|What is the Vitality of the Freelance Court Reporting Profession
and Do Its Members Really Care?
By Catherine Armbrust Rajcan
Published in Ad Infinitum, Summer 2008.
To begin I would state, oxymoronically, that in the end, we court reporters are all about words. Our bible, one might say, is the dictionary - in our case, the general dictionary as well as many specialized dictionaries. From the Oxford American Dictionary let us consider the definitions of viability versus vitality:
Viability (viable): "feasible; practicable"; "capable of living or existing in a particular climate."
Vitality: "liveliness; animation"; "the ability to sustain life"; "the ability to endure and to perform its functions."
Reflect on these definitions. To me, the first suggests "just getting by" -- it could even be applied to someone who is comatose -- while the latter states with confidence a liveliness, a strength, utilizing one's capabilities. The reporter who does not take pride in her work product, her manner of dress, or interacting professionally with others within the work environment does not exemplify the essence of vitality crucial to evoking a positive impression of our career among the public.
In the 1980s when I was a neophyte reporter, of course excited about my fledgling career, I would scoff at being questioned by the occasional person as to the uncertain survival of my profession in light of, initially, tape recording, and later speech recognition. I thought surely not in my lifetime, despite technological advances, will my peers and I be replaced by automation.
However, over the past few years I have been developing grave concerns for the health of our beloved profession - for many of us truly love what we do - and have come to realize that the questioned viability, and continued marketability, of our valuable skills are most in danger not from the trajectory of electronic recording (analog or digital) per se, but from the inertia present among our own ranks. It is my belief that by individually strengthening our personal commitment to our profession, actively participating in positive public relations regarding court reporting as a career, and sharing our experiences and best practices among ourselves and with court reporter students, we can achieve a renewed vitality that will attract high quality individuals who will want to pursue a career in court reporting.
The skills we utilize in providing verbatim reporting in the freelance sector of court reporting, based on a sample survey performed by myself with a 67% response ratio, are relied upon to provide our respective households either primary or sole incomes 48% of the time, as contrasted with providing supplemental income 51% of the time (Appendix A). Court reporting was reported in the Occupational Projections and Training Data for "high-wage, high-growth occupations" as having median annual earnings of $42,920 with a relatively low educational requirement, by comparison with other high-growth occupations, of only a "postsecondary vocational award" and a projected growth in employment of 14.8% through 2014 (U.S. Department of Labor, Table 1-5).
Librarianship, a professional career also predominately occupied by females who share the court reporters' affinity to words and language, has recently been experiencing a decline in new entrants into the field, by contrast is not listed as a high-wage nor high-growth occupation, has a median annual earnings figure of $50,085, an educational requirement of a master's degree in library science, and will experience a steady increase of only 4.9% in net available positions over the same period of time (U.S. Department of Labor, Appendix p. 86).
Many reporters have become very selective on which assignments they will accept, oftentimes turning down work for which they are qualified. Forty-four percent of survey respondents indicated they turn down opportunities for jobs based upon the low-income potential of the assignment, lack of control/decorum at the proceedings, or other reasons. However, one reporter eloquently expressed the ultimate basis upon which not to turn down jobs for which she/he is qualified: "It makes me, in my opinion, a well-rounded reporter who is exposed to a variety of work. I learn more from not limiting my work."
A few years ago I performed a three-year analysis of the write-up percentage of my freelance agency. The results varied between 80% and 85% during the period of time reviewed. The overwhelming majority of assignments that were initially no-writes were requested to be transcribed within one year; and oftentimes the jobs that are not transcribed, we may be just as happy that they did not end up being requested. In light of the fact that 82% of the recent survey respondents cited financial benefit as the primary reason for continuing to work as a reporter, it is ironic that when I previously performed another anonymous survey inquiring if the reporters who work with me would be more inclined to cover trials or motions if they were to receive a monetary bonus at the end of the year for doing so, virtually all respondents declined the incentive.
Jackie Timmons, past president of the Illinois Court Reporters Association and current PR representative for the organization, stated "we're court reporters," and at times an agency may need to assign one reporter to both "the three o'clock [deposition and] the 10:30 motion" to achieve total calendar coverage. Ms. Timmons also indicated she is personally aware of attorneys "that have gone under...Federal Rule 30" and "tape recorded or video recorded" proceedings and asked reporters to transcribe the recording.
Rule 30(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure states as follows: "The party who notices the deposition must state in the notice the method for recording the testimony. Unless the court orders otherwise, testimony may be recorded by audio, audiovisual, or stenographic means...Any party may arrange to transcribe a deposition." (Sullivan's Law Directory, Volume II, p. 45r )
We can easily see the logical connection attorneys will make between not being able to engage a willing court reporter to cover a particular assignment and opting instead to, under the rule, audio record the proceedings. Once this practice becomes more commonplace, the slippery slope effect may result in mass decline in volume of work for all litigation court reporters nationally.
Seymour Wolfe is a highly respected reporter with a career spanning more than 50 years, he was a partner in one of Chicago's preeminent reporting agencies for several decades, has served as an active member of the Illinois Court Reporters Association and as chief examiner overseeing the grading of the Illinois Certified Shorthand Reporter exam. Mr. Wolfe explained that over the past several years "schools have closed down" in the Chicagoland area, and of the students sitting for the exam during the same time period, roughly only a third have passed the tests.
According to the National Court Reporters Association, nationally "the ranks of court reporters and students of this profession continue to grow thin" (Graduation Trends). "The number of schools taking part in NCRA's certification programs and their graduates have steadily declined" from approximately "1,000 students" graduating from "more than 100" certified schools in 1996 to "fewer than 350" graduates from 62 certified schools in 2007 (Court Reporters Face Diminishing Ranks).
Fully 88% of the reporters surveyed have been reporting for 15 or more years. When you combine the closing of schools with the reduced number of new entrants into the field and the increasing percentage of working reporters having worked 15+ years, clearly by necessity the more experienced reporters are needed to help provide coverage not only for assignments overall, but also for the subjectively less desirable assignments in particular. Seymour Wolfe indicated the practice at his agency over the years was to have all the reporters working with the agency cover the motions, trials, arbitrations or meetings on rotation, each reporter taking his or her "turn."
We each may encounter jobs that are not at our ideal comfort level, but those are precisely the times at which we demonstrate we are much more than note-takers or can produce a much better transcript, in realtime nonetheless, than those produced from a mechanized sound recording device. This is our opportunity to demonstrate we deserve the higher-than-average wages we earn and that we can effectively manage the proceedings to facilitate the creation of the most accurate record, which in turn results in the best evidence of what transpired on that occasion in history.
Frederick Marks in his column "Marks on Professionalism" quoted Alistair Cooke: "A professional is a person who can do his best at a time when he doesn't particularly feel like it."
Now more than ever is the time we freelance reporters need to show a unified call to arms and demonstrate our professionalism. Marks suggests developing a "Statement of Professionalism" and states that this quality "comes from within." I would agree that the desire to manifest the trait does come from within, but that is not to say it cannot be inculcated and nurtured in those who are our mentees, protégés, or even fellow contemporaries.
The following is a proposed Statement of Professionalism I have developed, adapted from Marks' version:
Sandra Chandler, in writing for Office Pro on behalf of the International Association of Administrative Professionals asked her peers: "How can you, as a career-minded...professional, help in 'Shaping the Future' of your chosen profession?" In considering a few of her suggestions I have adapted the concepts to the court reporting profession.
Self-promote: Place a news release in your local newspaper when you pass a test for a professional certification. This provides good PR for both yourself and the vitality of our chosen career.
Chandler suggests professionals "[m]entor and train others - show them the advantages of pursuing a career" in your field. We must take the initiative, as working reporters, to speak at a local junior high or high school for a career day or during the week of Law Day, May 1, each year. (Teachers often welcome visitors to their career classes as a special interest for the students.)
To our fellow reporters I would propose: Don't just reap the monetary benefits of a career as a court reporter; practice altruism. Exemplify professionalism and give back to the community through pro bono work; speak well of the occupation to inspire young adults to become the future generations of our profession; arrange a visit to a local court reporting school - if you are fortunate enough to be in close proximity to one - to inspire and motivate the future reporters.
Next Chandler recommends that her peers "[a]pproach all projects with a high level of integrity and professionalism." Some specific actions allowing court reporters to embody these qualities are as follows.
We reporters -- Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and even the Millennials - need to consider what the effects of our actions are. Professionalism dictates that when we are reporting a deposition we do not comment to the client about their infrequency of ordering a write-up and whether or not they are going to request the transcript; nor do we interrupt repeatedly for spellings, breaking the rhythm and train of thought of the questioning attorney, when we could just as easily obtain the names at the end of the proceedings; nor do we comment on who "scored points" in the day's proceedings, weigh in on the veracity of the witness, or prophesize on the outcome of the dispute.
Provide the highest quality services you are capable of. Create a check-off list of items to review before sending out the transcript; for example: Are the header and footer accurate to the agency for which you covered the assignment? Did you adjust the date, time and location on your title page template? Did you enclose all the requested products - full size, condensed transcripts, index, ASCII?
On the topic of ASCIIs, provide the agency for whom you covered an assignment an ASCII file of the transcript as a standard operating procedure. By doing so, if the client misplaced his transcript, decides he would now like an index, or counsel who had not previously ordered decides he needs a copy instanter, and you are either on an all-day deposition or away on vacation, the needed services can be delivered post haste, and you and the court reporting agency will be recognized as indispensable contributors to the legal/business system.
Another consideration proffered by Chandler is to "[B]ring greater value to your [client] by...being actively involved in professional associations." The benefits we gain directly, and our clients indirectly, from being involved in our professional organizations are numerous and priceless. Be creative in developing incidental value-added services to the client. For example, adding the phone numbers of counsel present to the appearance page will make our transcripts that much more valuable as the go-to, close-at-hand reference point for all participants in the related proceedings.
Lastly, Chandler encourages her peers to "[c]onsider attaining professional certifications." Reporters have several options available to expand their skill sets and become more sought after by a larger client base; for example, the RMR, CRR, CCP, RDR or CBC certifications. Keep stretching yourself, keep learning, keep improving. Ancora imparo is Latin for "I am still learning."
Be a well-informed, well-dressed, professionally acting participant, one who meets or exceeds the same qualities as evidenced by the others involved in the proceedings. If you want to receive work from a high caliber of clientele, then you have to demonstrate in action, word, and appearance that you possess the same distinctive characteristics.
Dressing professionally was rated as "very important" by 82% of survey respondents; and 91% indicated they feel a personal dedication to the profession, while two (.5%) respondents indicated no feeling of personal dedication, and one (.3%) respondent indicated her/his feeling of dedication had waned.
Ellen Courter in "The flip flap flop" conveys that a dress code is really about helping people communicate effectively and eliminating distractions" (28). Back to our fellow philogists, (archaic definition), the librarians, we certainly will not see these professionals "flip-flopping" through the library - talk about creating a distraction!
As freelance court reporters we may find ourselves within the same week working in a courthouse, a prestigious law office, at a meeting in a corporate setting, a conference, providing CART at a university or company, or on a construction site. Be sure your attire is accepted in your particular work environment; but above all, dress professionally. If you don't look like you pay attention to how you are "put together," you will not look like you are conscientious.
We are a service profession; and as Ms. Courter states, "It's about the customer, the environment, safety issues, branding and appropriateness" (28). There are ways to adapt fashions into your own professional style without throwing caution to the wind and breaching propriety.
Spaghetti straps and décolletage necklines have absolutely no place in our work environment - especially when we are daily bending over our machines to set up our equipment, read notes, and break it back down. The deposition or court setting is not the place to try to achieve that glossy bare-legged fashion magazine look. Also, closed-toe shoes are best - no need to display your most recent bold venture into bright polish from a pedicure or the toe ring you picked up on vacation. And a covered midriff should go without saying.
Last-minute call-ins are not uncommon. If you plan on "working in" on a particular day and work at or near home where you could run to your closet and quickly change, definitely dress more casually. For those of us who office too far from home to make a five-minute stop to switch to appropriate work attire, dress each day at the office as if you might be called out to the office of one of your "A List" clients.
Seymour Wolfe relayed the story of the advice he gave a young reporter who had recently passed the state CSR test: "'[If ] you want to make money, you take anything and everything that they offer you. Don't turn it down. Even if it's a motion or two or three motions a week, take it. Because they will compensate you in some other better jobs if you help them out.' He has turned the out to be one of the best reporters they have. And he said he never envisioned making the kind of money he's making, [and it is] because of that attitude."
Additional rules of thumb provided by Ms. Compton include: "Skirt lengths should be no more than one hand-width above the knee"; "Heels should be no higher than two inches; toes [of shoes] should be closed"; "Keep your hair sleek and off your face"; and makeup should be "clean and natural. Avoid heavy eyeliner or evening lipsticks" (13-14).
As professionals it is important that we recognize the distinctions between the definitions of fad, fashion, and style. Face-hugging sport sun glasses, while lasting longer than a fad, are not the proper fashion accessory with a dress or suit nor display classic style even on a sunny day. Michele Compton, author of "Dress the Part," puts it bluntly: "A person's choice of clothing provides a critical first glimpse into who we are and what we believe is important, or not important. While we all have many aspects to our personality, not all aspects belong in the workplace" (14).
An individual in society may never know the influence or impact he or she might have on the future leaders of tomorrow, an influence or impact which might not have confronted the life of any one young adult had an experienced leader or professional today not taken the time or made the effort to share some knowledge. Each of us has an obligation to assist in the equipping of our Generation X'ers and Millenials, a/k/a Generation Ys -- who are described on Wikipedia as being born between 1978-2000 -- to efficiently and effectively carry on business into the succeeding decades.
Ask yourself: What have you done for your profession lately? (Hint: accepting only select assignments does not count.)
It is easy to plod through life meeting minimum expectations, not doing more than is required of you; but it is many times more rewarding to have a positive impact on our youth and inculcate in the next generation the values of responsibility, accountability and accomplishment. In "What's happening in customer service? How to turn Gen X'ers into the WOW generation...," Yvonne Abel explains that "given the right culture, support and training system...Gen X qualities become great assets in today's work environment" (8).
Oftentimes face-to-face oversight and training of Gen X'ers (and other recruits) is not always possible on a consistent basis. But keeping in regular contact, expressing expectations, assigning specific tasks, and then following up on the work performed and providing feedback thereto all can go a long way toward achieving the same goals as are set for workers employed within the same physical location.
Some X'ers and Millennials are opting toward a less demanding work commitment, despite having spent many years and thousands of dollars in postsecondary education and graduate school. It seems today's most sought-after employment arrangement is to serve as a consultant, work from home, or telecommute. Sophie Brookover, a part-time New Jersey librarian, believes that the greater librarianship population "fails to acknowledge that many of its newest, most energetic members don't want the career track that many of its most experienced members chose" (Pop goes the librarian).
Having served as a court reporter to a local library board for nearly ten years, I can tell you that the profession of librianship, like court reporting, is experiencing too few qualified job-seekers compared to the number of openings, and positions are being left unfilled.
I would pose a few questions to Ms. Brookover: How does she, and others of similar mindset, expect business to get accomplished if they are only willing to commit limited time to their careers? Has she not heard the saying "many hands make for lighter work"? Does she not realize those experienced, career-track librarians who are her predecessors are often overwhelmed and struggling to get the work done which is necessary to keep the libraries running smoothly and the patrons well served?
Perhaps many of the career librarians also are or used to be every bit as energetic as librarianship's newest members. But as in court reporting, or numerous other service professions, doing the work of 1.5 or 2 people is exhausting and can only be accomplished for so long before it takes its toll on physical and mental health, possibly affecting the quality of work and thus the services provided to the customer.
Seventy nine percent of surveyed reporters indicated they have previously experienced a period in their reporting careers where personal/family responsibilities have reduced their availability to work the number of hours they otherwise would have. Forty seven percent of surveyed reporters indicated they are currently experiencing a period in their reporting careers where personal/family responsibilities are reducing their availability to work the number of hours they otherwise would.
Brookover speaks of spending "more time on hobbies and other outside interests," and of her librarian contemporaries "redefining our responsibilities to the profession." Of course we can all understand and respect our neighbors' decision to step out of the workforce for periods of time to attend to personal/family commitments and priorities, but a free-market society such as ours cannot be sustained if large numbers of its employable workers are opting to spend minimal time working in favor of engaging in hobbies, recreation or socializing; apparently dabbling in their careers just when it is convenient.
The trend, however, as cited by David Crary in his July 12, 2007 article, is toward fewer working mothers wanting to work full time, or work at all. Gary Funk, a researcher from Pew Research Center, attributes this decline in the desire to work outside the home to "the difficulties of combining responsibilities at work and home" (Crary). Forty eight percent of stay-at-home mothers, according to the Pew survey, "say that not working outside the home is the best arrangement, up from 39 percent who felt that way in 1997"; and "[s]ixty percent of the working mothers said a part-time job would be best, up from 48 percent 10 years ago" (Crary).
Libraries and many other service professions, unlike court reporting agencies, by necessity must provide brick-and-mortar locations into which they invite their clientele. As freelance court reporters, we are fortunate indeed to have professional careers that provide us better-than-average earnings and at the same time allow us to accomplish much of the work from home on a schedule which may be easily adaptable to our own individual personal needs. Additionally, we are uniquely fortunate in that we can step away from reporting to attend to personal matters, rejoin the ranks at a later point in time, and quickly return to providing services at the same income level without reduced earning potential due to our time away.
As we seasoned reporters can attest, the ratio of time on location versus time devoted to transcription is on average between 1:3 and 1:4, depending on the technical nature of the proceedings. Knowledge of the flexibility of the freelance reporter to choose the number of hours per week to work outside the home combined with the aspect of the job which allows the transcription to be done from home may result in increased enrollment of students who realize court reporting can provide working mothers the best of both worlds.
We must be vigilant to be the personification of well-rounded business professionals notwithstanding the fact that, for many of us, the majority of our work is accomplished from our respective homes. A lackadaisical attentiveness to the image we project only serves to diminish the regard held for us by our clients and the public at large.
In the provision of a verbatim record, personal commitment and attention to client needs will always beat out automated technology on the bases of efficiency, accuracy and responsiveness. Let us redouble our efforts to maintain the integrity of our profession and create a tour de force of sorts to recharge the vitality of our membership today and for the future.
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