Lawyers, court administrators, and support staff, there is a real struggle taking place in the United States court reporting industry today. For the last eight years, we have known that there would be a stenographic court reporter shortage. We knew because our national association commissioned the 2013-2014 Court Reporting Industry Outlook by Ducker Worldwide, colloquially known as our Ducker Report. In response to that, many initiatives to recruit stenographers were born including National Court Reporters Association A to Z program, Project Steno, and Open Steno. As of today, there are far more schools for stenographic reporting in the United States than there are for transcribers. If we base our count on NCRA-approved schools against AAERT approved schools, the ratio is about 5:1. Stenographic court reporters are by far better equipped to handle the shortage. But there is a lie being sold about us, our shortage is being exaggerated and exacerbated by companies that stand to profit from it.
In our industry there are stenographic court reporters, voice writers, and digital court reporters. Stenography’s all about taking down verbatim notes on a stenotype. Voice writing is all about speaking into an automatic speech recognition (ASR) system tuned to the reporter’s voice. Digital reporting sees the reporter record the audio, which is then distributed to transcribers. About two years ago a nonprofit called STTI popped onto the field and started spreading the lie that the stenographer shortage would be nearly impossible to solve, citing the Ducker Report and “industry experts” that believed they could predict what the field would look like 20 years from now. They claimed they wanted to be an authority in all speech-to-text modalities but it’s fairly obvious to anyone paying attention that it’s an attack on consumer choice. Ducker could not have been clearer that market preference was stenography:
The conclusions STTI drew were so wrong it appears intentional. Jim Cudahy was the Executive Director of NCRA when the Ducker Report was made, and yet so many years later ended up in the STTI camp using his NCRA experience to help lend credibility to the false idea that our shortage was impossible to solve. An opportunist, he saw a chance to lead the charge into an “emerging” market and he took it, business 101. Large corporations in my field started to push the same lie, likely due to financial pressure. Veritext started trying to train lawyers to allow for digital reporting in their deposition notices, Planet Depos started to build the digital side of its business. Verbit flip flopped between telling investors there was 99% accuracy and that technology would not replace the human. The race was on to legitimize digital reporting in your minds as consumers. This is being done despite some evidence that it would put already-marginalized groups of speakers at risk and the fact that it is less efficient. Utilizing digital reporting would take the production of the transcript offshore, out of range of your subpoena power, and make it much easier for tampering to occur.
If any other field has a shortage, sellers jack up prices. In ours, despite the fact that we are behind inflation in some markets, some of our biggest sellers were now pushing for our replacement. They were telling consumers no stenographer was available, but they weren’t using any of our numerous Facebook groups, LinkedIn, or our national database of stenographers to recruit us. This lie did not go completely unchallenged. Nonprofits like Protect Your Record organized to get the word out, but they were up against corporations that, according to Owler, control a combined revenue amount of over half a billion dollars. Our field, comprised of 88% women, was being bamboozled and blitzed by the message that companies were only going digital out of need. “Of course stenographers are the gold standard, there just are not enough of them.” It was a game of messaging and perception that we were losing.
I had identified a pattern of “shifting narratives” and I used my love of reading and writing to document what I could so that the truth would not be lost. It was through this documentation that the New York State Court Reporters Association, Association of Surrogate’s and Supreme Court Reporters, and many other unions were able to give the New York State Unified Court System a warning on the dangers of automating trial transcription. This work was having a real impact and giving us the power to communicate our importance to the legal field in more concrete terms. Some of my work even got republished by NCRA in industry media and social media. I became a part of changing the false messaging and misconceptions killing my profession.
While court reporters on social media were debating whether companies were utilizing digital court reporters, I was documenting as much as I could and trying to urge my colleagues to push back. My attention was raised to US Legal Support building its digital business and how, in the Holly Moose v US Legal Case, despite 70% of its business coming from court reporters, it claimed it was not organized as a shorthand reporting firm and therefore should be immune to regulations meant to protect consumers in California. Moose lost the case from a failure to prove the injury element, but we now had valuable information, the company was willing to do and say anything to benefit itself. Sounds like a bold claim, but let’s be real, they don’t advertise themselves as “not a shorthand reporting firm.”
While outwardly professing that it wanted stenographers, it was doing everything in its power to sabotage us. Stenotrain was acquired by US Legal and apparently mismanaged into oblivion. US Legal was aggressively recruiting digital court reporters on LinkedIn as recently as May 2021, but no such effort was made to get stenographers. In July 2021, a JD Supra article was put up by the company that claimed the stenographer shortage would be nearly impossible to solve and set up an equation to give it the appearance of credibility. Their numbers were extrapolated from an eight year old report and likely outdated, but even assuming those numbers to be true, the equation, if reiterated in perpetuity, would lead to negative stenographers, which is logically impossible if you’re getting 200 new stenographers a year. The equation assumed the retirements would always be constant and did not acknowledge any of the recruitment efforts at the top of this page. I realized there was a major inaccuracy, and I started to spread the word that we could not rely on these large corporations to be honest with us or our clients.
A real breakthrough came when I got a US Legal rep to admit they had not been using NCRA PRO Link / Sourcebook, our national directory of stenographers, to recruit us. How could they dare make a claim that stenographers were not available when they were not utilizing a database consisting of roughly one third of the field? Worse than that, prior to publishing my September 9 article, court reporters reported not being contacted by larger firms. The best we had was a vague promise from Rick Levy that US Legal would look into whether it was “viable” to use the directory to recruit stenographers. After I publicly cried foul, they started to use the directory to recruit stenographers that same day! When it became clear I was going public with these allegations, they went from “looking into it” to attempting to cover up the fraud they had perpetrated on the legal community.
There was a part of the puzzle I had and held close to the chest. I had been given emails from the NCRA Firmowners listserv from May 2021 where representatives from US Legal got into a “debate” with a group of court reporters. In my assessment the discussion was rife with obfuscations, distractions, and gaslighting. But their Chief Strategy Officer at the time, Peter Giammanco, gave us a window into what’s going on.
In a wall of text designed to cast doubt in everyone reading, he writes “Does it really matter if done legally and ethically and both methods end with the same final accurate transcript?” This is an example of the straw man argument. Given that court reporters are twice as good as your average person at taking down dialects like African American Vernacular English (AAVE) even though we have no formal training in it, there is no reason to believe that anyone else will have the same final accurate transcript. These companies won’t tell you that people like Allison Hall are successfully cutting the training time of some stenographers in half or that our recruitment efforts have exploded in the last eight years, they’ll just keep repeating their narrative, and as I just showed you, they do not care if it is legal or ethical. They do not care what is true. The positions they hold are not based on merit or honest debate, they are based on a mission or agenda. This comports with anecdotes I’ve received. Here in New York an acquaintance expressed her desire to leave our field, and US Legal offered her work as a digital court reporter. Meanwhile, these companies are not telling digital reporters that stenographic reporting is an option. Concurrently, companies are telling everyone that stenography is the gold standard and there just aren’t enough of us. Given that it would take as many as eight transcribers to replace a single stenographer, one has to wonder why there was no attempt to encourage digital court reporters to join the gold standard of stenography. It’s a lie so blatant and disgusting that I regularly try reaching out to digital court reporters to let them know what’s coming.
Most of the email images are available for download here. I’d just like to point out from those emails that when dealing with the women of my profession, including the very president of our association, C. Phipps, both men were happy to go on and on bashing NCRA’s organizational approach and falsely accuse L. Freiler of libel. It’s quite telling that when I reached out, there was dead silence.
I publish the emails because this is a matter of public importance. This mission that has been admitted to, to replace stenographers with recorders, will threaten access to justice. It is also almost certainly consumer fraud. What else do you call a concerted effort to make it seem as though stenographers are not available when there has been such an abject failure to attempt to recruit any of them in addition to the incredible mistreatment of the workforce? They rely on our consumers being too busy to pay attention to the situation. Asked for comment by me via email on August 12th, Peter didn’t respond, and US Legal asked me to take them off their mailing list. They’re confident you’re not reading my work or that you will throw your hands up and say “not my problem.” They are counting on you being complicit in the suffering and struggle of our young reporters.
How did we get here? Our field is one of mostly independent contractors. Many of us meet the definition of common law employees, but there’s basically no government enforcement there and so any misclassification claims are handled on a case-by-case basis if they’re raised by the court reporter. The only one I ever read about was settled. As independent contractors, we can be considered competitors with these large firms, and therefore the institutions meant to advocate for us have their hands tied. Our court reporter associations cannot call any one company a liar, lest they be accused of group boycott. They do not allow discussion of rates, lest they be accused of anticompetitive behavior. Thrust into a field where large corporations may assert any false claim without being checked, federally-protected discussions of pay are categorically banned, and almost none of us have the legal knowledge to navigate the nuances of employment law, the stenographic reporter has a whole lot stacked against her. We are a field that largely has none of the employee protections written into law. And we have seen as a society just what corporate culture does to women who have those protections. The stenographic reporter? She prevails despite that.
I may not be a woman, but for a decade I have watched my colleagues recount mistreatment and abuse. I will not stand for it longer. If society is seeking a gender pay gap, it need not look further than this situation we find ourselves in. When our field was male dominated, it rose to such prominence and importance that it has a nonprofit in almost every state dedicated to it. As the field transitioned to majority women, rates were frozen. Adjusted for inflation, the average American worker’s pay rose about 58 cents over the last decade. Adjusted for inflation, the stenographic reporter’s pay fell over the last 30 years, in some cases, by nearly 50%. Corporations have court reporters and captioners working much harder today for far less value than 30 or 40 years ago, have made no genuine effort to fix the shortage situation, and then they have the nerve to tell courts and attorneys we aren’t available. It’s like lighting somebody’s house on fire while they’re sleeping, throwing a few droplets of water on it, and telling the firemen you did your best and there’s nobody in the house to rescue.
We need your help. We need you to take a brief but intense interest in our little field of about 30,000 so that we can continue to serve you and the public. Talk to each other about the court reporting service you’re using, talk to your court reporter, start comparing prices. There is a kind of gambling or cost shifting built into our pricing structure that makes it confusing, but ultimately consumers have the power here. You are some of the most educated people on the planet. Whether by legislation or choice, you can make a profound difference in our future. Pass this up to your bosses. Ask them to read it. Ask them whether these are the kinds of businesses we want to entrust the creation of the legal record to. If you’ve been told a stenographic reporter is not available, consider asking some more questions, because there’s a big chance you’re being lied to. Considering investing in stenographic schools or companies. Consider using PRO Link to find a reporter yourself. And of course consider introducing the recruitment resources at the top of this post to someone in your life. We need stenographic court reporters, and all indications are that we will for a long, long time. For my part in it, I will answer any questions I can at ChristopherDay227@gmail.com.
As in the Columbus Bar Lawyers Quarterly, Spring 2020, Caveat Emptor!
To My Usual Readers:
Court reporters, I stand on the backs of all of you at this point. Without your hard work I wouldn’t have been in a position to publish this story. But if we don’t get it in front of people, this is for nothing. I have made about $400 in donations these past two weeks and I will sacrifice every dime of it to boost this post. If you can afford a donation, please send $20. If you cannot, please consider sending this to lawyers and/or tagging a local bar association on the Facebook and Twitter campaign. They cannot be expected to be experts in our industry. We must guide them. Every state is important, but California, Texas, Illinois, and New York are where the majority of our business is, and where the shortage lies can hurt us most. This is not new. This is something we felt in 2019 and now have much more concrete evidence of.
It’s now clear our institutions are not equipped to handle liars, and it is therefore vital for us to seek out allies among the legal community who will see this for what it is, an attack on their choice as consumers; an attack on their clients’ access to justice; and an attack on a field of women and introverts where it was assumed nobody would have the guts to say anything because nobody has bothered to say anything for at least three decades.
I understand why freelancers are hesitant to speak up against companies. They sign your paychecks. The often unsung threat of them withholding work from you leaves you feeling powerless. But if we want a field that has integrity, then we must act now and sound the alarm so that these levels of dishonesty are never seen again. Court reporting firms need to be at least as terrified of dishonesty as we are of speaking against it. I resigned from my board position and asked you to trust me. Trust that action will spare future generations of reporters from sitting silent as their quality of life is eroded year after year. We have to break the silence on the silent problem facing our nation’s courtrooms and spend just a little energy on writing our own collective story.