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.

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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.”

Court Reporter Pride

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

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

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

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.

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.

ROOTS AND WINGS

I recently heard this phrase at a life celebration of a beloved teacher of young children.  She opened a nursery school years ago where it was her mission to provide her students with roots and wings, and I thought it was a wonderful expression of her life’s work.

The same philosophy applies to all of you pursuing a career in court reporting.  Think of your education as forming the foundation, or roots, for your future success.  All the courses you are taking are preparing you for what lies ahead.  They are the tools you will call upon every day when you are on the job writing and then editing your work.

Your primary responsibility as a reporter is to produce a timely verbatim transcript using your best judgment and experience.  This skill set is constantly evolving.  A good reporter will learn something new with every assignment.  A good reporter, ever present and mindful, will be enriched from each experience.  Over time, these experiences will become part of an ever expanding repertoire from which you can draw.  The young root system that began in school, if nurtured, will mature and grow stronger.   It will be the foundation upon which to build an enduring and rewarding career.

Once in the working world, good reporters have the potential to spread their wings and become great reporters.  It doesn’t happen overnight — it is a deliberate process years in the making — but if you are willing to step out of your comfort zone and trust the solid roots beneath you, the rewards in store are many.

Great reporters constantly try to “up” their game, outdo their personal bests.  They have a strong work ethic which means that they meet their deadlines without fail.  Because of the deference they hold for the process, every matter is treated with respect and held in confidence.  They accommodate every client request to the best of their ability, paying attention to the smallest of details.  They take on the most arduous of assignments, even volunteer for them.  In short, they are the accomplished peers we all respect and the sought-after professionals whom lawyers can trust.

So make the most of your time in school.  Take this opportunity to challenge yourself to the max.  Set high expectations for yourself.  Cultivate your root system!  The roots you are putting in place now will allow you to spread your wings and become the very best reporter you can be.

OH, CHUTE!

I thought you would enjoy this story that happened to an esteemed colleague of mine, Ralph Simpson, when he competed in his third Massachusetts Speed Contest.

As a bit of background, the Massachusetts speed contests were instituted for the first time in 1975 and ran through 1979.  Ed Varallo prepared all five contests and dictated all of them.  The requirement for entering was that you had to have your Certificate of Merit.  The three legs were Literary at 210 wpm, Legal Opinion at 220 wpm, and Q&A at 270 wpm.  Back in those days, contestants had to manually type their takes, and there was a time limit for typing each leg.

Ralph still vividly remembers the tension he felt in anticipation of the start of the contests.  “I had the feeling that words were being fired at me like a machine gun and any hesitation could be fatal.  It required all the concentration I could bring.  Each five-minute take seemed to go on forever, and you just had to hang on.”

Ralph won the contest in 1975 with an average overall score of 99.59 and won again in 1976 with an average overall score of 98.15.  Incidentally, in 1976 he was the only reporter who qualified on the Q&A; in other words, he was the only reporter to score with 95% accuracy or better on that leg.  Two trophies in two years!

In his third contest in 1977, Ralph came in first on the Literary leg with a 99.52 score.  He also came in first on the Legal Opinion leg with a 99.27 score.  Although he came in with a fantastic score of 99.33 on the Q&A leg, with an overall test score average of 99.37, he came in second overall.  The trophy went to Jonathan Young that year, another Boston great.

So what tripped Ralph up on the Q&A leg that year?   He transcribed “chute” when it should have been “shoot.”  He only made nine total errors on the Q&A leg, but he made this particular error six times, which cost him his third trophy.  In retrospect, he said that “chute” didn’t even jump out at him as being an error during his transcription.

Being the good sport that he is, Ralph still finds it “amusing” that this happened to him, and he has taken some ribbing for his blunder over the years.  Nevertheless, it doesn’t take away from his great accomplishments as a speed contest champion or as a reporter of over four decades.

Ralph went on to compete in the remaining two contests, in 1978 and 1979, and had an honorable third-place showing in each.  He remains a wealth of information and a sought-after resource when we need advice and wisdom, which is just about every day.  Ralph has been with this firm for 46 years!

Thank you, Ralph, for this walk down memory lane!