Brains, Courage, and Heart 

By Connie Psaros, RPR, CMRS, BS

I happened to see The Wizard of Oz on TV the other night, the story of the Scarecrow, Lion, and Tin Man on a journey in search of brains, courage, and heart; and for some reason I saw a connection to court reporting.

BRAINS:  Let’s face it.  You have to be intelligent to do what we do.  Just mastering the steno machine and obtaining certification takes years of arduous training and testing where nothing but 95% accuracy will do.  Judging from the very low graduation rates, not everyone has what it takes to see their schooling through to the end. 

Machine mastery, together with a solid grasp of the English language, is still not enough.  Of utmost importance these days is technological proficiency.  Brain power is definitely needed to know your hardware, software, how to hook up iPads to provide realtime, and troubleshoot a variety of technical problems should they arise.   And not to be overlooked are the different, sometimes tricky, scenarios that can unexpectedly unfold on any given assignment where we must think on our feet and make decisions using our experience and best judgment.  Court reporting is not for dummies.

COURAGE:  No matter your level of experience, courage is a mandatory trait.  We are thrown alone into the unknown on a daily basis and must face whatever lies in store.  Maybe it’s your first CART job in front of a convention audience, your first daily copy/realtime assignment, or maybe your client needs you in Mongolia, of all places, which is uncharted territory for sure on so many levels.  A lot rides on our shoulders, and few understand the pressure we face.  I know how crippling fear can be, so when I see great professionals jump in with both feet anyway and get the job done despite any feelings of apprehension, it deepens my admiration and respect for them.

HEART:  Court reporters need “heart” to produce the best product possible.  They need to care about the record and understand the weight that the parties involved will place upon it.  Mistakes made by us could have serious ramifications.  At the end of the day if all you care about is a paycheck, this is not the profession for you.  The following is a statement written by one of our exemplary reporters, Anne H. Bohan, RDR, CRR, when asked to provide a glimpse into how she views her profession.  The weight of her words should resonate with every court reporter.

“Day by day I faithfully record and transcribe the experiences of other people’s lives.  I am writing their stories as they are telling them, capturing their words for them.  I deal in real life emotions on a daily basis – joy, anger, grief and fear, the highs and lows of the human condition – and I must perform the job in a calm, stoic manner.  I feel like I have lived 1,000 lives sitting in front of my shorthand machine.

“Much of the work I do is critical; there’s a risk people will suffer if I don’t get it right.  I safeguard a litigant’s most precious possessions:  life, liberty or family.  I have great incentive to record every single word correctly.  But I invest effort, enthusiasm and joy into what I do regardless.  I embrace the responsibility.”

If there is one thing to take away from my many blog posts, this is it.  Anne’s words perfectly capture who we are as court reporters, what we do and why we do it.  It is her “heart,” along with an ample supply of brains and courage, that has propelled her career forward and made her such a fine ambassador for the court reporting profession.  Thank you, Anne.

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Discretion, please!!!

Every now and then while on the subway, I will see a court reporter proofreading a transcript.  I can’t help but cringe.  The particular reporter I saw this week was standing, red pen in hand, probably hoping to make good use of her valuable time.  What bothered me, however, was the fact that a woman was reading the transcript over her shoulder.  Thank goodness she didn’t pull out exhibits such as tax returns or medical records to review.

Another practice that I find frightening is when reporters put transcripts and accompanying audio on Facebook.  While the names of the parties or those present at the proceedings may not be visible on the screen shot, this is still a very bad idea.  As you know, information on Facebook can spread like wildfire.  It may not actually go viral, but in a world getting smaller by the minute, it’s not too far-fetched to imagine that that post can find its way back to someone who recognizes the voice on the audio or even to the very person himself.

Call me paranoid, but these are not risks I am willing to take.  Testimony reported in any setting is confidential and should not be put out for public viewing under any circumstances.  I wouldn’t want a phone call from a client who discovered that his words were online because of me.  If you were embroiled in litigation, would you want your private matters out there for public viewing?

I heard of an instance where a reporter gave her opinion about an important case on Facebook.  This called into question her neutrality and professionalism, and it landed her a meeting before a judge where she was promptly fired.  Improper behaviors have consequences.

Discretion is a quality possessed by every professional, but I think that court reporters particularly have a duty, as officers of the court, to be extra careful in this regard.  Be mindful of how you handle yourself professionally.  More people are watching than you may realize. 

Court Reporting Myths

All court reporters are the same.

We may all seem the same at first glance, sitting at our machines with our fingers flying, but we all know that among our members there is a wide range of abilities and experience.  So how does one know that a reporter has the core competencies required to produce a timely verbatim transcript, or how does one know if the court reporter can provide realtime?   The standard determinant in our business has always been the credentials earned through NCRA:  RPR, RMR, RDR, CRR, and CRC.  It may not be the only factor — and there are some members who consistently perform at a high level without the top credentials — but it is the one that carries significant weight among its members.

Court reporting is easy.  All you have to do is push a button to get a transcript.

Were it so!  True, there are gifted reporters out there who can consistently produce very clean transcripts by the end of the day, but they are in the minority.  Among NCRA’s membership of 11,495, only 1,864 hold the RMR; 486 hold the RDR; and 2,478 hold the CRR (as of February 2018).  Court reporting is stressful and difficult, but they make it LOOK easy. 

Longer words are harder to write than short words. 

With the emphasis on writing “short,” this does not hold true anymore.  Multisyllabic words used to be the nemesis of reporters, but savvy reporters have changed their writing styles to incorporate shortcuts for long words, word groupings, common phrases, and numbers.  In addition, they have learned to come up with creative briefs on the fly.  Carol Kusinitz, a reporter extraordinaire who routinely does this, came up with the brief CRUPL* for “cryptococcal meningitis.”  This practice not only cuts down dramatically on misstrokes but saves wear and tear on your hands and fingers which is crucial when considering a career that can last decades.

I can earn $100K at the completion of just a two-year court reporting program!

Earnings for beginning reporters do not even approach $100K.  This is certainly attainable but only after years of experience in the field.  The higher the credentials one has usually correlates with the more lucrative assignments, so it certainly is an incentive to improve your skills.  Secondly, many students do not graduate in two years.  To think that you will definitely finish in two years and then start immediately earning $100K is a fairy tale.

Court reporting is a boring job.

Yes, there are times when you are bored to tears, but court reporting can also be very exciting.  You will be privy to private and confidential matters, contentious and controversial matters, sometimes matters covered by the local and national media, and you will be exposed to topics from every field imaginable.  It is a “free” education, there for the taking. You will meet people from all walks of life and gain perspective on human nature.  Reporting also offers you the opportunity to travel nationally and around the world!  Reporters from this office have reported in Italy, Cyprus, Sweden, and Mongolia, to name a few.

Court reporters can make their own hours.

If only this were true.  Freelancers may have more flexibility, but all reporters are at the mercy of their backlogs and their clients’ wishes.  When a transcript is needed on an expedited basis, it needs to get delivered on time.  Everyone has a million stories.  I remember attorneys ordered an expedited transcript from me on Christmas Eve.

I have audio, so I can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

I don’t know of one professional reporter who subscribes to this.  There is always the possibility that your audio could fail, often at the absolute worst time.  If you didn’t hear it to begin with, it’s possible it won’t be picked up by the audio.  You are there to safeguard the record and must do everything in your power to prepare the best transcript you can.  Interrupt for clarification if necessary, and always work on improving your skill and speed so you don’t need your audio backup as a crutch.

A tape recorder can do your job.  You probably hear this one a lot.  I don’t even want to go there.  We all know the truth.

Do You Punctuate As You Write?

I hope you are putting in punctuation as you write.  If you train yourself to do so, it will become automatic and you won’t even give it a second thought.  If you hear the end of a sentence, put in your period.  If the witness is mentioning items in a series, you know that calls for commas, so put them in.  You may think you will be able to write faster by omitting the punctuation, but it really is counterproductive.  You will be spending valuable time after the fact, especially in a testing situation, figuring out where the proper punctuation should go.  Further, you may not think it is important, but sometimes it can prove to be critical. 

Consider the following excerpt from NCRA President’s July 2018 message.  I removed the punctuation.  How would you punctuate this passage?

“Approximately one year ago when the lights went out during the premier session in Las Vegas I quietly wondered if it was some sort of sign I had no idea what the ensuing year would hold I’ll be honest it’s been a bit of a roller coaster thankfully I have always enjoyed the thrill of a good roller-coaster ride throughout the year my President’s columns have addressed giving back gratitude adapting to change vision celebrating success moving our industry forward and living in the reality of our profession as it has evolved I am proud of our accomplishments this year they have been significant I would like to provide you some highlights.”

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If you don’t punctuate as you write, you will be faced with long run-on sentences that will be hard to decipher.  More importantly, there is the danger that you will punctuate incorrectly, thus changing the meaning of what was intended to be said.

The above passage may not have been so difficult to punctuate, but there will be a time when you are faced with a technical witness who speaks his own language of which you haven’t a clue.  I found the following abstract from the September 2018 issue of the Insurance:  Mathematics and Economics journal, an article titled, “Minimizing the probability of ruin:  Optimal per-loss reinsurance” by Liang and Young.  It sounds like testimony from witnesses I’ve had at the Division of Insurance.  It’s a huge challenge just getting the words down; punctuating it correctly is another story.  I’ve removed the punctuation.  Try punctuating this:

“We compute the optimal investment and reinsurance strategy for an insurance company that wishes to minimize its probability of ruin when the risk process follows a compound Poisson process (CPP) and reinsurance is priced via the expected-value premium principle we consider per-loss optimal reinsurance for the CPP after first determining optimal reinsurance for the diffusion that approximates this CPP for both the CPP claim process and its diffusion approximation the financial market in which the insurer invests follows the Black–Scholes model namely a single riskless asset that earns interest at a constant rate and a single risky asset whose price process follows a geometric Brownian motion under minimal assumptions about admissible forms of reinsurance we show that optimal per-loss reinsurance is excess-of-loss therefore our result extends the work of the optimality of excess-of-loss reinsurance to the problem of minimizing the probability of ruin.”

Have your eyes glazed over yet?

Testimony like this can go on for a full day, so it is very possible you could end up with 200 pages of wall-to-wall testimony to transcribe.  Imagine having 200 pages of run-on sentences to deal with.   Even ten pages is too much!  It is almost guaranteed that in this instance you will fail to correctly punctuate, and the testimony will prove to be nonsensical and therefore useless, causing major problems for the parties involved and YOU. 

As a reporter, you are tasked with creating a readable and accurate record.  Punctuation marks are the tools you need to do so.  If you write the punctuation as you hear it, using the inflection of the tone or pitch of the speaker’s voice as a helpful guide, you at least have a shot at correctly capturing what the witness said and meant.  Sometimes, if you don’t, as in the example above, you don’t stand a chance.

IF…

This one little word became a matter of contention between the parties in a lawsuit, and our reporter was at the center of the dispute.

This reporter has 40 years’ experience and has earned several NCRA credentials, but this little word got by her.  She did not hear the “if” in the witness’s answer.  She produced a rough and subsequently produced a 200-page final transcript, both of which did not contain the “if.” 

IFCounsel called and asked that she check her notes.  He just noted the page and line number he was concerned about and did not suggest what he was looking for in particular. 

Obviously the “if” was not in her notes; but after she checked the audio, she realized that indeed the “if” was missing in the answer.  This changed the meaning of the answer.  We notified opposing counsel of the error, and of course he disputed this newfound information.

After several phone calls and emails back and forth, the matter was thankfully resolved.  Our reporter obviously made an error, since the “if” was clearly heard on the audio.  There really was no dispute as to what the correct answer should have been.  Corrected transcripts and electronic files had to be resent to all involved.

This reminds me of another very experienced and qualified reporter, an RDR, who was challenged because of the word “a” in her transcript.  I forget the specifics of this example because it happened quite awhile ago. 

The point of all this is that sometimes it’s the smallest of words that can cause the biggest problems.  Think of all the words the reporter correctly took down that day, 200 pages worth.  She missed just one, but it was a very consequential one.  If it can happen to her, an RMR, CRR, it can happen to anyone. 

As students, you are acutely aware of this.  Each time you miss a word during testing, however small, it counts as an error.  In a testing situation the word “if” carries the same weight as a multisyllabic word. 

Of course we are only human and mistakes do happen.  Unfortunately in our line of work, it’s our mistakes that jump off the page, not the thousands of words we write correctly.  Unbelievably, on very rare occasions, 99.999 percent accuracy is sometimes not good enough.

To further emphasize just how critical the little words can be, please take a moment to read the article about a capital murder case that got rejected by the Supreme Court due to a discrepancy between the words “may” versus “must.”

Energize your Practice Sessions

I think most of you would agree that getting motivated to practice every day is one of the most difficult daily struggles court reporting students face.  Not only does practicing take hours out of your day, but it requires deep concentration, endurance, and, oh, yes, accuracy.

It all comes down to self-discipline.  It means resisting the temptation to shorten your practice session or skipping practice altogether.  It means a willingness to forgo things you’d rather be doing for a payoff in the end.  When you are out in the working world, self-discipline will mean working overtime to meet a deadline, missing out on social events, and working nights, weekends, and holidays to keep up with your backlog.  As one of my colleagues, Ken DiFraia, RPR, said, “If you’re not into it from the get-go, this profession is not for you.”

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I always practiced alone.  It’s the only way I could focus.  Ken, however, mentioned that he used to practice with another student, so it’s something you may want to consider.  He said there were many benefits:

  • it broke up the monotony of practicing alone
  • it allowed you to share ideas, briefs, tips, etc.
  • it provided for friendly competition for readback and speed
  • it provided much needed support from a peer

This option may not be for everyone, and it shouldn’t replace time practicing alone.  It may be worth trying a couple of times a week to see if it helps improve your skill and your spirits.  Choose a partner carefully and set up a plan for each practice session.  This will keep you on task and avoid wasted time.  It is interesting to note that Ken and his fellow student practiced together from the outset, and both passed their first 225 in the beginning of the summer session after their second year.

Sometimes shaking things up a little can prove beneficial.  It may be worth a try.  Good luck! 

Shadowing a Reporter Too Soon is Counterproductive

There are two schools of thought on this issue.  Some believe that sitting out with a working reporter at any speed is helpful.  I personally feel that you shouldn’t shadow a reporter until you have passed your 200 Q&A. 

The purpose of shadowing a court reporter is to familiarize yourself with the job, but it also should serve as a gauge of where you currently are and where you have yet to go.  If you sit out after you’ve passed your 200s, it will be a more realistic test of your abilities. You still have to pass your 225s to earn your RPR, and those extra 25 wpm are the hardest to attain!  Further, any reporter will tell you that even 225 wpm just doesn’t cut it on many days.  The gap between 180 and 225 is a big one, and sitting out at that speed would be discouraging.  Your time would be better spent practicing.

When you are ready to sit in with a reporter, you should have the mindset of putting yourself in the reporter’s place and envisioning that YOU are the reporter of record.  Learning how to swear in witnesses, mark exhibits, note stipulations, etc., is the easy part.  The hard part is creating a record.  Pretend that you are there alone.  Can you keep up?  Would you have to interrupt often?  How are you handling colloquy, the arguing, the frequent readback?  In short, would you be able to prepare a quality transcript of the entire proceedings?

Working reporters enjoy taking students out and sharing their knowledge.  This is a perfect setting to learn what you don’t in the classroom:  the reporter’s routine, tricks of the trade, use of technology.  Maybe your reporter is writing realtime for the attorneys and has provided iPads to all counsel.  You will be amazed and inspired to witness this live!  Take advantage of this special opportunity to ask your questions and get tips on what you need to do to improve.

I still remember vividly sitting out as a student.  The attorneys were always gracious, allowing me to sit in on what are always considered confidential matters.  I was grateful; they could have refused my attendance, but it was never an issue.  I was allowed a front-row seat, but I tried to be as unobtrusive and respectful as possible.  What I most remember was trying to keep up.  My fingers were still moving long after the reporter’s fingers had stopped.  I soaked it all in and took something away from every session.  Lastly, I always took a moment to thank the reporter and the attorneys for the opportunity.

Shadowing a reporter is a great experience, but it should be saved for when you are close to approaching the finish line.  At that point you’ll have more practice time under your belt and a better chance of success.  If you are not quite there yet, keep putting in as much quality practice time as you can.  Your turn to shadow a reporter will come.  I wish you all a productive learning experience out in the “real world”!