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

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.

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.

ARE YOU PRACTICING THE WRONG WAY?

I came upon this article by Adam Dachis.  In my opinion, it describes perfectly how you should go about your practice sessions and why.  He’s writing about piano practice, but this certainly applies to court reporters.  The bottom line:  Perfect practice makes perfect.  Stop practicing until you read this.  Teach yourself to practice the right way.  Take Mr. Dachis’s advice to heart and let his words guide you from this point forward.  Good luck and happy practicing!

How Muscle Memory Works and How It Affects Your Success

by Adam Dachis

Muscle memory is not a memory stored in your muscles, of course, but memories stored in your brain that are much like a cache of frequently enacted tasks for your muscles. It’s a form of procedural memory that can help you become very good at something through repetition, but in exactly the same way it can make you absolutely terrible at that same thing. Here’s why.

If you’re practicing a song on the piano over and over again, the idea is that you’ll continue to improve. “Practice makes perfect” can be an accurate phrase because the more you do something, you build up that procedural memory and your brain can quickly instruct your muscles to carry it out. That muscle memory doesn’t judge whether you’re doing good or bad, however, and so if you practice a song poorly for hours on end you’re going to be really good at making the same mistakes over and over again. This is not only bad because you’ve wasted your time learning to be bad or mediocre at a task and may see all this work as a failure, but because you didn’t necessarily have to fail at all. When you repeat mistakes again and again, you build a muscle memory with those mistakes. That makes those mistakes even harder to overcome later. This is one reason why the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is often true.

 

The key to building good muscle memories is to focus on the quality of the quantity. We’ve often heard, probably from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, that 10,000 hours is the magic number to make someone an expert. It’s likely that this is the case when you practice well, but if you carelessly build procedural memory over and over again you can just end up being really good at repeating your mistakes. When you practice, take it slow at first. Going back to learning to play a song on the piano, don’t rush to learn the entire thing. Break the song up into parts and concentrate on learning one part really well. Practice that section slowly until you’ve got it down, then speed it up little by little until you can play at full speed. More broadly, when you want to learn to do something well, break it into small parts and take each part slowly until you’re able to do it very well. Take breaks. Be patient. The more you rush the big picture, the more likely you’ll be to develop muscle memories that are difficult to reverse.