The Digital Answer to the Court Reporting Shortage

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Can you imagine a day when court reporters are not readily available? When you call an agency to schedule a proceeding and they tell you they don’t have an opening for six months? Or when a judge’s schedule is dictated by the availability of a court reporter rather than the number of cases on the docket? When your trial is continued four or five times, not at counsel’s request, but due to a lack of court reporters?

These scenarios are already a reality in some places around the nation. Courts are having to postpone due to a court reporter being out sick. Agencies are turning down work because they have too few reporters. As a result, the cost of hiring a court reporter is increasing.

Court Reporting Past and Present

Court reporting in the United States can be traced back to the mid-19th century when writers with quills and inkwells would take down the proceedings in shorthand. This evolved over the next 50 years, eventually leading to the invention of the stenography machine. Stenography became accessible to court reporters in the 1940s, and by the mid-1990s stenographers were computerized, connecting to a laptop with special software to translate the phonetic shorthand into a readable transcript. Since then, we have seen a rapid evolution of technology, including real-time transcription feeds, integrated audio backups, and connections to closed captioning systems. As time progresses, new court reporting technologies and methods are becoming mainstream, including digital court reporting, which has been utilized in court systems for more than 25 years and for the last 10 years has slowly made its way into depositions, EUOs, and other out-of-court proceedings.

The stenographic profession reached its peak numbers between 1970 and 2000 with more than 60,000 court reporters in the workplace. Fast-forward to 2018 and less than 30,000 were estimated to be working in the field, and this number has been shrinking every day since. The Speech to Text Institute reports that 1,120 stenographers retire every year while only 200 enter the field each year. This means that by 2023 we will be down to only 23,100 stenographic court reporters. That leaves an estimated gap of nearly 12,000 reporters in the marketplace to take proceedings. With litigation on the rise and a gap of at least 35% below the needed court reporter workforce, something needs to be done.

The Next Generation of Court Reporters

With innovation and the utilization of technology, the next generation of court reporters is starting to fill in the gap. Digital court reporting, sometimes called electronic court reporting, is the fastest-growing method of testimony capture today. Similar to the 20th century, when shorthand writers and stenographic machine writers coexisted, the marketplace is seeing a blend of methodologies including stenographic, digital and voice court reporting. This new blended workforce benefits the legal community and will allow the U.S. litigation process to continue to function and evolve.

As we have seen in other countries, it’s common for different capture methods to co-exist. According to Martin Block, former president of the National Court Reporters Association, in his article “The Realities of Court Reporting in the 21st Century,” “In the right hands each methodology will accomplish everything it was designed to do: provide an accurate and timely transcript taken by a professional officiant.”

Standards and Best Practices

Despite many assuming that digital court reporting is a new technology, it has actually been around and in use for more than 25 years across the U.S. The practice of recording high-quality audio files, taking down notes, and then later transcribing that into a legal transcript has been well-tested and refined over the years. The American Association of Electronic Reporters and Transcribers (AAERT) sets standards for this methodology of court reporting through its Best Practices Guide and reinforces these standards through national certification. As with all other methodologies of court reporting, digital reporters learn from those who have been in the industry before them. In addition to formal training at schools or learning centers, they receive on-the-job training and are mentored in best practices.

What You Can Expect

A digital court reporter is a notary and/or officer of the court who stands as a neutral third party to protect the record. The software a digital court reporter uses is secure.  It synchronizes the audio and text, as well as adds metadata with specific information that would make it apparent if the file had been tampered with. Additionally, many software platforms encode the files in proprietary code and/or file wrappers that cannot be opened by other programs.

Although the equipment used by a digital court reporter may be different from that of a stenographic court reporter, the attorney experience should be very similar. The major distinction is that a digital reporter will use a microphone to capture testimony (which may be on the table, a stand, or clipped on to participants).  The audio file is then subsequently transcribed by a legal transcriptionist. The accuracy, timeliness, and cost of the service will be similar to other capture methods such as stenography or mask reporting. Reputable agencies and courts hire experienced legal transcribers trained to ensure the record is produced in a manner that will be admissible in court.

The Future of Court Reporting

The court reporter shortage in real and digital court reporting is the next stage of a constantly evolving profession. This means that having a digital court reporter in your proceeding in the near future is inevitable. So, if the agency you know and love assigns a digital court reporter to your legal proceeding, rest assured you’re in good hands: they are trained legal professionals who are there to protect the record.

About the Author

Benjamin Jaffe is the manager of digital training and development for BlueLedge, an AAERT-approved online training center for the legal industry. Email him here.