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.

ON THE RECORD / OFF THE RECORD

When you’re at a deposition and one lawyer is yelling “off the record” while opposing counsel is yelling “on the record,” what should you do?   In many cases the attorney who hired the reporter will argue that it is his deposition, that he hired us, and therefore he would determine when to go on and off the record.  The other attorney will disagree.  But no matter how loud their instructions to you are — “go off,” “stay on” — don’t let them intimidate you.

NCRA’s COPE Advisory Opinion No. 6 emphatically states that the reporter should stay on the record until both sides agree to go off.  As neutral parties, court reporters must not favor any side.  As long as one party wishes to speak, you must keep writing to preserve their position despite objection from the other side.  The same holds true regarding recording testimony:   If one party wishes to ask questions of a witness, you must keep writing.  If you are ever in doubt, keep writing.  You cannot recreate what transpired, but you can sort it all out later after you have a minute to think.  You need to safeguard the record for a judge to review at a later date.

There will be times during heated exchanges where an attorney might assume something is on the record or vice versa when the opposite is true.  As a reporter, please be aware that there could be ramifications on your end if arguments arise about whether something was on or off the record.  You do not want to be caught in the middle of a tangled mess, and you do not want to be accused of any action or inaction that could affect the outcome of a case. 

In situations like these, you have to more forcibly take matters into your own hands.  When both sides agree, you can announce “We are off the record” so as to take any guesswork out of the equation.  You can even put your statement on the record in colloquy.  This is exactly what one reporter recently did during a very contentious deposition after it was decided to take a break.  Then as the lawyers were leaving the room, one lawyer called the other lawyer a “scumbag.”  The aggrieved lawyer said, “That’s on the record!”  Unfortunately for him, however, the remark was not recorded.  The reporter’s proactive measure saved him from being put in a sticky position.  There was no room for argument.

As a reporter, do not hesitate to take charge when situations like these occur.  As an impartial guardian of the record, you must maintain its integrity.  To protect yourself, it would be a prudent practice to announce when you are going off the record and on the record, especially when the parties are not getting along.

Check out NCRA’s COPE Advisory Opinion No. 6 on this matter.  You may want to keep it handy for future reference in case an attorney questions your position on this issue.

Swearing in a Witness – Treat this task with the respect and deference it deserves.

One of the most important duties a court reporter performs is swearing in a witness.  In Massachusetts, the notary laws state that a witness’s identity must first be verified by their presentation of a government-issued photo ID, such as a license or passport.  They also require that the witness be physically present with the court reporter.

When swearing in a witness, speak slowly and clearly.  Administering an oath sets the tone for the deposition.  An attorney told me once that a reporter rattled off the oath so quickly that he was compelled to ask her, “Do you want me to ask the questions that fast?”  Good point.  An oath administered slowly and deliberately will remind the witness of the seriousness of the occasion and will hopefully help to set the pace of the proceedings.

I have never forgotten this valuable piece of advice I once received on this topic:  Make sure you get an audible response from the witness.  If you receive a nod or a shake of the head, ask for a verbal response.  If you receive any other kind of response other than a “yes,” such as, “I’ll do my best” or “I guess so,” write those exact words on your machine.  In any event, after you swear in a witness, DorisWongCourtReportersmake a note to that effect somewhere, either on your machine or on your work papers, so that you can look a judge in the eye and affirm that the oath was indeed administered.

Almost every reporter at least once in their career forgets to swear in a witness.  If this happens to you during the deposition, you must alert counsel.  They will then probably ask you to administer the oath retroactively.  If you discover your omission after the deposition has concluded, then you must make that very awkward phone call to the attorneys to notify them of your oversight.  You can only hope the matter will be resolved without contention.  This is why getting in the habit of making a note that you DID swear in the witness is a good practice to follow.

I have come across several situations that gave me pause.  Be prepared with an oath to administer to a child and an oath to administer to an interpreter.  Some people would rather “affirm” than “swear” to tell the truth.  Some do not want a reference to God in the oath.  And believe it or not, before you ask someone to raise their right hand, make sure they have one!  (This actually happened)

In short, don’t be one of those reporters who indifferently spews out the oath.  Treat this task with the respect and deference it deserves.

“Your smile is your logo, your personality is your business card, how you leave others feeling after having an experience with you becomes your trademark.” ~ Jay Danzie ~

I came across this quote by Jay Danzie, and I love it because it can be applied to people doing all kinds of work in a multitude of settings. I thought it would be interesting to apply the concept to court reporters. These are my thoughts:

Your attitude is your LOGO;
Your professionalism is your BUSINESS CARD; and
Your transcripts become your TRADEMARK.

Think about it. You present at a law firm ready for work. What impression do you make? Are you pleasant and friendly, or do you grouse about your morning, the commute, the weather? Of course everyone has a bad day every now and then, but if you arrive with a bad attitude often enough, people will remember you for that. No one wants to work all day next to a sourpuss. My son’s first-grade teacher always said, “A smile goes a mile,” and it really is true! People respond positively to upbeat energy. Let this be your LOGO.

Second on the list is your professionalism. I have had the privilege of working alongside superb professionals for decades, and they all possess the same traits: a desire to excel; a commitment to learning and self-improvement; and a pledge to consistently provide a positive customer service experience. Their work ethic is exceptional. They always rise to the occasion to get the job done, even if inconvenient to them. They are our profession’s best ambassadors. Put your best professional self forward always. Let this be your BUSINESS CARD.

Lastly, what it all comes down to is your transcripts. Are they error-free? This is, after all, the ultimate goal. The transcripts, which you carefully prepare and personally certify, will be pored over months, and sometimes years, down the road. When memories have long faded, the record will stand as confirmation of what transpired. People’s lives and livelihoods depend on timely, high quality transcripts, and so does your precious reputation. Let this be your TRADEMARK.

Court Reporter Pride

Whenever I am in a deposition and look at all the participants seated around the table, many of whom have advanced degrees and expertise, I feel a deep sense of pride.  No one else in this room can do what I do!  This deposition does not go forward without me!  I can record every word spoken and quickly produce a transcript which the attorneys will carefully review and use to build their case.  They are relying on my skills to do what they cannot do, and, yes, that makes me proud.

There are other methods out there that aim to do the same thing we do, but no method is superior to the court reporter, verbatim voice-to-text specialists.  During the course of a deposition, split-second decisions are constantly being made on the fly — making briefs, distinguishing between homonyms, adding punctuation — and our amazing brains and nimble fingers work in conjunction to listen, process, and execute.  We can provide expedited delivery.  We can showcase our skills in realtime and provide usable rough drafts at the end of the day.  We can provide a secure realtime feed over the cloud directly to their laptops and iPads.  As the technology has become more advanced, attorneys have come to expect more from us, and it is our responsibility to deliver.

If we are to remain indispensable to the legal community, we must continue to embrace change, improve our skills, and stay abreast of the latest trends and developments in our profession by taking advantage of the seminars sponsored by our state and national associations.  We must also conduct ourselves in a professional manner at all times, treating all parties with equal regard and impartiality, basically adhering to NCRA’s Code of Professional Ethics.  In these ways we earn the respect of the attorneys we work with, the respect of our colleagues, and the respect of the general public.  We can hold our heads high because we know the value we offer to the judicial system and, by extension, the community at large.  THAT’S court reporter pride.

Practicing in Dive Bars

Having a son in the music business, and watching his career grow from the sidelines, has been an enlightening experience.  Unlike the court reporting profession, where court reporters are a rarity, musicians abound.  Despite this disparity, musicians and court reporters share a common challenge:  both have a high mountain to climb to achieve success.  I thought I’d share my son’s experience.  Perhaps it will inspire you in your court reporting journey.

Jay got his lucky break working at the famed Medieval Manor dinner theater in Boston as one of two minstrels.  He spent countless hours learning the script and practicing the accompanying music.  With the Medieval Manor gig as his mainstay on weekends, Jay continued writing songs and honing his guitar skills during the week.  He made dozens JayPsarosof calls a month to get gigs around town.  Night after night he would lug his equipment from one dive bar to the next for meager pay and hopefully a meal.  He would sit in a dark corner and play his heart out until closing time.  Sometimes people would listen; many times they would not.

Over the years, the dive bar gigs took their toll.  He grew impatient and discouraged.  Despite his exasperation, Jay pressed on, all the while increasing his repertoire and improving his skill.  Slowly he started to find his own voice in the crowded field of musicians.  His fan base started to grow as did his confidence.  He made some good connections which led to better paying gigs in nicer venues, more recognition, and some critical acclaim.

Incredibly, amazing opportunities started coming his way.  He was asked to co-host the first ever Levitate Music Festival featuring the Original Wailers and has since opened for Ziggy Marley, Boz Scaggs, the Mavericks, Daughtry, Los Lonely Boys, Lisa Loeb, and others at beautiful venues.  These are the gigs he always dreamed of and the gigs he lives for.

Jay’s modest success didn’t happen overnight.  It was ten years in the making.  I remember the night he opened for Ziggy Marley, psyched beyond words, only to play the next night in a dive bar for less than a handful of people.  The difference couldn’t have been more glaring.  What he realized, however, was that his Ziggy Marley gig, and all the other notable ones, would not have been possible without the grind of playing in those dive bars night after night after endless night.  It is where he honed his act.  In hindsight, it was valuable practice time, an opportunity to improvise, make his errors, learn from them, improve, and try out new material.  Jay still grinds it out every night, as the thrilling opening gigs don’t come along every day.  He is never satisfied, always pushing through the drudgery and preparing for the next unknown opportunity.

So how does Jay’s experience mirror yours, the court reporting student’s?  Practicing days on end is your dive bar experience.  Embrace it all, the ups and the downs!  This is the foundation on which your future success will depend.  Continue to work through the inevitable disappointments and set your goals.  Practice, make your mistakes, evaluate them, adjust, and improve.  The dividends will come if you continue to hone your act.  You can’t hit the “big time” as a Registered Professional Reporter without paying your dues.