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Meet Connie Psaros, Editor

This is the post excerpt.

Connie Psaros, RPR, CMRSWelcome to “Student Corner”!  My name is Connie Psaros, RPR, Vice President of Doris O. Wong Associates, Inc., and I will be responsible for the content appearing here.

Who knows better than fellow court reporters what you are going through?  If you are just starting your career, you also may find this section helpful.  Feel free to contact us if we can answer any questions or address any concerns.  We want you to succeed!

Also check out our Facebook page.  It’s loaded with lots of tech tips for court reporters, court reporting trends, grammar, and much more.

ARE YOU READY TO READ BACK?

It will happen to you.  You will be reporting a difficult deposition, struggling with the accent, the speed, or the subject matter, and the lawyer will say, “Miss Reporter, can you read that back.”  The attorney assumes that you heard it, understood it, and wrote it all down.  But what if you didn’t?

There are three scenarios on readback:

  • You hit it out of the park.  You got every word and are reading back confidently, loudly, and clearly.  It is so satisfying to successfully deliver on a specific request.
  • You will have the majority of the requested question or answer, but there are some messy outlines or maybe a dropped word or two.  You are unsure it will hang together when you read it aloud.  If you are called upon to read back under this type of circumstance, my advice would be to take a few seconds to scan your screen quickly and read the passage to yourself.  Sometimes you just missed a small word that makes all the difference, or perhaps you misheard a word but it suddenly becomes clear.  In any case, read back what you have and let the chips fall where they may.  If your readback of a question indeed fell a little short, the attorney may choose to repeat, rephrase, or strike it altogether.  If you were asked to read back an answer, it is possible that the attorney didn’t understand it either and will ask the witness to repeat it.
  • You missed so much of the requested question or answer that it is impossible to reconstruct it in a few seconds.  You were going to interrupt to ask for it to be repeated, but you were asked to read back before you got a chance.  In cases like this, you can say, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t get that.  I was just going to ask you to repeat it.”  They will most likely oblige.

Readback isn’t restricted to Q&A.  As reporters we are often asked to read back colloquy.  Sometimes these exchanges are quite heated, and readback can be challenging.  They are just as vital as the questions and answers, however, as the attorneys are stating their objections and are preserving their positions for the future.  You have to be prepared to read back colloquy, too, and sometimes the exchanges can be quite lengthy.

Keep in mind that all reporters have had trouble reading back at some point.  There are so many variables that make our job difficult.  Some attorneys understand what we are up against, and some don’t.  Some care and some don’t.  You will be forgiven if it is a rare occurrence.  If you continue having difficulty, however, it will not go unnoticed.  Your agency may receive a call requesting a different reporter the next time, or you may be dismissed and replaced with another reporter that very same day.

Sometimes the reason for the readback is simply to satisfy the attorney that he has a reporter with the requisite skills.  If an attorney suspects he is dealing with a newbie, he may ask the reporter to read back random questions or answers early on to gauge whether or not the reporter is equipped to handle his case.  He would prefer not to wait until receipt of the transcript to determine if there is a problem.

So how can you increase your chances of reading back successfully?  Don’t be a mindless writer.  It only makes sense that if you pay attention and try to follow the testimony, you will have some context and point of reference from which to draw upon, and your chances will increase that you will be able to read back without error.   Also, if you make a habit of looking at your screen while you are writing realtime, you will be able to identify your misstrokes and make mental notes of what words those misstrokes should be.  Lastly, not to be overlooked is the obvious:  speed.  It is a given that the faster you can write the less you will drop and the cleaner your notes will be.

As a student, the more you read back, the better off you will be!  Practice reading back aloud everything you take.  Pretend you are at an actual deposition and see if your readback will make the grade.  Not only will it force you to confront your writing issues and improve your skill, but it will be a good exercise in learning how to keep your composure under pressure.  This will pay off in the long run.  Reading back is one of the benchmarks upon which attorneys will judge you.  Make it your moment to shine.

Tardiness – The High Cost of Being Late

This is such an important topic, especially in this busy age.  I’m sure you know of someone who is chronically late and how annoying that can be.  Being late for social engagements is one thing; being late for a client is a whole other story.  If you hold a job, it is your responsibility to be on time.  In the court reporting world, being on time actually means getting to your assignment early.

The following verse speaks to this perfectly:

If you are early, you are on time.
If you are on time, you are late.
If you are late, you are in trouble.

As a court reporter, it is best if you get to your assignment a half an hour earlier than the designated start time.  It is always wise to account for traffic and public transportation snafus, both of which are pretty much a certainty on any given day.  You do not want to keep everyone waiting for your arrival, and you do not want a call placed to your agency wondering where you are and what your ETA is.  Not a good start to any day!

If you arrive early, it will give you a chance to set up, check your connections, troubleshoot any problems, look over any pleadings, input dictionary entries, and even relax if just for a moment.  This is valuable time to collect your thoughts and prepare for what lies ahead.  Soon people will be arriving, and you will need to properly identify them, determine whom they are representing, and note them on your seating chart.  Once this is done, everyone involved can get down to the business at hand with no time wasted.

To be early is to be on time

Contrast this scenario with one where you arrive late to a deposition.  Everyone is seated around the table ready to go.  You’re doing your best to set up quickly, and you feel all eyes upon you.  As luck would have it, you’re having a problem with your equipment.  You call for technical support and get put on hold.  Now the attorneys are tapping their fingers and checking their watches.  You finally get your issue resolved, but you can’t go on the record yet.  You still have to ask for a caption and find out who everyone is.  More time goes by, and the attorney who hired you is seeing dollar bills fly out the window because he’s paying the expert $500 an hour for his time.  To complicate matters, imagine if the attorneys had only a certain amount of time to conduct their examinations per court order, had to catch a flight at a certain time, or were paying for the video conferencing at an off-hour rate of $400 an hour.  Yes, time is money.

As a reporter, you never want to be the reason for a late start.  Why?  If you cannot be counted on to arrive at your assignments early, it calls into question your professionalism in other areas, such as your organizational/ time management skills and your attention to detail:  in short, your competence.  It is inconsiderate and disrespectful to negatively impact the schedules of busy people who need to be productive at a high level.  It also reflects poorly on the agency which works very hard to promote a professional image with an emphasis on customer service and satisfaction.

Depositions can start, and often do, with the understanding that an attorney will be arriving late, but depositions cannot go forward without the court reporter.  The reporters who work for this office would rather arrive an hour early than be one minute late.  True professionals, they realize that tardiness is detrimental to their reputations and careers, so they do all they can to ensure that they arrive to their assignments early, not merely on time.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Court reporters prepare transcripts using their education and experience, but it can be scary when that isn’t enough. Good reporters know when research may be necessary, when a nagging thought or hunch leads them to investigate further; but when a reporter doesn’t even realize that their knowledge is lacking and therefore sees no need to look something up, bad things can happen.

Consider these examples culled from real transcripts:

Nine Next for Nynex

Youth in Asia for euthanasia

City Bank for Citibank

Half Shell for Hatch Shell

What made errors like these especially disturbing is that they occurred multiple times throughout the transcripts, thus bringing unwanted attention to the glaring error over and over again. If I were an attorney reading “Youth in Asia” when it was supposed to be “euthanasia” on almost every page, I think I’d lose my mind. I’d also want my money back.

One reporter once wrote “slacks on a fence” when clearly the attorney meant “slats on a fence.” The reporter insisted the attorney said “slacks.” No, in fact he didn’t. The case was not about pants. The reporter obviously never knew the word “slats” existed so therefore wrote “slacks” because that’s a word she was familiar with. If she had paid attention to context, would she have noticed something odd? Maybe, frighteningly, she didn’t care.

Of course we can’t be expected to know everything. I remember as a young reporter I once wrote “smoke in mirrors” on my job sheet only to have an attorney cross out the word “in” and replace it with “and.” He said it was important. Yikes. I had never heard of that phrase before, but I never made that same mistake again. And that’s the great thing about court reporting: You learn something new every day that you can use to improve your job performance going forward.

You don’t know what you don’t know. So how can this lack of awareness be overcome? Take the time to examine the pleadings and exhibits to pick up terms that will be used. Hire an experienced proofreader. Ask another reporter their opinion if something doesn’t quite fit in context. Check Google wisely. Read something every day that will increase your word knowledge. Look up acronyms. Double-check spellings. Pay attention. If you do these things, you will have a greater chance of preparing transcripts devoid of embarrassing errors and a greater chance of having a career you can be proud of.

BE LIKE “MJ”

Training to become a court reporter is so grueling, it’s no surprise that feelings of despair can become overwhelming and the desire to quit can get stronger with each passing day.   If you find yourself in this predicament, you have to stop and reassess.  Make a deliberate effort to push the negative thoughts and feelings out of your mind and dig deep to find a renewed sense of purpose.  Many have come before you, feeling as you do right now, and have found a way to succeed.  You can do it too!  Remember:  This is a marathon, not a sprint.

I am reminded once again of the following quote by the basketball legend Michael Jordan“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winninMichael Jordan2g shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”

I find these words so inspiring because he actually kept track of the shots he missed and the games he lost.  Who does that?  What he doesn’t mention in this quote is that he won six NBA championships, was named the NBA Finals MVP six times and its Most Valuable Player five times.  He also doesn’t mention the fact that he is a two-time Gold Medal Olympian and the recipient of the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom.  He has other accolades too numerous to mention, and, oh, he has a hugely successful sneaker line too.  Good thing he didn’t let failure define him.

So how did MJ succeed?   His next quote might give you a clue:  “The minute you get away from the fundamentals – whether it’s proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.”

This is so true.  If you are not progressing as you should, you need to critically assess the three items mentioned above and identify in particular your weaknesses so you can form a plan to eliminate them.  All three are integral to your moving ahead.

Regarding your technique, it always helps to return to the basics when you are stuck:  deliberate incremental practice, emphasis on error-free writing, and readback.  Maybe you need to lower your speed to gain your bearings again.  Is a review of your theory in order?  Are you tackling those tough phrases or just letting them pass by?  I firmly believe that spending two hours working on writing an error-free, difficult one-minute take is far more valuable than spending two hours working on a five-minute take and settling for mediocrity in doing so.

Regarding work ethic, are you committed to a daily practice regimen, a minimum of two hours outside of class, even more if possible?  This takes enormous self-discipline, especially on weekends and holidays.  Making excuses can be a slippery slope.   Don’t allow yourself to skip or shorten your practice sessions.  If anything, you should be doing all you can to increase your practice time.

Lastly, evaluate your mental preparation.  Are you practicing without interruptions or distractions?  Are your electronic devices turned off and put out of reach?  Are you in the zone when you practice, giving it everything you’ve got?  It takes time to develop the mental stamina needed to concentrate for the interminable five-minute testing takes.

Despite your setbacks, try to stay positive.  Keep at it.  Don’t look too far ahead; you’ll  get overwhelmed.  Just concentrate on gaining a couple words per minute a week, and eventually you will get there.  You will drop many words and fail many tests along the way, but one day you will “be like MJ” and find sweet victory.

THE FIVE MAJOR TYPES OF MISTAKES MADE IN TRANSCRIPTS

The following are five areas where mistakes can occur in your transcripts.  A court reporter must be cognizant of every area to be successful.  It is not enough to write down every word on your machine.  Putting a verbatim transcript together takes careful thought and attention and at times can be very challenging.  You only get one chance to get it right.  Let your transcripts reflect the very best your professional self has to offer!

Spelling errors

There is really no excuse for this type of embarrassing error.  Utmost care must be taken to ensure that the correct spellings are inputted into your dictionary at the outset so that misspellings do not automatically appear in every transcript going forward.  Take the time to look up spellings if you have the slightest doubt.  Even if a witness spells a name or word for you, do a little research to confirm the spelling, especially medical or technical terminology.

Tip to improve:  For starters, input the list of commonly misspelled words into your dictionary.  Here is the link:  http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/spelling-and-word-lists/misspelled.html

Misused words

There are so many words that can trip you up:  affect/effect, accept/except, compliment/complement, to name a few.  You not only need to know the differences in meaning between these words in each pairing but also how to write them differently.  Beware of spell-checking software!  It wouldn’t flag any of the misused words in this sentence:  Ewe due knot no how two sow close.

Tip to improve:  Study the 50 most commonly confused homophones in the following link and input them into your dictionary; and at the very least, read a daily newspaper and look up words you are unfamiliar with. http://www.spelling-words-well.com/support-files/50-homophone-sets.pdf

Improper punctuation

Punctuation helps make sense of the words in a transcript.  Attorneys should not have to read and reread your transcript to decipher the meaning of what was said due to poor or incorrect punctuation.  When reading your transcript, they should be able to concentrate on content alone.  Improper punctuation interrupts reading flow, is distracting, and, in the worst case, can change the meaning of what was intended.  My favorite example:  “Let’s eat, Grandma” versus “Let’s eat Grandma.”

Tip to improve:  Reviewing the types of punctuation on a regular basis and their usage is always time well spent.

Factual errors

These errors will mostly appear on title pages where critical information resides:   the caption, civil action number, witness name, day and date, start time, appearances, etc.   It only takes one incorrect digit in a ZIP code or phone number or one incorrect letter in an e-mail address to render the information useless.  Examples of factual errors in the body of a transcript include misidentifying speakers and incorrectly marking and identifying exhibits.

Tip to improve:  When you start working on your transcript, work on the title page first.  This will help you remember the assignment and who the participants were.  Do not rush when creating this important first page.  Then proofread it at least twice.  You may also use a checklist to make sure you have covered all the details.

Incorrect capturing of testimony

A mumbled answer can sound like either “I think so” or “could be so.”  Which is it?   “September” and “December” are often hard to distinguish.  I’ve run across attorneys who swallow the first word of a question; for example, did he say “did you” or “do you”?  Even the little words, “a” or “the,” can be a huge problem.  Do you know the difference between the two?  Hint:  One is an indefinite article and the other is a definite article.

Tip to improve:  While on the job, you should pay attention to the story line and be alert to things that may not make sense.  If you are following the testimony, you will be more apt to know when it is appropriate to interrupt and ask for clarification.

Putting together a perfect transcript takes enormous care, even for seasoned reporters.  This is not the time to be lazy or complacent.  Do the necessary work.  Make a commitment to continually educate yourself.  Enlist the help of an experienced proofreader who can catch your mistakes before the transcript goes to final print.  After all, it is your name and reputation that is on the line.

What Money Can’t Buy

Court reporters spend a lot of money before they can even begin working.  They need a reliable machine for starters plus a laptop, software licenses, service contracts, and various ancillary supplies such as business cards, exhibit stickers, batteries, and extension cords.

All these items can be replaced almost immediately should disaster strike, but there is ONE item than cannot be purchased anywhere, in a store or through a vendor.  Without it you are back at square one.  Aside from your skill, it is your most valuable asset as a working court reporter.  What is it?  Your personal dictionary.

There are horror stories out there about court reporters who have lost all their equipment through car accidents or other natural disasters and, along with it, their personal dictionaries which resided only on their laptops.  This has rendered them essentially dead in the water, unable to immediately resume their daily duties and earn the income they are accustomed to.  Sadly, this situation could have easily been prevented if only they had backed up their dictionaries.

The conventional wisdom is to back up your personal dictionaries as often as possible, at least once a month, more often if you are just starting out.  Think of all the entries you make on just one assignment, especially if you are at the beginning of your career.  All that labor needs to be preserved and protected.  For even greater insurance, it would be wise to back up your dictionary in multiple ways, such as in the cloud or on a couple of thumb drives.  Then you can store one of the thumb drives in a location other than your office or home, such as a relative’s house, for safekeeping.  The more times you back up and the more places you can store your backups, the safer you will be.

This advice also applies to backing up your jobs.  I not only back up my jobs before I even leave an assignment, but I also back up after each editing session in case my laptop ever decides not to start up again.  The thought of being unable to retrieve a deposition or hearing for an attorney is frightening, so that alone is worth going the extra mile to protect my files at all costs.

Learn from those who have lost it all.  Save yourself the pain and avoid any serious repercussions and damage to your reputation.  Consider it a vital investment in your professional career.  Stop what you are doing and back up your dictionary right now.  Back up, back up often, and back up in multiple places!

STEP IT UP

I was waiting in line last Sunday ordering a bagel.  The three people behind the counter were going about their duties, tending to each custom order.  As more people entered the shop and joined the ever-growing line, the staff seemed unfazed, going about their business at their usual pace.  Apparently they saw no need to speed things up to accommodate the sudden rush of business.

Can you imagine, in your role as a court reporter, operating at only one speed:   slow? Can you envision the words coming at you in quick succession, piling up one after the other, but, no worries, you keep moseying along at a snail’s pace?  Needless to say, as court reporters we have no choice but to step it up and shift into a higher gear.

Sometimes the pace at a deposition is steady, but many times it is not.  Testimony can come at you in fits and starts; it can wax and wane.  Getting into a rhythm can be difficult on days like these.  Things may be quiet speedwise, and then all of a sudden someone objects and they’re off to the races.  It is your job to adjust to whatever the speed may be:  If the pace is slow, you have to stay on your toes for the inevitable and unpredictable uptick.  If the speed is fast, you have to hang on until things slow down enough for you to catch your breath.  The more speed you have in the bank, the more adept you will be to take on whatever comes your way.

This brings to mind an assignment I shared with a fabulous colleague, Jane Williamson, RMR, CRR, on a daily copy years ago.  She would write; I would edit, sitting in the same room.  I noticed that whenever things got contentious and the pace picked up, she literally dropped her head and went into high-speed mode.  It scared me at first — I thought she had fainted! — but I noticed that she did this multiple times throughout the day.  It was such a strong visual manifestation of her bearing down, going into a deeper level of concentration, and ramping up her speed.  I mentioned this to her afterwards, and she was unaware that she was even doing this!

Of course you may not physically react as she does, but you do have to switch gears mentally to be able to dig deep and perform at a higher level.  Your current practice routine is a good indicator of how you will fare in challenging situations like this.  If you do your best to hang on even when it seems impossible, you will have a better chance of success.  This is the mindset you need to be able to perform optimally.  Contrast this with a more lackadaisical approach to your practice sessions, and I think the results will become obvious.  A complacent mindset will generate inferior outcomes.  Put another way, you will not be able to go into full-speed mode when needed if you do not train yourself to do so while in school.

Unfortunately, reporters cannot be like the one-speed-fits-all workers at the bagel shop without suffering serious consequences.  When called upon, there is no option but to step it up and deliver.