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.

www.doriswong.com

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.

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”!

Ph.D.s Among Us

I wrote a previous blog about Gabriel Sneh, the Harvard Medical School student who rented space in our office to study for his board exam.  With exemplary grades and only four errors on his exam, he was courted by every top neurosurgery residency program in the country, and he was ecstatic on being matched with his number one choice.  His journey continues; seven more years to reach his final goal.

I was honored to have attended his graduation ceremony this past May.  It was a picture-perfect day.  The graduates were the best and the brightest in the nation.  Many received not only their medical degrees that day but advanced degrees, Ph.D.s, in different scientific disciplines.  So impressive!

The brainpower under that graduation tent was mind-blowing.  I was feeling very inferior to say the least.  But then it hit me.  No one here can do what I can do on my steno machine, not the brilliant graduates, not the esteemed faculty, not the distinguished speakers.  I sat a little straighter in my chair after this epiphany, knowing that my accomplishments had merit too, that my profession’s contributions to society are just as vital, noble, and far-reaching.

Harvard may have their Ph.D.s, but so do we.  Those reporters who hold an RDR are in the minority among us.  Perhaps we work alongside them, fellow colleagues with the highest credentials who are always called upon when the toughest of challenges present themselves.  Maybe we’ve met them at conventions and have seen them in action at the national speed contests, or maybe we’ve attended informative seminars or read articles where they have graciously shared their knowledge on technology or the high-profile daily copy cases they’ve covered while traveling the globe. We look up to them with admiration and respect.

From my vantage point I’ve seen firsthand what these exceptional professionals can do, and it never ceases to amaze me what they are capable of.  Armed with proven speed and accuracy, the latest technology, and true grit, they report the most grueling of assignments and continue learning and growing from every experience.  They not only report the “usual” – depositions, hearings, trials – but they report the seemingly impossible:  providing CART on overhead projectors in convention centers with thousands in attendance, protracted roundtable discussions between academics from around the world, confidential interviews of eminent scientists describing the most obscure minutiae of their research.  Rush delivery, realtime, rough draft?  They don’t say it’s easy, but they manage to get the job done.

All of us owe them a debt of gratitude for their ongoing pursuit of reporting excellence and their eagerness to be trailblazers in an ever-changing, technology-based profession.  They make our community stronger and our value indisputable.  May their great example inspire you as you continue your studies, and may you one day join their ranks as a top-tier court reporter.  We need you now more than ever.

Test Anxiety

We’ve all been there.  The nerves, the shaking, the sweaty palms.

Taking a skills speed test is unlike the usual testing experience.   When you take a written exam, you have the benefit of mulling over an answer and going back to the question at a later time.  If an essay is required, you can take a few minutes to formulate your thoughts so you can respond in an organized manner.  Although there is a time limit, you have flexibility in the way you can use that time.

When you as court reporting students are taking your skills tests, you have no such luxury.  You need to be spot on at that very moment.  You need to write every word, hit the right keys, and keep up the seemingly relentless pace.  You have only so much time to transcribe.  And as if that weren’t stressful enough, the pass rate is not 70%.  It’s 95%!  It’s no wonder that test anxiety is a major issue for so many in this field.

There’s a lot of advice out there on what to do to mitigate test anxiety; for instance, get plenty of rest the night before, eat a healthy breakfast, and engage in deep breathing exercises.  Some believe exercise helps to calm nerves; some believe in meditation.  Positive mental rehearsal is another technique used by many as a means to enhance positive results.  All these suggestions have merit, and they’re worth pursuing.

Unfortunately, there is no foolproof solution to calming those test jitters.  What works for one person may not work for another.  Each of us has to find our own way in this regard.  One thing is for sure:  Anxiety comes with the territory in this profession.  Even when you are out in the working world, there will be times when your anxiety is through the roof.  You must find a way to deal with and overcome what can sometimes be a crippling fear.

On the other hand, I personally find that a little anxiety can actually be a good thing.  It gets the adrenaline going and keeps you on your toes.  The trick is to find that balance where you have just enough anxiety to propel you forward but not so much that your feelings of panic and dread sabotage you before you even get started.

For those of you who are prone to having test anxiety, the best advice I can give is to be prepared.  This means putting in as much meaningful practice time as you can.  Write cleanly, expand your vocabulary, build your dictionary.  Read back everything, examine your errors, and correct them.  Hone your concentration skills so you can eliminate distraction.  Keep a positive attitude and get rid of negative thoughts.  If you are stuck at a certain speed, consider that a temporary situation and resolve to keep on trying.  Even though you may have failed at your last testing attempt doesn’t mean you won’t succeed in the long run.  If you are practicing in an efficient and deliberate manner, even though you may think you are not making progress, you are.  You’ve passed tests before.  You’ve already had success!  You just have to pass some more.

Test anxiety is a part of every student’s learning experience.  It’s normal.  It’s sad that for many of you the anxiety is heightened because you haven’t passed a test for months, because you have no other financial options, or because you can’t run away from your obligations at home.   But don’t give up!  The good news is that there are wonderful job opportunities waiting for you when you graduate and become certified; and once out in the working world, the anxiety you feel today will dissipate as you gain more experience.

MULTI-VOICE DICTATION

As if Q & A dictation wasn’t hard enough, with only an attorney and witness speaking, now comes multi-voice dictation which adds one or two additional speakers to worry about.  At just about every deposition you will attend in the future, you will need to be able to identify at least one additional participant, so having a system in place to accurately identify speakers is vital.  This is especially important when you have multiple attorneys arguing, sometimes at a quick pace and often interrupting each other.  It is easy to get confused, lose your rhythm, and drop.  We’ve all struggled with this.  Thankfully, it is a skill that becomes easier with practice.

Some schools rely on tape for multi-voice dictation where the voices introduce themselves at the beginning.  I’ve heard of lone instructors changing their voice to designate a change in speaker.  Some schools have actual speakers giving live dictation in front of the classroom, which I think is ideal, as I prefer a visual frame of reference.  My school back in the day used a rigged contraption with lights on it, and my teacher would switch a light on to identify which “person” was speaking.

The reason I prefer a visual aid is because that is the way my speaker identification system is set up.  This system is based on physical placement.  It only matters if the person speaking is on the left or the right.  So if someone on the left is speaking, I will hit certain keys on the left.  If someone on the right is speaking, I will hit certain keys on the right.

As an example, let’s say you have four speakers in front of your classroom situated like this:

Speaker (left)   Questioner (Q)   Witness (A)   Speaker (right)

Your dictation will be in Q&A format until the speaker on the left interrupts.  When that happens, I hit SKWRAO.  When the speaker on the right interrupts, I hit EURBGS.  This eliminates precious seconds trying to remember a name, if he’s the plaintiff’s lawyer or the defendant’s lawyer, if he is conducting direct or cross, or any other identifier.  It allows you to react immediately based on a visual cue

When you become a reporter, one day you will be faced with multiple people seated around a conference table.  Consider the seating diagram below for nine additional participants besides the questioner and the witness.  The same principle applies.  There is no need to commit their names to memory.  You only have to assign them a “token” to keep track of them.  I have put the appropriate token next to each person based on their seating placement.

*For the questioner, I will write SKWRAO when he speaks in colloquy.  He is assigned that first token.  If the witness speaks in colloquy, I write WEUT/WEUT.

Counsel  SKWRAOT          Counsel  SEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOL          Counsel  TEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOP          Counsel  PEURBGS

Counsel  SKWRAOF          Counsel  HEURBGS

Questioner SKWRAO        Counsel  EURBGS

                                    Witness  WEUT/WEUT

(Reporter sits here)

If there is a person sitting at the far end of the table, opposite me, I usually hit the whole keyboard, which is also my designation for a judge.

Notice the pattern.  For the people on the left, your core bank will always be SKWRAO.  You will only need to add the F, P, L, or T, assigning them in order as they appear down the table.  The same applies to the people on the right.  Your core bank will always be EURBGS.  You will only need to add the H, P, T, or S, S being the person furthest away from you.  I hit my tokens twice because I am less apt to mistake it for a word.

There will be times when there will be more people than you have tokens for.  At that point you will have to become creative and assign other identifiers for people, such as what they’re wearing, or come up with other tokens using the upper banks, STPH and FPLT.  The scenario noted above, however, will be more than adequate for the majority of the time.   This system has worked very well for me over my career.  Try it and see if it works for you.

If you are practicing multi-voice dictation by means other than visual cues, it is definitely harder, in my opinion; however, this system can still work.  Just mentally assign each voice a token.  I think a left or right token is an easier option than writing a name, for instance.

Identifying speakers in multi-voice dictation certainly adds another layer of difficulty, especially when you are pushing for speed.  The key is to not overthink it too much and hit the token the second you hear a different voice.  There will be times when you hit the wrong token.  Be alert during the editing process to any comments or objections that seem out of place for that particular speaker.  Let context aid you in choosing who the correct speaker should be.  Obviously, the faster you can write, the more time you will have in your reservoir to be able to correctly stroke a Q, an A, and any colloquy that is interspersed throughout the dictation.

As much as you may be struggling with speaker identification now, there will come a time when you will be confident in your abilities to accurately identify everyone in a room.  You will actually welcome seeing many lawyers at a deposition because each lawyer represents a potential sale.  One reporter from this office got called out on a last-minute assignment and ended up selling 21 copies!  (Thankfully, not everyone spoke.)

So, as always, keep practicing.  “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” – Seneca

Tips for Passing the Q&A

I think it is safe to say that the Q&A leg is the nemesis of all court reporting students. Students learn early on that it is a long and grueling road trying to reach the 225 wpm goal required to pass the RPR.  I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how consistent and mindful practice will imbed the correct brain-to-finger connections essential to gaining speed and accuracy; but that aside, I thought I’d share with you three tips to help you on testing day that you may not have considered.

First of all, it may seem contrary to everything we are trained to do, but it may be a good idea to actually DROP during testing.  Sometimes you just can’t hold on.  If you cut your losses and immediately move on, you won’t dig yourself into a bigger hole trying to catch up, all the while writing unintelligible strokes.  The errors will add up quickly.  The “dropping” is easy; it’s the resumption that’s difficult to do, as it may be hard to get your rhythm back.  However, if you can stay calm and execute this strategy as the words are flying by, it may work in your favor.  Of course, if you do this throughout the Q&A take, you are not quite there yet and it’s time to regroup and practice some more.  This advice regarding dropping does not apply to your practice sessions, however.  Ultimately you will not gain speed if you don’t push yourself to the max when you practice.

My second thought would be to brief on the fly.  I still remember my first attempt at the CSR.  The street name “Furnace Brook Parkway” came up a few times.  This was long before briefs were even talked about – we wrote everything out back then – but if I’d had the benefit of this knowledge and had come up with a brief on the fly, I would have turned five strokes into one, sparing myself much anxiety and energy.  Briefing on the fly may not come easily to you, but try it during your practice sessions so you become accustomed to doing it.  If you can come up with a brief one or two times during a test, it might just be enough to get you a passing grade.

As an example, try the OIG brief.  I use this as a suffix on my right hand and use an initial sound or letter on my left hand.  So for “Furnace Brook Parkway,” a great brief would be FOIG.  The trick with any brief, though, is remembering what it stands for, which is especially challenging during a testing situation.  A word of caution:   Sometimes you will come up with a brief for “Norwegian Cruise Line” — NOIG, for instance — but the dictation may also include “Norwegian Cruise Lines” or “Norwegian Cruises.” Alternatively, you could just stick to NOIG for “Norwegian,” which would be a big timesaver in itself.

My last tip would be to transcribe your take even if you think you may not have passed.  You may have gotten more than you think you did!  For a 95% pass rate on the RPR exam, you are allowed 57 errors on the Q&A leg at 225 wpm.  It’s always useful to know what your score was, if you missed a passing grade by ten errors or 20.  Unless you think you absolutely blew it, it’s worth the effort and always good practice to transcribe.

Hopefully you will have enough time to carefully proofread your take.  Familiarize yourself with NCRA’s Grading Guidelines and what constitutes an error.  It is also important to pay attention to the content/story line when you are proofreading because doing so may provide clues that will aid you when transcribing.

It is not uncommon to be stuck at a certain speed for a long time and for months to go by before you pass another test.  Everyone hits a wall at some point and discouragement sets in.  You can’t break through, though, if you don’t keep trying.   “Never give up, for that is just the place and time that the tide will turn.”  –  Harriet Beecher Stowe