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.

BE LIKE “MJ”

Training to become a court reporter is so grueling, it’s no surprise that feelings of despair can become overwhelming and the desire to quit can get stronger with each passing day.   If you find yourself in this predicament, you have to stop and reassess.  Make a deliberate effort to push the negative thoughts and feelings out of your mind and dig deep to find a renewed sense of purpose.  Many have come before you, feeling as you do right now, and have found a way to succeed.  You can do it too!  Remember:  This is a marathon, not a sprint.

I am reminded once again of the following quote by the basketball legend Michael Jordan“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career.  I’ve lost almost 300 games.  26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winninMichael Jordan2g shot and missed.  I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”

I find these words so inspiring because he actually kept track of the shots he missed and the games he lost.  Who does that?  What he doesn’t mention in this quote is that he won six NBA championships, was named the NBA Finals MVP six times and its Most Valuable Player five times.  He also doesn’t mention the fact that he is a two-time Gold Medal Olympian and the recipient of the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom.  He has other accolades too numerous to mention, and, oh, he has a hugely successful sneaker line too.  Good thing he didn’t let failure define him.

So how did MJ succeed?   His next quote might give you a clue:  “The minute you get away from the fundamentals – whether it’s proper technique, work ethic or mental preparation – the bottom can fall out of your game, your schoolwork, your job, whatever you’re doing.”

This is so true.  If you are not progressing as you should, you need to critically assess the three items mentioned above and identify in particular your weaknesses so you can form a plan to eliminate them.  All three are integral to your moving ahead.

Regarding your technique, it always helps to return to the basics when you are stuck:  deliberate incremental practice, emphasis on error-free writing, and readback.  Maybe you need to lower your speed to gain your bearings again.  Is a review of your theory in order?  Are you tackling those tough phrases or just letting them pass by?  I firmly believe that spending two hours working on writing an error-free, difficult one-minute take is far more valuable than spending two hours working on a five-minute take and settling for mediocrity in doing so.

Regarding work ethic, are you committed to a daily practice regimen, a minimum of two hours outside of class, even more if possible?  This takes enormous self-discipline, especially on weekends and holidays.  Making excuses can be a slippery slope.   Don’t allow yourself to skip or shorten your practice sessions.  If anything, you should be doing all you can to increase your practice time.

Lastly, evaluate your mental preparation.  Are you practicing without interruptions or distractions?  Are your electronic devices turned off and put out of reach?  Are you in the zone when you practice, giving it everything you’ve got?  It takes time to develop the mental stamina needed to concentrate for the interminable five-minute testing takes.

Despite your setbacks, try to stay positive.  Keep at it.  Don’t look too far ahead; you’ll  get overwhelmed.  Just concentrate on gaining a couple words per minute a week, and eventually you will get there.  You will drop many words and fail many tests along the way, but one day you will “be like MJ” and find sweet victory.

THE FIVE MAJOR TYPES OF MISTAKES MADE IN TRANSCRIPTS

The following are five areas where mistakes can occur in your transcripts.  A court reporter must be cognizant of every area to be successful.  It is not enough to write down every word on your machine.  Putting a verbatim transcript together takes careful thought and attention and at times can be very challenging.  You only get one chance to get it right.  Let your transcripts reflect the very best your professional self has to offer!

Spelling errors

There is really no excuse for this type of embarrassing error.  Utmost care must be taken to ensure that the correct spellings are inputted into your dictionary at the outset so that misspellings do not automatically appear in every transcript going forward.  Take the time to look up spellings if you have the slightest doubt.  Even if a witness spells a name or word for you, do a little research to confirm the spelling, especially medical or technical terminology.

Tip to improve:  For starters, input the list of commonly misspelled words into your dictionary.  Here is the link:  http://grammar.yourdictionary.com/spelling-and-word-lists/misspelled.html

Misused words

There are so many words that can trip you up:  affect/effect, accept/except, compliment/complement, to name a few.  You not only need to know the differences in meaning between these words in each pairing but also how to write them differently.  Beware of spell-checking software!  It wouldn’t flag any of the misused words in this sentence:  Ewe due knot no how two sow close.

Tip to improve:  Study the 50 most commonly confused homophones in the following link and input them into your dictionary; and at the very least, read a daily newspaper and look up words you are unfamiliar with. http://www.spelling-words-well.com/support-files/50-homophone-sets.pdf

Improper punctuation

Punctuation helps make sense of the words in a transcript.  Attorneys should not have to read and reread your transcript to decipher the meaning of what was said due to poor or incorrect punctuation.  When reading your transcript, they should be able to concentrate on content alone.  Improper punctuation interrupts reading flow, is distracting, and, in the worst case, can change the meaning of what was intended.  My favorite example:  “Let’s eat, Grandma” versus “Let’s eat Grandma.”

Tip to improve:  Reviewing the types of punctuation on a regular basis and their usage is always time well spent.

Factual errors

These errors will mostly appear on title pages where critical information resides:   the caption, civil action number, witness name, day and date, start time, appearances, etc.   It only takes one incorrect digit in a ZIP code or phone number or one incorrect letter in an e-mail address to render the information useless.  Examples of factual errors in the body of a transcript include misidentifying speakers and incorrectly marking and identifying exhibits.

Tip to improve:  When you start working on your transcript, work on the title page first.  This will help you remember the assignment and who the participants were.  Do not rush when creating this important first page.  Then proofread it at least twice.  You may also use a checklist to make sure you have covered all the details.

Incorrect capturing of testimony

A mumbled answer can sound like either “I think so” or “could be so.”  Which is it?   “September” and “December” are often hard to distinguish.  I’ve run across attorneys who swallow the first word of a question; for example, did he say “did you” or “do you”?  Even the little words, “a” or “the,” can be a huge problem.  Do you know the difference between the two?  Hint:  One is an indefinite article and the other is a definite article.

Tip to improve:  While on the job, you should pay attention to the story line and be alert to things that may not make sense.  If you are following the testimony, you will be more apt to know when it is appropriate to interrupt and ask for clarification.

Putting together a perfect transcript takes enormous care, even for seasoned reporters.  This is not the time to be lazy or complacent.  Do the necessary work.  Make a commitment to continually educate yourself.  Enlist the help of an experienced proofreader who can catch your mistakes before the transcript goes to final print.  After all, it is your name and reputation that is on the line.

What Money Can’t Buy

Court reporters spend a lot of money before they can even begin working.  They need a reliable machine for starters plus a laptop, software licenses, service contracts, and various ancillary supplies such as business cards, exhibit stickers, batteries, and extension cords.

All these items can be replaced almost immediately should disaster strike, but there is ONE item than cannot be purchased anywhere, in a store or through a vendor.  Without it you are back at square one.  Aside from your skill, it is your most valuable asset as a working court reporter.  What is it?  Your personal dictionary.

There are horror stories out there about court reporters who have lost all their equipment through car accidents or other natural disasters and, along with it, their personal dictionaries which resided only on their laptops.  This has rendered them essentially dead in the water, unable to immediately resume their daily duties and earn the income they are accustomed to.  Sadly, this situation could have easily been prevented if only they had backed up their dictionaries.

The conventional wisdom is to back up your personal dictionaries as often as possible, at least once a month, more often if you are just starting out.  Think of all the entries you make on just one assignment, especially if you are at the beginning of your career.  All that labor needs to be preserved and protected.  For even greater insurance, it would be wise to back up your dictionary in multiple ways, such as in the cloud or on a couple of thumb drives.  Then you can store one of the thumb drives in a location other than your office or home, such as a relative’s house, for safekeeping.  The more times you back up and the more places you can store your backups, the safer you will be.

This advice also applies to backing up your jobs.  I not only back up my jobs before I even leave an assignment, but I also back up after each editing session in case my laptop ever decides not to start up again.  The thought of being unable to retrieve a deposition or hearing for an attorney is frightening, so that alone is worth going the extra mile to protect my files at all costs.

Learn from those who have lost it all.  Save yourself the pain and avoid any serious repercussions and damage to your reputation.  Consider it a vital investment in your professional career.  Stop what you are doing and back up your dictionary right now.  Back up, back up often, and back up in multiple places!

STEP IT UP

I was waiting in line last Sunday ordering a bagel.  The three people behind the counter were going about their duties, tending to each custom order.  As more people entered the shop and joined the ever-growing line, the staff seemed unfazed, going about their business at their usual pace.  Apparently they saw no need to speed things up to accommodate the sudden rush of business.

Can you imagine, in your role as a court reporter, operating at only one speed:   slow? Can you envision the words coming at you in quick succession, piling up one after the other, but, no worries, you keep moseying along at a snail’s pace?  Needless to say, as court reporters we have no choice but to step it up and shift into a higher gear.

Sometimes the pace at a deposition is steady, but many times it is not.  Testimony can come at you in fits and starts; it can wax and wane.  Getting into a rhythm can be difficult on days like these.  Things may be quiet speedwise, and then all of a sudden someone objects and they’re off to the races.  It is your job to adjust to whatever the speed may be:  If the pace is slow, you have to stay on your toes for the inevitable and unpredictable uptick.  If the speed is fast, you have to hang on until things slow down enough for you to catch your breath.  The more speed you have in the bank, the more adept you will be to take on whatever comes your way.

This brings to mind an assignment I shared with a fabulous colleague, Jane Williamson, RMR, CRR, on a daily copy years ago.  She would write; I would edit, sitting in the same room.  I noticed that whenever things got contentious and the pace picked up, she literally dropped her head and went into high-speed mode.  It scared me at first — I thought she had fainted! — but I noticed that she did this multiple times throughout the day.  It was such a strong visual manifestation of her bearing down, going into a deeper level of concentration, and ramping up her speed.  I mentioned this to her afterwards, and she was unaware that she was even doing this!

Of course you may not physically react as she does, but you do have to switch gears mentally to be able to dig deep and perform at a higher level.  Your current practice routine is a good indicator of how you will fare in challenging situations like this.  If you do your best to hang on even when it seems impossible, you will have a better chance of success.  This is the mindset you need to be able to perform optimally.  Contrast this with a more lackadaisical approach to your practice sessions, and I think the results will become obvious.  A complacent mindset will generate inferior outcomes.  Put another way, you will not be able to go into full-speed mode when needed if you do not train yourself to do so while in school.

Unfortunately, reporters cannot be like the one-speed-fits-all workers at the bagel shop without suffering serious consequences.  When called upon, there is no option but to step it up and deliver.

What Court Reporting Students Can Learn from a Future Neurosurgeon

We placed an ad for rental of a small office in our suite that was answered by a Harvard Medical School student who needs a quiet place to study for his upcoming exam.  Our space is conveniently located close to his apartment and MGH.  He needs the office for three months, October through December, his examination falling on December 30th.  He is already quite accomplished, having previously earned a Master of Health Science degree from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health before deciding to go to medical school with the goal of eventually becoming a neurosurgeon.

I think everyone on our staff would agree that having him study in such close proximity to us is an eye-opening and inspiring experience.  We have had many enlightening conversations about his family, his past work history abroad in Tanzania and Afghanistan, his research, what led him to pursue a career in neurosurgery, and the intense competition he faces in trying to secure one of only a few coveted residency positions nationwide.

Gabriel Sneh
Harvard Medical student and future neurosurgeon, Gabriel Sneh.

His study routine is one for the record books.  His focus, dedication, and resoluteness are off the charts.  He spends just about every waking moment reviewing the minutiae of every system in the body and taking practice tests, never scoring below a 90.  He studies between 70 to 75 hours a week, even on weekends.  In three months, that will amount to almost 1,000 hours of study!  After he passes his exam, he has seven years of residency ahead of him.

During his limited breaks, he has patiently and completely answered our various medical questions, such as the difference between a punctured/collapsed lung; what a herniated incarceration is; and the various types of stages and grades of cancer.  (We considered it good practice for him!)  Further, as an aside, it has not gone unnoticed that he takes good care of himself.  He eats no sugar, processed foods, or gluten.  He gets his required rest.  His stamina is impressive as is his energy level.  I am sure these choices have factored into his success so far as well.

“How do you stay motivated with such a grueling road ahead of you?” 

This all got me to thinking about court reporting students.  I asked him the most obvious question:  “How do you stay motivated with such a grueling road ahead of you?”  He explained that, although his eye is always on the prize, he doesn’t look too far ahead.  Looking too far ahead can be overwhelming, so he sets an aggressive agenda for each day and does not waver from accomplishing his daily goal, which is answering about 250 to 300 test questions per day.  To become eligible for a neurosurgery residency, you need at least a score of 240 on the exam, a score he already knows he can attain.  He wants to do better because he knows he can.  He knows he is capable of learning much more, so he is pushing himself to excel.  His goal is to achieve the highest score ever recorded on the exam, and we think he just might do it.

So what can we learn from him?  Think about his rigorous studying philosophy and see how it can be incorporated into your personal practice regimen.  Could you realistically find more practice time in your day?  Do you set daily goals and do all you can to achieve them?  Do you push yourself to the limit, rejecting mediocrity and aiming for excellence?  Are you committed to making court reporting your life’s work and doing all you can to be the best court reporter you can be?  What better time than the upcoming New Year to adopt these standards as your own.

All of us will be sad to see “our” med student leave.  It has been an awesome experience getting a glimpse into his world and bearing witness to the enormous sacrifices that he is willing to make to reach his goal.  He is not only an exceptional student but also one of the finest human beings we have ever met.

Congratulations, Gabriel Sneh, on your accomplishments so far and all the very best as you continue your studies.

GOT GRIT?

Does writing on your steno machine come easily to you?  Are you passing tests fairly frequently and progressing ahead of schedule, well ahead of your peers?  If so, you are what I would consider a “natural” writer, and you are in the minority.  I know several reporters who breezed through school in as little as a year and a half.  One reporter I know passed her 260 Q&A before graduation.  Wow!

If you are one of the students in the majority, struggling to stay afloat day after day and fighting to stave off the feelings of self-doubt, you may find comfort in knowing that grit can sometimes be more important than raw talent.

I define “grit” as mental toughness, an intense resolve to succeed and the tenacity to focus and persevere despite the obstacles and distractions around you.  There are many examples of people who accomplished great things through sheer determination.  James Earl Jones overcame severe stuttering to become a famous actor;  Stephen King’s first novel was rejected thirty times, but he is now a prolific author whose books have sold over 350 million copies; and Walt Disney, despite having only an eighth-grade education and almost no formal art training, built an empire where dreams really do come true.

As a court reporting student, grit is what will propel you forward, one word per minute at a time.  Set your goals, put in as much quality practice as you can, and eschew excuses.  Do this every single day.  Remind yourself of what drew you to court reporting in the first place, and let that motivate you to dig in and press on.  It will be difficult and will require every ounce of self-discipline you have, but in the long run you will succeed.

Every working court reporter still relies on grit to make it out there.  Attorneys’ expectations are high.  There are many demands placed on them by their clients, and those demands get passed on to us.  It is our job to deliver.  The finest court reporters produce transcripts of the highest quality on time all the time no matter what.  They offer realtime services often under less-than-ideal conditions, multiple iPads at a time, some clients receiving live feeds in remote locations.  They produce daily copy of high-profile, high-stakes trials that go on for weeks.  Their raw realtime is projected on large screens in packed convention halls or on television screens across the nation, such as for the recent raucous presidential debates.  How much true grit does that take?

So cultivate your true grit!   It is never too late.  If you embrace it, it is a mindset that will take you to a higher level.   Just ask the majority of court reporters who were once in your shoes.  True grit got them through school, and true grit gets them through the most difficult and demanding of assignments as certified working professionals.