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.

STUDENT COURT REPORTER: SETTING ACHIEVABLE GOALS

Have you been stuck at the same speed for way too long?  Perhaps you should give some thought to setting goals.  Those who set goals have greater success than those who don’t.  The process helps you focus.  If you set attainable goals, you will experience success more often which will help you stay more motivated over the long term.  Setting goals should be a part of your daily mindset.  Implementing them will help you get to the finish line faster.

There are two goals you should be working on each day:  a speedbuilding goal and a goal for addressing your problem areas.

Regarding speedbuilding, of course your main goal, which is a constant, is to pass your next speed test, but this entails increasing your speed by a whopping 20 wpm at each level.  That is a steep hill to climb.  Instead of practicing a full five-minute take at 20 wpm over your comfortable writing speed, try breaking it down into five one-minute segments.  Make it your goal to tackle a single one-minute segment per day.  Try to write it as perfectly as possible.  Spend time on the words or sections

Hard Work

that are tripping you up.  Don’t accept drops or misstrokes.  Don’t give up.  Read back every take.

After you master the second minute, try writing the two-minute take perfectly.  Then after you master the third minute, try writing the three-minute take perfectly.  Make it your goal to write the entire five-minute take without error by the end of the week.  Practicing in one-minute increments is less daunting, and success is more readily achievable.  Correct muscle memory training comes with this kind of deliberate and consistent practice.  Your writing will flow more smoothly from your brain to your fingers, leading to less hesitation and more speed.  Be sure to get in as much practice time as possible, two hours a day at a minimum outside of class.

Improving your speed is a must, but you won’t get there if you do not address your problem areas.  When you critically examine your writing, your weaknesses will become apparent, and you can develop a game plan to improve.  If you don’t read back, you are wasting your time.

Choose a problem area that needs your immediate attention.  After that problem is solved, pick another one to work on.  Maybe you are having difficulty with numbers (dollars, cents, time, dates); maybe you can’t remember briefs; or maybe homonyms are your nemesis.  Whatever the issue, break it down into manageable parts and build from there.  Write hints on stickies and put them on your machine for easy reference.  This should be an ongoing exercise over the course of your career.  Good reporters are constantly looking for ways to fine-tune their skill so they can reduce their untranslate rate.  If you are proactive in this area, it will reap huge dividends over time.

If you set achievable goals for speedbuilding and goals for addressing problem areas, you will have a roadmap to success.  Setting goals gives purpose to your practice sessions so they will not weigh as heavily on your mind or, more importantly, your spirit.  Good luck!

 

“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.

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.

ARE YOU READY TO READ BACK?

It will happen to you.  You will be reporting a difficult deposition, struggling with the accent, the speed, or the subject matter, and the lawyer will say, “Miss Reporter, can you read that back.”  The attorney assumes that you heard it, understood it, and wrote it all down.  But what if you didn’t?

There are three scenarios on readback:

  • You hit it out of the park.  You got every word and are reading back confidently, loudly, and clearly.  It is so satisfying to successfully deliver on a specific request.
  • You will have the majority of the requested question or answer, but there are some messy outlines or maybe a dropped word or two.  You are unsure it will hang together when you read it aloud.  If you are called upon to read back under this type of circumstance, my advice would be to take a few seconds to scan your screen quickly and read the passage to yourself.  Sometimes you just missed a small word that makes all the difference, or perhaps you misheard a word but it suddenly becomes clear.  In any case, read back what you have and let the chips fall where they may.  If your readback of a question indeed fell a little short, the attorney may choose to repeat, rephrase, or strike it altogether.  If you were asked to read back an answer, it is possible that the attorney didn’t understand it either and will ask the witness to repeat it.
  • You missed so much of the requested question or answer that it is impossible to reconstruct it in a few seconds.  You were going to interrupt to ask for it to be repeated, but you were asked to read back before you got a chance.  In cases like this, you can say, “I’m sorry.  I didn’t get that.  I was just going to ask you to repeat it.”  They will most likely oblige.

Readback isn’t restricted to Q&A.  As reporters we are often asked to read back colloquy.  Sometimes these exchanges are quite heated, and readback can be challenging.  They are just as vital as the questions and answers, however, as the attorneys are stating their objections and are preserving their positions for the future.  You have to be prepared to read back colloquy, too, and sometimes the exchanges can be quite lengthy.

Keep in mind that all reporters have had trouble reading back at some point.  There are so many variables that make our job difficult.  Some attorneys understand what we are up against, and some don’t.  Some care and some don’t.  You will be forgiven if it is a rare occurrence.  If you continue having difficulty, however, it will not go unnoticed.  Your agency may receive a call requesting a different reporter the next time, or you may be dismissed and replaced with another reporter that very same day.

Sometimes the reason for the readback is simply to satisfy the attorney that he has a reporter with the requisite skills.  If an attorney suspects he is dealing with a newbie, he may ask the reporter to read back random questions or answers early on to gauge whether or not the reporter is equipped to handle his case.  He would prefer not to wait until receipt of the transcript to determine if there is a problem.

So how can you increase your chances of reading back successfully?  Don’t be a mindless writer.  It only makes sense that if you pay attention and try to follow the testimony, you will have some context and point of reference from which to draw upon, and your chances will increase that you will be able to read back without error.   Also, if you make a habit of looking at your screen while you are writing realtime, you will be able to identify your misstrokes and make mental notes of what words those misstrokes should be.  Lastly, not to be overlooked is the obvious:  speed.  It is a given that the faster you can write the less you will drop and the cleaner your notes will be.

As a student, the more you read back, the better off you will be!  Practice reading back aloud everything you take.  Pretend you are at an actual deposition and see if your readback will make the grade.  Not only will it force you to confront your writing issues and improve your skill, but it will be a good exercise in learning how to keep your composure under pressure.  This will pay off in the long run.  Reading back is one of the benchmarks upon which attorneys will judge you.  Make it your moment to shine.

Tardiness – The High Cost of Being Late

This is such an important topic, especially in this busy age.  I’m sure you know of someone who is chronically late and how annoying that can be.  Being late for social engagements is one thing; being late for a client is a whole other story.  If you hold a job, it is your responsibility to be on time.  In the court reporting world, being on time actually means getting to your assignment early.

The following verse speaks to this perfectly:

If you are early, you are on time.
If you are on time, you are late.
If you are late, you are in trouble.

As a court reporter, it is best if you get to your assignment a half an hour earlier than the designated start time.  It is always wise to account for traffic and public transportation snafus, both of which are pretty much a certainty on any given day.  You do not want to keep everyone waiting for your arrival, and you do not want a call placed to your agency wondering where you are and what your ETA is.  Not a good start to any day!

If you arrive early, it will give you a chance to set up, check your connections, troubleshoot any problems, look over any pleadings, input dictionary entries, and even relax if just for a moment.  This is valuable time to collect your thoughts and prepare for what lies ahead.  Soon people will be arriving, and you will need to properly identify them, determine whom they are representing, and note them on your seating chart.  Once this is done, everyone involved can get down to the business at hand with no time wasted.

To be early is to be on time

Contrast this scenario with one where you arrive late to a deposition.  Everyone is seated around the table ready to go.  You’re doing your best to set up quickly, and you feel all eyes upon you.  As luck would have it, you’re having a problem with your equipment.  You call for technical support and get put on hold.  Now the attorneys are tapping their fingers and checking their watches.  You finally get your issue resolved, but you can’t go on the record yet.  You still have to ask for a caption and find out who everyone is.  More time goes by, and the attorney who hired you is seeing dollar bills fly out the window because he’s paying the expert $500 an hour for his time.  To complicate matters, imagine if the attorneys had only a certain amount of time to conduct their examinations per court order, had to catch a flight at a certain time, or were paying for the video conferencing at an off-hour rate of $400 an hour.  Yes, time is money.

As a reporter, you never want to be the reason for a late start.  Why?  If you cannot be counted on to arrive at your assignments early, it calls into question your professionalism in other areas, such as your organizational/ time management skills and your attention to detail:  in short, your competence.  It is inconsiderate and disrespectful to negatively impact the schedules of busy people who need to be productive at a high level.  It also reflects poorly on the agency which works very hard to promote a professional image with an emphasis on customer service and satisfaction.

Depositions can start, and often do, with the understanding that an attorney will be arriving late, but depositions cannot go forward without the court reporter.  The reporters who work for this office would rather arrive an hour early than be one minute late.  True professionals, they realize that tardiness is detrimental to their reputations and careers, so they do all they can to ensure that they arrive to their assignments early, not merely on time.

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Court reporters prepare transcripts using their education and experience, but it can be scary when that isn’t enough. Good reporters know when research may be necessary, when a nagging thought or hunch leads them to investigate further; but when a reporter doesn’t even realize that their knowledge is lacking and therefore sees no need to look something up, bad things can happen.

Consider these examples culled from real transcripts:

Nine Next for Nynex

Youth in Asia for euthanasia

City Bank for Citibank

Half Shell for Hatch Shell

What made errors like these especially disturbing is that they occurred multiple times throughout the transcripts, thus bringing unwanted attention to the glaring error over and over again. If I were an attorney reading “Youth in Asia” when it was supposed to be “euthanasia” on almost every page, I think I’d lose my mind. I’d also want my money back.

One reporter once wrote “slacks on a fence” when clearly the attorney meant “slats on a fence.” The reporter insisted the attorney said “slacks.” No, in fact he didn’t. The case was not about pants. The reporter obviously never knew the word “slats” existed so therefore wrote “slacks” because that’s a word she was familiar with. If she had paid attention to context, would she have noticed something odd? Maybe, frighteningly, she didn’t care.

Of course we can’t be expected to know everything. I remember as a young reporter I once wrote “smoke in mirrors” on my job sheet only to have an attorney cross out the word “in” and replace it with “and.” He said it was important. Yikes. I had never heard of that phrase before, but I never made that same mistake again. And that’s the great thing about court reporting: You learn something new every day that you can use to improve your job performance going forward.

You don’t know what you don’t know. So how can this lack of awareness be overcome? Take the time to examine the pleadings and exhibits to pick up terms that will be used. Hire an experienced proofreader. Ask another reporter their opinion if something doesn’t quite fit in context. Check Google wisely. Read something every day that will increase your word knowledge. Look up acronyms. Double-check spellings. Pay attention. If you do these things, you will have a greater chance of preparing transcripts devoid of embarrassing errors and a greater chance of having a career you can be proud of.