazardous: the common cold.

“Most courtrooms and offices have tissues ... but you have to have a free hand to blow your nose,” Ford explained.

Ford and others estimate that every hour they spend in transcribing requires an additional two to three hours to polish their copy into a clear, cohesive final draft, which means a full work day in court can become an entire calendar day of labor. This is among the reasons transcripts of hearings can cost thousands of dollars.

“People say court reporters make a lot of money,” Roanoke court reporter Roxanne Ray said. “But they work really hard for it.

“When I went through school, if I remember right, the success rate was 7%. I had a class of about 25. And as far as I know, I’m the only reporter out of that class still working.”

‘The quality of the work’

Most trade workers in the state, from plumbers to hairdressers, have to be licensed. Not court reporters.

In January, one Senate bill and two House of Delegates bills related to court reporting were voted down before reaching the full General Assembly. The legislation had aimed to form a regulatory board tasked with certifying that anyone who practiced court reporting in the state was trained and licensed, and to create a framework to accomplish that.

“If I were an attorney, I would want a well-trained, professional court reporter doing the work,” said Butenschoen.

Bragg, who is also on the board of the Virginia Court Reporters Association, helped write the proposals and feels they were vital.

To be a state court reporter in Virginia, she said, the only current requirement is that you have to be a notary public. Those who work in federal courts must be a Registered Professional Reporter, she said, which requires a typing speed of at least 200 words per minute. Otherwise, the field is unregulated.

“I was in a deposition not long ago and the attorney told me about trying to file an appeal of a week-long case,” she said. “He got the transcript and ... it was so bad, that the court of appeals could not use it.

“If an appeal cannot be filed because of a lack of a transcript, they have to come up with some other means. Does that mean they retry the case?” Bragg asked.

Because of the expense of transcriptions, criminal cases in the Roanoke and New River valleys are typically recorded by digital audio and transcribed later if the need arises. Court reporters in Virginia primarily cover civil cases, with their costs usually split between the parties.

Roanoke lawyer Aaron Houchens called the text that reporters produce “invaluable” because he said that’s the form by which appellate courts prefer to receive evidence. In his experience, accuracy hasn’t been a problem.

“In Southwest Virginia, we have some of the best court reporters in the state. To the extent that they support regulation, we’ll trust their judgment,” he said, but added: “I don’t see the lack of regulation impacting the quality of the work in this area.”

‘Tribal mentality’

One voice that opposes regulation belongs to Cudahy, the former National Court Reporters Association head who is now executive director of the Reston-based Speech to Text Institute. The STTI is a nonprofit that advocates for multiple technologies in court reporting, including using digital recordings to transcribe after the fact.

His organization predicts that dwindling ranks of Virginia stenographers will lead to 200 vacancies in the field by 2023, nearly 375 shortages in 2028, and, come 2033, almost 500.

Cudahy says the shortage of stenographers is getting worse, and he argues that newer methods of producing transcripts can make the labor less difficult, which he says might draw workers.

“I think right now as the market is going through significant turbulence and change, to introduce a regulatory requirement ... would only confuse things,” he said.

“What stenographers do is absolutely amazing and it’s understandable why they’re uniquely proud of it,” Cudahy offered, but said that fosters a “tribal mentality.”

In writing the legislation, he said, “They didn’t involve anyone from the digital recording side. ... They didn’t include anyone using other methods, voice reporting or digital reporting, on the board they were proposing.

“Our North Star is to make sure the integrity of the legal record is maintained, regardless of the technology used to create that record,” he said.

Bragg argued that although stenographers launched the effort for a regulatory board, ultimately “[A]ll forms would be on the board. It’s not fair for us to make all the decisions.”

“They said we never consulted with them, which is not true at all,” she said.

She also cited digital recording firms, large metropolitan groups with extensive staffing, whom she claimed were opposed to the bills in part due to potential expense. In Tennessee, for example, where court reporting is state regulated, it costs $250 to submit an initial application and $200 to renew a license.

“If it [the legislation] had passed, they would be on the hook for the licensing fees,” said Bragg.

And while Bragg doubts that common ground can be found between the camps, her bottom line echoes Cudahy’s: “Our thing is, we don’t care what method you’re reporting, but you have to be qualified.”

They’re also in agreement that for now, stenography remains the most precise way to capture testimony.

“There remains no technology that can equal the human brain for processing sounds,” Cudahy acknowledged, but added: “To suggest they’ll be able to turn it around and bring back enough stenographers for the market place, it’s false. It’s wishful thinking.”

Stenographers aren’t Luddites, though. Butenschoen said they use digital recorders, too, but as a backup.

“Ever since I started, I’ve heard, ‘Isn’t your job going to be taken by tape recorders?’ Technology enhances and helps us,” she said.

“Everybody’s had cases where they think they have good audio, and then they don’t. It’s good to have, but you can’t rely on it,” Ford said.

Attorney Houchens noted: “An audiotape can’t distinguish if there’s conferring going on, if a witness nods his head. ... Having someone there, with the human capacity to observe, that is important for preserving the record.”

For now, licensing for state court reporters is a dead issue. Bragg said the association has no plans to attempt the bills again next year.

“If there is going to be licensure in Virginia, the consumer of our services, which are the attorneys ... they’re going to have to start taking action and getting involved,” she said.

“If they want to get legislation passed, we’ve got a bill that’s ready to go.”

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