Tech-Savvy Reporters to the Rescue

By Connie Psaros, RPR, BS

In Massachusetts we were ordered to shut down due to Covid-19 on March 24, 2020.  We worked remotely and have just recently come back into the office on a daily basis after July 4th.  I’m speaking of support staff, not reporters.

Our reporters took advantage of the shutdown by learning Zoom.  They knew there was a lot of uncertainty ahead, so they wanted to make themselves as marketable as possible to help our clients and minimize any loss of income.  We offered training sessions almost daily, and the reporters practiced amongst themselves and shared tips and helpful information, often in minute detail.  There was never a shortage of issues or problems to discuss.  We had a few assignments sprinkled here and there during the shutdown, all via Zoom; but now that we are back open, the vast majority of our work has been done remotely.  It seems that many are still leery about meeting face to face.

The reason I mention this is because I hear that there are many reporters, veterans and newbies alike, who are not reporting remotely.  They are waiting for things to fully open up so that business may resume as it once did.  They are not interested in learning Zoom or other platforms.  I can understand why.  Hosting a Zoom meeting carries with it more responsibility on many different levels.  Invitations need to be sent, then testing.  There are times when the connection isn’t quite right and the reporter needs to do some troubleshooting.  Further, it seems that with each assignment the reporter is faced with a new issue.  How do you make annotations on a 450-page document?  What is the difference between sharing documents and using the Chat feature?  The videographer wants to appear remotely as well; can that be done?  We tackle each question as it comes before us and find an answer. 

Sure, there are complications with any remote platform, but there are rewards as well.  Our reporters are in high demand because they got up to speed on this technology.  They will always have work, especially since the virus does not seem to be going away soon and safeguards will have to remain in place for the duration, probably until a vaccine is approved, whenever that will be.  They are to be commended for stepping out of their comfort zone.  They are hosting hearings with dozens of participants, writing hundreds of pages a day.  Two reporters will soon tackle a six-day daily copy via Zoom using RealTeam.  One reporter offered to turn a public meeting into a webinar to include as many as 1,000 people.  If that’s not courageous, I don’t know what is. 

This has been a constant learning process.  It is important to remember that not only are we learning, but the attorneys are too; and as usual, they are looking to us to help make their remote meeting run as smoothly as possible.  Many attorneys are not happy about conducting or attending depositions remotely, but it is not a clear-cut matter of choice anymore.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts SJC, in Item No. 3 of their Order Regarding Remote Depositions, mandates:   “The desire of counsel, a party, or a deponent to appear in person shall not alone be sufficient grounds to quash a notice for a remote deposition or to refuse to make a witness available for a remote deposition.”

With the current shortage of certified stenographic court reporters, we need to do all we can to ensure that attorneys don’t turn to alternative methods of making the record.   We need to be their go-to resource and do our best to be of service.  If you are not up to speed yourself, it is never too late to up your game.  There are webinars and videos online.  See what your state association, NCRA, and STAR are offering.  Learn with a group of your peers.  Start small with a one-on-one Zoom test and slowly expand your group, tackle the nitty gritty issues, and gain your confidence.  As more and more people choose to work from home, eliminating travel headaches and associated expenses, and as more and more people become comfortable with Zoom, it will continue to be a safe, viable, and popular option. 

DON’T FLATTEN OUR CURVE

By Connie Psaros, RPR, Vice President

Doris O. Wong Associates, Inc.

With the COVID-19 pandemic taking over just about every aspect of our lives, all of us are doing what we can to bend the curve in the hopes of minimizing the rise of infection and death among our family, friends, and in our communities.  As students, self-quarantining and unable to work, this means a loss of income, which is regrettable, but it also means more time to practice, which is a good thing.  For working reporters, however, this unprecedented disruption has led to a sizeable loss of income.  But that doesn’t mean that we have been sitting back and waiting for things to get back to normal.

The professionals that we are, we have been taking the lead in providing counsel reporting services via video teleconferencing, using Zoom and other platforms, so they can continue to work on their cases.  Court reporters around the country have been getting up to speed on meeting invitations, passwords, waiting rooms, break-out rooms, exhibit sharing, chatting, and hyperlinks.  In many areas of the country there are new court rulings regarding swearing in witnesses remotely.  Transcript title pages will have a different look; for example, where does the deposition actually take place if everyone is in a different location?   

There is a learning curve involved, sometimes painful and imperfect, but it is going UP as more reporters are embracing this new way of conducting meetings and sharing what they are learning with others.  It is just horrible that a major catastrophe is upon us, but our dedicated colleagues are not dwelling on what used to be but are instead facing our new reality head on.  If reporting does return to the way it used to be in the traditional sense, with participants seated around a table, great; but I predict that remote reporting is here to stay.  There will be instances when this service will provide the solution the parties need.  Just like every other advance we’ve offered attorneys – realtime, rough drafts, expedited delivery — more options for attorneys increases our value to them.   

As students, you will always remember what you were doing during the pandemic of 2020.  Looking ahead, when you are out in the working world, another challenge to our profession will emerge.  It will then be your responsibility to do as those who came before you have done:  adapt and respond in a way that strengthens our profession and benefits those we serve.

LESSONS LEARNED FROM A CERTIFIED PICTURE FRAMER

by Connie Psaros, RPR, CMRS, B.S.

I recently became aware of some statistics regarding the court reporting community which I found quite shocking.  As of February 2019, there are an estimated 30,000 stenographic court reporters in the marketplace.  Of that number, only 10,906, or 36%, are members of NCRA.  This is the important breakdown:  Only 6,198 are Registered Professional Reporters; 1,809 are Registered Merit Reporters; 2,474 are Certified Realtime Reporters; and 497 are Registered Diplomate Reporters, recipients of NCRA’s highest credential.

These disturbing numbers have been weighing on my mind ever since I first saw them.  They are even lower than last year’s numbers.  I personally feel that credentials and membership in your national professional organization are crucial benchmarks upon which your clients and the public at large can rely.  This goes for all professions:  CPAs, doctors, engineers, realtors, etc.  I certainly wouldn’t trust my life with an unlicensed pilot!

So imagine my surprise when I brought my mother into a local frame shop, and the first thing I saw on the wall was the proprietor’s Certified Picture Framer certificate. I inquired about the certification, and he explained that he went through a challenging training program and then passed the examination.  His many skills framing all types of prints, paintings, and other visual media were evident as we browsed around his shop.  Come to find out, there are also Master Certified Picture Framers and a Professional Picture Framers Association that provides education, support, and networking opportunities for its members.  They even hold competitions!  Sound familiar?

You may not think this is a big deal, but when you are bringing in a delicate heirloom silk from China, 50” by 30”, beautifully hand painted and hand embroidered, you don’t want to take the chance that an amateur picture framer will know how to mount, stretch, and pin it properly (without snagging) to an acid-free medium before framing, not to mention air flow and UV glass considerations for preservation purposes.  You’d want someone with the most up-to-date knowledge and skill, someone you can trust to get the job done correctly.  This framer’s certification put our minds at ease.  His loyal clientele obviously agrees.  He works 60 hours a week, and he said it’s not even his busy season!

Let’s assume you are a litigant having your all-important deposition taken.  Personal matters will be discussed.  The proceedings are contentious, and there is a lot of arguing back and forth.  Complicated medical procedures are being described in minute detail.  Expert witnesses will be deposed on your behalf.  Scores of documents will be referred to.  A lot is at stake.  If you had to choose what kind of court reporter you would want to produce a timely verbatim record, would certification matter to you?  Would membership in a professional organization make a difference to you?  Would you want your reporter to be bound by guidelines on ethics?  I think the answers are obvious.  There is an undeniable comfort level that only a true court reporting professional can provide.  Be a standout.  Be that certified reporter.  It IS a big deal.

NIGHTMARES

By Connie Psaros, RPR, B.S. in Education

Many court reporters I know have had recurring nightmares about court reporting, especially early in their careers.   We can all relate to those nightmares, and we can even find a little humor in them (as long as they don’t actually happen).  I collected the following examples, my favorites, from reporters I know. 

One reporter tells of this recurring scenario:  He arrives late to a deposition with all attorneys present and waiting.  His equipment is not working, so he is forced to write the testimony in longhand on pieces of scrap paper.  As the testimony furiously continues, he scrambles to find more scraps.  The attorneys get annoyed with him when he has to continually interrupt, and, as you can imagine, things quickly deteriorate from there.

In a similar vein, one reporter is writing testimony in longhand on a beach with the crashing waves coming in and obliterating her “record” while she hopelessly tries to save it.  Another reporter had the recurring dream of running out of paper (back in the day) and resorting to writing the testimony in longhand using pen, pencil, and then finally crayons.

It seems that preserving the record at all costs is the takeaway here.

Other common nightmare scenarios involve getting lost, being unable to read back, losing equipment, and being late.  One reporter actually left his steno machine on the train on his way home and feared it was lost forever.  Unbelievably, someone had turned it in to Lost and Found.  Another reporter hears his mother shout his name when he oversleeps.  From Heaven.  It happened twice.  I’m always worried about being late, so my nightmares had me unable to walk faster than at a snail’s pace, with my legs feeling like lead.

Coincidentally as I was writing this, Carol Kusinitz, a reporter with 40 years’ experience, came into the office to tell of her nightmare last night.  She got to her assignment, an arbitration, realizing she had forgotten her dongle (remember those?) so had to report with only her machine.  There she found a second reporter from our office – odd indeed – and 30 people sitting around the table mumbling in Scots.  There were columns around the room which obliterated their view of the speakers.  The exhibits were weather maps on video showing storms.  To make matters worse, when she hit the keys, they sunk into a puddle of oil.  Then just when Carol thought she couldn’t take it anymore, her alarm went off and thankfully the long nightmare was over.

Much has been written and many studies have been conducted about what dreams actually mean.  The good news is that having bad dreams about work may actually be a good thing.  Gillian Holloway, Ph.D., is the author of Dreaming Insights:  A 5-Step Plan for Discovering the Meaning in Your Dream.  Dr. Holloway writes:  “This anxiety dream is most common to people who never allow themselves to be unprepared.  The people who have it are generally successful, competent professionals who excel at their work and prepare as much as humanly possible.”  To which I say, Dream on.

Mental Practice

Many of your obstacles as a court reporting student are in your head more so than your hands.

By Connie Psaros, RPR, B.S. in Education

I was sitting in the lobby of a law firm waiting to be let into the conference room to set up.  I had taken an extended vacation, so I worried that I wouldn’t be as sharp as I wanted to be.  So instead of fretting, I picked up a magazine and wrote out in my head the densest article I could find, concentrating not on speed but on fingering precision.  This mental practice calmed my nerves, got me into the concentration zone, and I ended up writing just beautifully.

Sometimes you only have a few minutes here and there, no time to set up your machine to practice.   Maybe you’re sitting in the waiting area while your child is in a dance class, or maybe you’re on the train for a 30-minute commute.  Why not put these little snippets of time to good use.  Try to block out any distractions around you.  Visualize your hands going through the motions along with the text.  Pretend you are actually depressing the keys on your machine.  And since you are concentrating on accuracy only, you will be embedding correct strokes into your mind/muscle memory.  We can all write difficult material if we’re not pushing for speed at the same time.  If you are writing dense material, it will make your next dictation take seem much easier.   

Many of your obstacles as a court reporting student are in your head more so than your hands.  That’s why I found this technique especially useful when I was writing sloppily and felt as if my hands were hitting the keys haphazardly.  Just getting off the machine was liberating.  Because you can slow down and “write” at your own pace, it will clear the junk out of your head so you can “reset” your writing compass, so to speak. 

Mental practice should never replace actual machine practice, but there are times when it is a great alternative.  Much has been written about the benefits of mental practice.  Accomplished musicians and competitive athletes in particular have had success because they visualized in their minds in a step-by-step fashion what it is they wanted to accomplish.  As court reporters, deliberate mental practice can make clean writing a reality.  I would highly recommend that you give it a try.  It could very well lead to your next breakthrough!

The World is your Oyster as you pursue your career in Court Reporting. Why? Because Court Reporting is a thriving profession!

Court reporters are in such high demand now, but to ensure a long-lasting career, don’t settle for mediocrity. Aspire to be a court reporter on the cutting edge.

By Connie Psaros, RPR, B.S. in Education

There are not many careers that can guarantee employment and an excellent starting salary upon graduation, but court reporting is one of them.  Right out of school, graduates may choose to work as freelancers, officials, CART providers, or broadcast captioners.  Many reporters work in several capacities throughout their careers.

What is the best way to become successful?  First and foremost, earn an NCRA certification.  Not only will certification give you a confidence boost, but it gives employers a benchmark upon which to gauge your skill level and comfort knowing that you are qualified for the job.  Then find mentors to guide you through the early stages of your career.  Their experience will help you understand legal proceedings beyond what you have learned in school.  If you follow this advice, you will be off to a running start.

Court reporters are in such high demand now, but to ensure a long-lasting career, don’t settle for mediocrity.  Aspire to be a court reporter on the cutting edge.  Look to the court reporters at the top of their game for inspiration, true professionals who have found the winning combination:  continual skill development and software proficiency.   NCRA and your state associations, as well as organizations like STAR, are there to help.  They offer recurring support, education, and networking opportunities.  There is always room for growth and professional development for motivated individuals. Ask reporters with advanced certifications how that has benefited their career in terms of assignments, income, and prestige.

Court reporting has undergone many revolutionary changes just in the relatively recent past.  Reporters have gone from writing on manual machines with paper notes to digital writers like the Luminex and the Expression.  Did you know that Stenograph has developed eight digital writers since the 1980s?  The investment in hardware, software, and technology has been significant.  So has the learning curve among our members.  But in the end we are in a niche business that provides a service no one else can:  clean realtime feeds, rough drafts, and expedited delivery.  This is why our unique skills will always be in high demand, and that translates into commensurate compensation.

Reporters play a vital role in the judicial system.  We are respected by members of the bar for our role in preserving the all-important record so they can represent their clients to the best of their ability.  Because our profession is technology-driven, lawyers need our expertise to provide the specialized services and litigation-support products they need.  In the performance of our duties, we are mindful of our responsibility.  We are advocates for none but fair and impartial to all.

Keep all of this in mind as you continue your studies.  Imagine the personal and professional pride that will be yours upon graduation and certification as well as the financial independence you will enjoy that comes with long-term employment.  We look forward to welcoming you as a professional colleague!

“We need more lions, not lambs!”

By Connie Psaros, RPR, B.A.

A fellow agency owner said this to me at a conference once, “We need more lions, not lambs!” and I knew exactly what he meant.  Lions are the fearless reporters you can implicitly trust who will take just about any assignment no matter the unique requests, unknowns, or level of difficulty.  The lambs?  Not so much. 

More and more these days, attorneys are asking for complex services and advanced technology.  It’s the “usual” deposition with a twist:  realtime streaming onsite and to remote locations, multi-site video conference hookups, or attorneys appearing by conference call at a remote site and you’re in charge of making the connections.  Or maybe it’s providing CART for a yearly star-studded conference, reporting roundtable discussions (with a little Spanish sprinkled in) in Puerto Rico, or reporting a celebratory convention in a banquet setting where your elbows are in the mashed potatoes and not all the speakers are sober. 

When it gets hairy, we rely on our lions to get the job done; no complaining, no drama, no problem.  Are they going outside of their comfort zone?  Most likely.  Nonetheless, they take the assignment, take control of the situation, and get paid handsomely for their hard work. 

No matter how many lions you have on staff, you could always use more.  Any agency owner would agree.  The reporters with the proven experience and top NCRA credentials are our go-to experts that our clients continually request for their important cases.  They are professionals who are respected so much that depositions and hearings are often scheduled based on their availability. 

Of course we all start out as lambs.  Reporting is hard, especially for beginners just learning the ropes.  Some reporters are content to only report the easy stuff, but this can prove to be a career-limiting decision.  The trend over the years has been that the number of more difficult assignments exceeds the easy ones.  Reporters who want to extend the life of their careers realize this, so they continue to make themselves more marketable.  They earn higher NCRA certifications, they learn their software inside and out so that they can produce more pages, they provide realtime, they anticipate the clients’ needs and outperform the clients’ expectations, and they keep up with and make investments in the latest trends in technology.  The reporters who have made the transformation from lamb to lion have done so with hard work and enthusiasm. They are the leaders in our profession. 

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.

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.”