Because the court reporter's transcript is often the only record of testimony given in a trial, accuracy and speed are essential. Court reporters use stenotype machines that print shorthand symbols on paper and record them on computer disks. The disks are then loaded into a computer that translates and displays the symbols in English, a process known as computer-aided transcription. Highly-skilled court reporters can work from home and an increasing number of them are choosing to set up their offices as subcontractors for law firms, hospitals and transcription services. Nearly one-fifth of the more than 100,000 court reporters in the U.S. are self-employed freelancers or work part-time. Of those who are salaried, one-third work for federal and state governments.
On the inside
Stenographers are privy to privileged information in their day-to-day activities. Because of this, court reporters must be scrupulous as well as hyper-efficient. Court reporters are the proverbial "flies on the wall," especially when they are assigned to high-profile cases (like the O.J. Simpson trials). The press relies on their hundred-page-a-day reports to fill them in on the latest courtroom dramas from which they are barred. This kind of privileged access is given to the best in the field--court reporters whose typing exceeds 225 words a minute with nary a typo. Court reporters and other stenographers must also be well-versed in legal jargon and other technical terms of any other fields they are working for. The pay can be quite rewarding to reporters who build strong reputations, and the benefits of flexible schedules keep people in the profession.
Not all fun and games
There are downsides to the position, though. So much importance is placed on the word-for-word accuracy of legal transcripts that the pressure and stress can take its toll on a court reporter. He or she must be able to work consistently for up to 10 hours straight without letting his or her concentration lapse. Other hazards of the position include work-related physical strains, the worst of which is carpal tunnel syndrome, an often debilitating inflammation of the tendons. Also, court reporters work alone, so camaraderie among colleagues is rarely an option.
Stenography skills are taught in high schools, vocational schools and community colleges, so a college degree is not required to become a court reporter. For stenographer jobs, employers prefer to hire high school graduates and seldom have a preference among the many different shorthand methods. Although requirements vary in private firms, applicants with the best speed and accuracy usually receive first consideration in hiring. For those who aspire to a court reporter position in the federal government, stenographers must be able to take diction at a minimum of 80 words per minute and type at least 40 words per minute.
For court reporter jobs, most employers require knowledge of stenotype, not because it increases reporters' writing speed but because it facilitates a computer's ability to read notes for high-speed transcription. Over 300 schools offer two- to four-year training programs in court reporting, but only 110 of them are accredited. Most court reporters complete one of these programs before they begin their careers. Some states require court reporters who stenotype depositions to be notary publics and 18 states require each court reporter to be a Certified Court Reporter (CCR). A certification test is administered by a board of examiners in each state that has CCR laws. The National Court Reporters Association confers the designation Registered Professional Reporter (RPR) upon those who pass a two-part examination and participate in continuing education programs. Although voluntary, the RPR designation is recognized as a mark of distinction in the profession.
Contacts tell us that a court reporter's hours are "long;" the days sometimes seem to "never end." Court reporters in the litigation field spend "lots of time on the job and little else." One reporter says that his travel keeps him on the road "300 days a year." Dress for court reporters is "business-like," while transcribers are "as casual as you can get." One reporter complains that "people are being replaced with machines," which break down often. In those cases, reporters are made to "run around like crazy" when they are on break to "cover the machine's duties." "Except when they are in court," reporters' "typing time" is "their own," and they are not "tied down to a 9-to-5 schedule."
One contact explains that court reporting is a field that "a person with a good liberal arts background would find challenging and rewarding." Because reporters take testimony of "people from all walks of life," reporters "had better be versed in popular culture, medical terminology and technical terms." Practice is the key to advancement, "just like a musician."
Respondents confirm that "going behind the scenes" is a major perk of the job, since they "hear what few get to hear, and schmooze a bit with notable people, if they're chatty." And, as one contact put it, they are "there when history is being made."
Exposure to high-profile cases; Opportunities for self-employment
Physical strain; Long hours
Focused; Disciplined; Perceptive; Efficient
Creative; Restless; Easily distracted
Average about 40 per week
Median salary: $45,610; Median salary, local government: $45,080
Knowledge of stenotype; Minimum typing speed of 175 words per minute; Successful completion of the Court Reporting Exam