Creating Jobs

The Vanishing Court Reporter:  Off the Record

By:  LawCrossing

Most stenographers’ machines these days are tricked out with fancy screens, but at their core the devices are essentially hot rod typewriters.  Still, it can take 3 years of training to learn how to pluck the 24 keys at the requisite 225 words per minute.  And right now, there aren’t enough nimble fingers to go around.

Across the country, the legal profession is suffering a severe shortage of court reporters.  According to Marshall Jorpeland, director of communications for the National Court Reporters Association, the clamor for reporting services has increased as the number of stenographers has plummeted.  In the past decade, the number of NCRA-accredited training programs has dropped from 102 to 72.   Of the nearly 45,000 court reporters in the U.S. today, less than a third actually toil in a courtroom, the rest opting for lucrative closed-caption-TV work or freelance jobs for law firms.  “People are wondering where the next generation is going to come from,” says Jorpeland.

Many stenographers who haven’t sought the flexible hours and higher earnings of private practice..a typical freelancer’s income is more than $60,000 annually, and top reporters can clear 6 figures…are losing their jobs to budget cuts.  Courts in Oregon and Colorado have ordered considerable layoffs, a round of cuts is planned for some Florida courts as well.  “I’ve waited a couple of years for trial transcripts,” says Michael Bogdanow, a litigator at Boston’s Meehan, Boyle, Black & Fitzgerald.  “Everything slows down as a result.  You can’t pursue an appeal without the transcript, which is one big reason why appeals take so long.”

Meanwhile, reporters whose positions have been spared must scramble to keep up.  In Florida, a murder conviction was overturned because the jury selection process had not been accurately recorded.  In North Carolina, judges routinely delay trials and hearings as they wait for a spare reporter.

Some states have addressed the deficit by installing sensitive digital recording systems to tape proceedings for later transcription.  Most stenographers, however, say this is a poor alternative.  “If you’re representing someone accused of a crime, and you plan to file an appeal, do you want to rely on a transcript that’s filled with “inaudible” and that was prepared by a peson who wasn’t at the original proceeding?”  says R. Douglas Friend, a partner at the Portland, Oregon, court reporting firm Beovich Walter & Friend.

The industry should improve over the next few years as broadcasters strive to provide closed-captioning on virtually all new television programming by 2006, and on older programming by 2008, as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires.  Writing those captions requires largely the same skills as recording legal proceedings, so the NCRA is promoting a bill that would create $60 million in educational grants.  The funding, if approved, could lift the entire profession.

The anemic economy may prove to be an obstacle to legislative approval of the funding, but Jorpeland and his colleagues find solace in the fact that when jobs are scarce, professional schools usually get a boost.  “Last fall, enrollment in reporter training programs was up 19% over 2001,” he says.  “And we have evidence indicating this year is at least as strong.”

If court reporters are losing their jobs in the court room, CaptionsVerbatimPro will be happy to provide them a job doing the same work but for a different group where captions is sorely needed.   That’s technology working and it provides a solution to the court reporters dilemma.   The other thing that is happening based on what I have seen in scattered statements on the internet is that the court reporters are taking a 30% cut in pay and that is not be acceptable to most.   They are refusing to work for the court unless they pay their regular rate of pay which runs anywhere from $90/hour to $125/hour for the top reporters.    That’s is about the same rate the CART services are charging.   There is a real war going on between the courts and the court reporters regarding their rate of pay.

 
 
 

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