On the hunt

Where are all the new court reporters?

Where are all the new court reporters?
October 2017
By Lauren P. Duncan
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

Alexa, will you transcribe this court hearing?”

Summoning Amazon’s digital personal assistant to do the work of a licensed court reporter likely won’t happen anytime soon, but the idea that software could one day replace court reporters has been suggested in recent years as audio and visual technology becomes better at understanding the human voice and capturing words for future use.

It’s a suggestion that many licensed court reporters have heard before. It’s one they debunk, mostly. While many court reporters seem open to the idea that technology is establishing a greater role in the courtroom, they’re quick to point out that technology has also expanded the career opportunities for stenographers themselves, giving them more work beyond the confines of the courthouse.

As these new opportunities open up, the industry is seeing a need for more court reporters to fill positions amid a shortage caused by an aging and retiring workforce. A 2013 Ducker Worldwide report commissioned by the National Court Reporters Association predicted that there would be about 1,730 court reporters in Illinois in 2018, but there would be a need for roughly 1,990, leaving a shortfall of about 260.

That’s part of a “critical shortfall” of 5,500 court reporting jobs nationwide, caused in part by a decline in court reporting school enrollment and graduation rates. This has created an industry that faces threats to its viability in the future, yet is in need of its next generation of workers.

The shortage

Isaiah Roberts was, at age 19, the youngest graduate in Illinois State University’s history. In preparation for law school, he joined ISU’s mock trial team and law club and took prelaw classes while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in marketing.

Then he made a move some people might consider a head-scratcher: After graduation, he didn’t head to law school, but to the Mark Kislingbury Academy of Court Reporting in Houston, a two-year program to become a court reporter.

A few factors led to the switch, said Roberts, now 23 and an official court reporter at the McLean County Law and Justice Center in Bloomington. He had heard about the competitive job market for lawyers. He realized his mother, a court reporter of 37 years, played an integral role in the legal system.

“In the back of my head, there were those concerns about law school,” Roberts said. “There is such an overabundance of new lawyers and they talk about how it’s harder to find a job than it used to be … You see those student loans adding up and some of the potential job prospects going down, and I looked at court reporting, which is really the opposite. There are incredible opportunities and there is such a high demand, and that is what I truly love about it, that anywhere I go I can find a job.”

The most recent job placement data from the American Bar Association shows that 73 percent of graduates from ABA-approved law schools in 2016 were employed full-time 10 months later in jobs that required bar passage.

The court and real-time reporting program at Alfred State College in Alfred, N.Y.; Madison College of Court Reporting in Madison, Wis.; and Clark State Community College’s in Springfield, Ohio, all boast 100 percent job placement.

But that’s job placement among graduates. The programs face high drop-out rates. In Roberts’ case, he said only four of the 23 students who enrolled in his cohort ended up graduating.

Court reporting programs are also less common than they once were. According to the National Court Reporters Association, there are 33 association-approved schools in the U.S., including three in Illinois: MacCormac College in Chicago, Midstate College in Peoria and South Suburban College in Oak Forest. Decades ago, it was common for most community college and even some high schools to offer court reporting or stenography courses.

“Court reporting was exciting and attractive and sexy years ago,” MacCormac College Chancellor Marnelle Alexis Stephens said. “From my perspective … you had a lot of women who maybe wanted to go into the legal field and could not. Going to law school was not something that a lot of women were able to do, capable of doing, could afford to do, just because of the gender roles back then.”

“It was a really great career option for women, and it still is. You can work as many hours as you want and you can make as much money as you want, especially in this day and age. Literally, we have court reporters who are making over $100,000 a year … and this is with a two-year degree.”

In Illinois, court reporters must pass either the national exam offered by the National Court Reporters Association, which earns them the registered professional reporter certificate, or they must pass Illinois’ test, called the certified shorthand reporters license. The National Court Reporters Association offers additional certifications for reporters who pass higher level exams.

In addition to passing an exam, court reporters must meet continuing education requirements to have their licenses renewed.

According Stephens, some states don’t require court reporters to pass licensing exams, while Illinois has its own standards, including a section on the test that requires that court reporters be able to type 225 words per minute for at least five minutes at 95 percent accuracy.

For many, that’s hard to do.

“It’s a Catch-22, because yes, we want the highly trained court reporters who are licensed to be taking the record, but at the same time we are also in a bad place,” Stephens said. “We are in a situation where we need more court reporters. There are quite a number of them who have not been able to meet the higher level criteria.”

The write stuff

In 2015, Illinois state officials voiced their concerns about how the projected shortage would affect the official courthouse positions. At the time, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts estimated about 75 percent of the about 550 to 600 court reporters who worked in state courts that year would be eligible for retirement within the following 15 years.

And fewer people are coming to replace them.

Of the predicted shortages of court reporters listed in the Ducker Report, Illinois’ shortfall of 260 was expected to give the state the third-highest demand, behind Texas and California. Half of the nation’s court reporters work in Illinois, Texas, California and New York.

The report’s projected total of 1,730 Illinois court reporters includes the entire industry: Court reporters who work in the courts, who are known as officials and those who work outside the courts, who are known as freelancers.

National Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers similarly showed a slight need for court reporters in the future, showing that employment opportunities for court reporters are expected to grow by 2 percent between 2014 and 2024.

Stephens said she’s been on National Court Reporters Association committees aimed at remedying this shortfall by recruiting the next generation of court reporters. MacCormac boasts the oldest court reporting program in the country and is the largest of the programs at Illinois’ three brick-and-mortar schools, which Stephens said is more than most states have.

But the focus hasn’t been solely on getting students in the doors of schools. Rather, Stephens said, the National Court Reporters Association is looking at how the programs, which are typically two years and usually earn students an associate’s degree, can recruit the right type of student. That’s someone efficient, fast — and adaptable to new technology.

Longtime court reporter Margie Kruse said she was warned about technology replacing court reporters back when she was in school in River Grove in 1982, when a court reporting program was offered at Triton College.

Kruse went on to own Kruse & Associates Ltd. in Chicago before she sold the agency last year and moved to Little Rock, Ark., to become a federal court reporting official.

“When I started reporting school in 1982, my theory teacher said, well, make sure you have other skills … you’re not going to make it to the end of your work career doing this. Technology is going to put you out of business. Well, OK, I’ve had a pretty good long run in this, and technology has absolutely gotten better,” Kruse said.

An ideal candidate for court reporting school is someone who is proven to have good finger dexterity, perhaps a musician, or someone who can learn another language.

In addition to a low level of attrition due to students struggling to succeed at the intricate work and achieve the fine motor skills required, Stephens said the struggle to successfully graduate students is further met by a decline of interest in the field. Stephens said she would like to see a greater effort made to present high schoolers with the idea that court reporting is a career possibility for them.

The iceman leaveth

While court reporters are quick to point out the prospects of growth in the profession, at least one judge is apprehensive about the longevity of the career.

First District Appellate Justice Michael B. Hyman’s decisions can rely on the documents that court reporters produce, as in some cases the only record in an appealed case is what was transcribed in the original court proceeding.

Hyman said that while there might be a need for court reporters, courts have also been cutting back on the positions.

“Court reporters are the icemen of the 1930s,” he said. “There’s no more icemen … That industry has changed, or it disappeared.”

“I think that there has been a reduction in demand of court reporters in courts,” he said. “As far as depositions are concerned, you still need a court reporter … but it’s a different job today, it seems to me, than it was just 10 or 15 years ago.”

Hyman said that the importance of having a court reporter in the room for a proceeding depends on the circumstances of the case. While it’s important to have a reporter in criminal cases, he said only a few civil courtrooms use official court reporters. Because most civil cases aren’t appealed, he said, he can understand why there isn’t a need to have a reporter take that record when an audio or video recorder in the room can capture the arguments that can be transcribed by a reporter later upon request.

Hyman said that while it would be a great expense at the outset, he thinks that if courts invested in more technology for courtrooms used for recording proceedings, it would pay off in the long run.

“Technology has become very sophisticated in a very short time and with these advancements, I think there will be a need for fewer court reporters, so the industry is going to have to change its focus,” he said.

During the 23 years that Kruse operated her own agency, technology expanded opportunities for court reporters by increasing their options for quickly turning around a product and getting it to attorneys, she said.

She added that no matter what advances there are in technology, she thinks there will continue to be a need for “human intervention” in taking the record, including instances when there are witnesses with accents, someone who is mumbling or when multiple people are speaking at once.

“Technology actually has only expanded the marketplace for court reporters,” Kruse said. “I think the only problem with that is we have fewer entrants into the marketplace, and so while there’s more opportunity, there seems to be fewer bodies to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Hyman said he could see a future in which the job responsibilities of the court clerk are combined with that of the court reporter, as clerk duties have changed due to e-filing and similar impacts of technology.

He emphasized that having an accurate record is vital to courts, as one word in a court record can be the difference between an individual winning or losing a case. Maintaining that accurate record will still require the help of humans, he said, only he expects the job to change.

“This is a long time coming and I just think that the court reporters of today need to figure out who they are going to be tomorrow,” he said. “They’re not going to be court reporters, they’re going to be that and something else. They’re going to be technologists … And with court reporting, as soon as they realize that and how it dovetails into their assignment, maybe more people would be interested, because it’s technology.”

“It’s a train that’s coming and there’s no stopping it. The imagination is the only thing keeping the industry from expanding its current parameters,” he said.

Mega-firms

Kruse saw the effects of the court reporter shortage as she struggled to find freelancers at times, particularly for the work she handled, which was boutique litigation in areas including patent and environmental law.

“As [court reporters] are retiring from this field, it became increasingly difficult to put highly qualified reporters on cases,” she said.

In Kruse’s case, she ultimately ended up selling her agency because she was tired of competing with what she called “mega-firms,” or large national court reporting agencies, such as Esquire Deposition Solutions LLC, Veritext Legal Solutions and U.S. Legal Support Inc.

More and more, she said, local agency owners have been selling their court reporting companies to the larger firms and going on to become federal court officials such as Kruse. She added that one of the reasons it is hard for small, local agencies to compete with larger, national ones is because national agencies can offer rewards to clients, such as free tickets to a sporting events or other gifts, that individual licensed reporters are not allowed to offer due to ethical requirements.

“It was the reason I sold. I got tired of being told by my clients that their client, the corporation, is directing them to the national firm,” she said.

Brenda Keith, the chief marketing officer of Esquire Deposition Solutions, a company with about 40 offices in the U.S. and 1,000 freelance court reporters on its roster, said she has also noticed an increase in larger court reporting companies acquiring smaller ones, including Esquire, Veritext and U.S. Legal.

“I certainly see acquisition activity picking up recently, across the industry, not just with us,” she said. “I think it’s because, it’s the same thing that’s driving the shortage: Small firm owners, they are getting to retirement age, so they’re looking to sell their businesses as they age. I think that’s a lot of what’s driving the acquisition activity.”

Keith said because Esquire’s court reporters are freelancers, many of them work for other court reporting companies as well. Despite having about 1,000 court reporters to hire for services, Keith said Esquire has also seen the effects of the court reporter shortage.

“I don’t think there’s a court reporting agency out there that’s not feeling the effects, no matter how large or small you are,” she said. “We are always in recruitment mode. Our goal is to be — employer-of-choice is the wrong word because we don’t employ people — but to be the agency of choice for reporters, and we work very hard to have programs and things to attract more reporters to want to work for us.”

“The shortage is real, for sure,” she said.

Increasing opportunities

Vernita Allen-Williams, a Lake County court reporter who is the immediate past president of the Illinois Court Reporters Association, said that there has been an uptick in court reporting school enrollments across the country in recent years. She’s heard rumors it’s up by as much as 38 percent.

She’s hopeful that will translate into an increase in students who graduate and join the profession in the next few years.

Allen-Williams also said she’s seen technology bolster the profession in several ways, including expanding a court reporter’s career options outside of the standard recording and transcribing of depositions and court proceedings to areas including broadcast captioning, webcasting and CART, or Communications Access Realtime Translation.

One example of CART being put to use today thanks to advanced technology is through helping deaf or hearing-impaired individuals.

Allen-Williams said that a hearing-impaired or deaf person who goes on a tour at a museum, for example, can use his or her phone to livestream what they’re hearing to a court reporter, who might be working from home or elsewhere.

The reporter, who is capable of transcribing audio in real time, can type out what the tour guide is saying on his or her stenography machine, which today is typically Bluetooth-capable. The machine can directly output that material the reporter is typing to the phone or iPad that the hearing-impaired individual is carrying so that he or she can read what the tour guide is saying.

“And no one even knows,” Allen-Williams said. “No one has to know that they’re deaf or hard of hearing.”

Other examples run the gamut. Roberts said he knows one reporter who has done captioning for shows on Broadway and another who has assisted a hearing-impaired individual through medical school. In that reporter’s case, Roberts said the student went to observe a surgery and the court reporter was able to provide CART services remotely, outputting what the surgeon was saying to the student’s iPad.

“That’s a whole other realm of it, which I think goes back to the question … what does this profession look like in the future?” Roberts said. “While court reporting may change, and the ways that we go about it and the ways that we do it, I think that stenography as a whole and a lot of the closed captioning opportunities have grown exponentially in the last even 10 years.”