“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. 

Your Steno Machine

As students, every day is consumed with practice with the goal of passing your next speed test.  You have so much to do:  practice your briefs, tackle tricky passages, read back, correct your errors, work on finger exercises.  But have you given any thought to your writer?

Your writer is your means of making a living.  It will always be just you and your machine on assignment, working together as one unit.  You may be using an old machine in school – the machine I used was a verifiable antique – but when you are out in the working world and purchase your very own new model, special care will be necessary to keep your machine in top working condition.  Machine neglect leads to machine failure.  Machine failure leads to expensive repairs and lost income.  If you are lucky, you will have a hint that your machine needs service; but more often than not, you will be given no advance notice that your machine is about to fail.  You will discover that it does not work when you are on assignment and attempt to turn it on.  Bad timing indeed.

I know reporters who send their writers in every year for a checkup, usually when they go on vacation.  Yes, these machines are workhorses, but they also have delicate electronics that can benefit from examination by certified technicians.  There are so many moving parts.  Needless to say, if all are in top working order, you will write with greater ease and with less effort.  If your keys are sticking and out of alignment, it will slow you down and affect your writing accuracy, efficiency, and lengthen your editing time.  Reporters notice a big difference after their machines have been serviced.

“Machine neglect leads to machine failure. 
Machine failure leads to expensive repairs and lost income.”

You may want to purchase a Writer Protection Plan along with your new writer as our machines take a lot of abuse on a daily basis.  Yes, it is expensive, but the cost of parts and labor can easily exceed the cost of a protection plan.  Repair of the main PC board, for example, is around $2,000.  In my opinion, the peace of mind is worth it.  There are different options depending on your price point that you should investigate, such as whether or not you want a loaner provided while your machine is being repaired so you can continue working.  These plans basically cover labor, parts, shipping, and updates.  Discounts are offered for STAR members and students.  You should also consider an insurance rider for your machine.  That will include breakage and equipment replacement from accidents, theft, vandalism, fire, and natural disasters.

The condition of your machine reflects on you.  I’ve heard machines so loud as to be distracting.  I’ve seen machines covered in pet hair.  I’ve also seen reporters throw their machines in their cases without care or adequate protection.  I find all of these scenarios unsettling!  Take care of your machine, and it will take care of you.

NOTE:  Buyer beware!  If you can’t afford a new writer, consider purchasing a certified, pre-owned writer from a reputable source like Stenograph.  Don’t waste your money buying obsolete legacy writers that are no longer in production and are no longer supported for lack of parts.

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

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.”

Punctuation2.jpg

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.”

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”!

“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.