Bulletin: Court Reporter Shortage or Fraud?

Law360: A Dire Court Reporter Shortage? Depends on Who You Ask.

Certain court reporting companies are exaggerating and exacerbating the stenographer shortage for the purpose of selling digital court reporting to lawyers/courts/consumers.

Veritext, US Legal Support, and Planet Depos have all publicly made statements about the unavailability or shortage of stenographers while putting most of their effort into expanding digital court reporting. Succinctly, utilizing their market share to obfuscate the availability of stenographers and artificially increase digital court reporter demand. It is unknown whether this is concerted or a form of tacit parallelism.

The resulting atmosphere is also misleading to those seeking a career in court reporting.

The nonprofit Protect Your Record Project was formed to educate consumers on the bait and switch tactics occurring in the court reporting industry.

In 2021, US Legal Rep Peter Giammanco wrote, “Does it really matter if done legally and ethically and both methods end with the same final transcript?” A consumer awareness campaign was subsequently launched. There are questions about whether digital recording is reliably the same as stenography. In one New York case, the court remarked that past holdings that recording was equivalent to stenography were belied by the record in that appeal.

Companies continue to profess shortage while placing the bulk of their effort into expanding the digital reporting market, effectively limiting consumer choice and ignoring consumer preference for stenography. The 2013-2014 Court Reporting Industry Outlook is used to add credibility to these claims, but that forecast is nearly a decade old and does not account for recruitment initiatives such as National Court Reporters A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno.

Attorneys, courts, and support staff can attempt to find stenographers or stenographer-run businesses through their state court reporting association or NCRA Pro Link.

The FTC has stated it will crack down on companies taking advantage of gig workers. It is unknown how this will affect court reporting, a field that is approximately 70% independent contractors according to available data. It is also unknown how rampant misclassification may be in the field.

Stenonymous (Christopher Day) is dedicated to informing the court reporting and legal community and has faced legal threat for accurate reporting in the past.

Does this look like they’re looking for stenographers?

Members of the community that wish to support advertising for this bulletin may send money through the donation box at Stenonymous.com.

Readback Seeks Reporter in Charge After Smashing Steno Machine

Readback, the company most known for declaring it’s going to do away with steno and making bogus claims, is on the hunt for a reporter in charge in California.

Active Readback seeks stenographer after bashing steno.

I cannot think of a company that has made it more clear that they hate stenographers, and stenographers would do well to lock them out of the California market’s whole licensing scam by just not working for them. It’s very simple. The data we have today is that stenography is more accurate. They effectively advertised wanting to be less accurate. In a field that’s all about accuracy, consumers and court reporters are going to run the other way. As for this game of “oh, your poor joints…” Maybe we were gullible enough as an industry to believe such a thing half a decade ago, but not now.

One has to wonder if the business types have taken notice that we are allegedly on our way out and have this massive retirement cliff, but we are able to organize, get legislatures to act on our behalf, and just generally be a pain in the ass of anybody that wants to eliminate positions for our students. It’s almost as if the data they were relying on is wrong. I wonder who could have predicted that?

Perhaps this message goes beyond the businesses and meets us directly. We have value for as long as accurate court records have value. A major part of the game is learning and pricing that value. Another part of the game is communicating the value of accuracy in a way that only we really can. A third piece is realizing that organization constitutes part of our value. The more we are able to organize and fund associations or entities that will advertise and advocate for the profession, the more collective benefit we pull.

One thing is clear: Stenographers will not let the shortage be the scapegoat for our replacement. Readback, what’s your next move?

Lightning Law Stands Up For The Record

Stenographers are not alone in explaining to others the pitfalls of tech mania™️. I was sent these this week and I feel it important to share. It’s from Lightning Law.

Lightning Law says the judicial record is at risk.
Live Court Reporter v Digital Recording by Lightning Law

There’s even a page set up to start collecting cases and facts.

It’s good to see businesses setting up for the counter to tech’s obsession with pretending to automate everything. Eventually investors will stop being fooled by the buzzword “AI,” and at that point businesses that value people will end up in the limelight. At present, LL caters to attorneys and mediators. It will be interesting to see future offerings for court reporters.

Texas Lawyer Cold Calling List For Sale

This is very similar to the California list put on sale last week. This is put out for any group of entrepreneurs, court reporting businesses, or others that might need a list of lawyers for cold calling operations in Texas. The development of sales & marketing strategies in our field is essential. Having information like this in one simple spot can be a game changer. There are over 1,600 entries on this list, so it’s priced at about $0.08 per entry. The format is xlsx, which can be opened via Google Sheets, Microsoft Excel, and if I’m not mistaken, Apache Open Office.

So, if you are in need of a cold calling spreadsheet for Texas, look no further.

I plan to release one or two more lists like this and then move into more educational materials that help make use of information like this, so if you’re generally interested and don’t have a use for this yet, sit tight, there is more to come. If you have an interest in a specific state, feel free to write me at contact@stenonymous.com. I’ll see what I can do.

Addendum:

A reader asked whether this list shows the city and e-mail address. This list has an address listed for most firms, with many located in Irving, Austin, Houston, and Dallas, but it does not have a great e-mail listings. There are services that provide more comprehensive lists, but they also tend to have a higher price point.

The Summer 2022 Record Protector is Out Now!

Protect Your Record’s Summer 2022 newsletter, The Record Protector, has been released. There’s a lot to read about this issue, including the story of what happened to StoryCloud in Texas with Jo Ann and Dennis Holmgren, a message from PYRP President Kimberly D’Urso, a vocabulary test, an article about Shaunise Day’s Fearless Stenographers conference. Sheri Smargon from the Florida Court Reporters Association wrote about her path through this field, as well as the importance of educating clients on what we do. There is also a California law and legislative update from Kim Kuziora, an update from Allie Hall on the liveliness of steno education, stenotype talk with Victor Nolasco from Personal Touch, and a call for future contributions.

The growth of stenographic media not only helps us communicate important ideas with each other, it helps give recognition to those of us that are going above and beyond to connect, educate, and advocate. I am very impressed by Kimberly D’Urso, Charlotte Mathias, and everyone else that put this together. I sincerely hope all of you will give the newsletter a read!

June-July 2022 Rates Survey

I’m opening up a 6-question survey to the public, as well as court reporting providers, for court reporting rates.

Associations are allowed to collect and distribute aggregate rate data. I’ve provided information on how newbie court reporters are taken advantage of, sometimes working decades behind inflation, due to the dearth of data about the court reporting & stenotype services industry. It is very clear to me that we must move beyond the fallacy of being unable to discuss rates that has been drilled into court reporters’ collective conscience. We must replace it with a more nuanced truth: Discussions and historical data are fair game. It is collusion and the appearance of collusion among competitors that is problematic for those of us that are true independent contractors and associations. Failing to approach this with some nuance allows our silence to be weaponized against our new people, who are told their skills are worth much less than they actually are. They try to make it work and end up leaving because they’re working too hard for too little money.

Associations also risk falling behind if they do not have this data. A lot of players are scraping up court reporter data today, including Capvision, LEK Consulting, Dialectica, and Guidepoint. I cannot yet say conclusively say how the data is being used, but I can absolutely say that it is not in the hands of court reporters, and therefore we are once again playing “catch up.”

This survey focuses on California, Illinois, New York, and Texas. As of the Ducker Report, those states had the highest court reporting demand (page 13). If you’d like to take part in the survey, please do so. You may also submit your e-mail for a chance to win a $25 Amazon gift card.

I am hopeful that the data collected will be a useful start to understanding the current state of the market. If nothing else, it should provide a base for discussion. Results should be announced sometime in Q3 2022.

I Asked the Public About Stenography. Here’s What Happened.

About ten days ago I launched an ad campaign to survey the public about court reporting. Question number one, had they heard about us?

Stenonymous Public Perceptions May-June 2022 Survey Question 1

When asked what terms were associated with court reporting, respondents overwhelmingly selected terms like “fast,” “technological,” and “adaptive,” over words like “old.”

Forms response chart. Question title: 2. Please select all terms you associate with court reporting / stenotype stenography. Number of responses: 152 responses.

Then I asked respondents if they could tell a court reporter anything, what would it be? The majority of responses were positive, with comments like “great job” or “bless you for listening to all the nonsense.” There were about six negative comments, with things like “your days are numbered.” There were a series of questions, like, “how do you like your job?” Finally, there were comments that didn’t fit into a simple “positive,” “negative,” or “question” category. These were comments like “smoke weed” or “I wish I had stayed in my stenography class.” The responses are in Google Sheets (Excel) format here. If you would like a simple PDF where the responses have already been categorized, download below.

Finally, I asked respondents for their e-mail if they wanted more information about stenography. Nearly 40 people provided their e-mail, and tomorrow morning, will receive the following message:

Message sent to Stenonymous survey takers.

For this advertisement, 20,707 people were reached with 1,668 engagements and 614 link clicks.

What can we learn from this? Well, for starters, the majority of people have heard of what we do. The majority of people do not associate the term “old” with stenography. This is an eye opener, because prior to this survey, I believed our biggest issue was overcoming the view that we are obsolete. The survey results seem to point more toward a public that largely understands this skill is not outdated. This may change how we talk about steno, no longer coming from a place of defense, but pride, and helping others understand why it is a good career.

This may also redefine the way we discuss shortage. If the perception of being “old” is not what is stopping people from getting into this field, what is it? I would submit that the problem, at least partially, goes back to pay. In these times of allegedly insurmountable shortage, I’ve learned that some companies in my hometown of New York City are paying lower than $3.50 per page. That’s simply too low to attract and retain talent, and far below the $5.74 it would be today had the rate kept up with inflation. It’s easy to say, “skill up.” But if we “skill up” a field of people that struggle with knowing their value, all we’re really doing is setting ourselves up to have the realtime rates drop through the floor. Seems to me that marketing and sales training would provide better outcomes than realtime at this point.

Please feel free to spread the results of this survey. Information leads to new ideas, and there are over 27,000 court reporter minds out there that might come up with bigger and better solutions.

Depp v Heard Steno Discussion

So the Depp v Heard trial has been dominating headlines for a while. It wasn’t good enough for stenography industry news until it started popping up on stenographer social media. Questions started to surface about a video that allegedly showed Judy Bellinger, a stenographer covering the trial, hugging Johnny Depp at an after party. There was skepticism on the part of many stenographers, and it was eventually revealed that the moment captured on camera actually occurred when Judy went to get her equipment.

An outrage story turned into a feel-good one, at least until Judy was quoted as saying some jurors were dozing off.

Image may be stolen from the Speak Up For The Record group.

Once again, stenographer social media was alight with a mix of support and outrage. For some of us, having somebody tell it like it is is cathartic. Many take issue with a court reporter commenting so publicly on specific identifiable proceedings she reported.

Now, I’m an advocate for the integrity of our profession. My personal stance is that I’ll agree with just about anyone that believes we shouldn’t be commenting much on our cases. But I have to give substantial credit, Bellinger’s managed to get more press coverage for the word stenographer than I have, and I’ve put considerable effort in.

One thing I spotted on social media? Stenographer stress. I’d like to offer some new perspectives to diminish that stress. This is a chance for all of us to go back to our mentees and professional circles and have a discussion about best practices. It’s ultimately about growth. I know many of us feel that one bad incident or “misspeaking” can reflect poorly on us all. But I’ve come to a realization that few professions have that sort of thinking, and the ones that do, such as law enforcement, have it thrust on them by media, they don’t agree and say “ah, yes, a cop did an arguably questionable thing, so we’re all questionable!” We need to let go of that mindset of absolutism for our own sanity and advancement.

As for advancement, I would propose steering the discussions toward what we tell our students. As of writing, I would propose the following:

  • On the initial video that showed the hug. Let our students know that there are cameras just about everywhere and that guarding against the appearance of impropriety is important. This is not to say that Judy Bellinger did anything wrong, but we still have a valid discussion in that it is a tricky thing to guard against the “appearance” of something because everyone has a slightly different bar for “appearance.” For example, my only training on guarding against the appearance of impropriety, which I had over half a decade ago, involved second guessing even shaking a party’s hand in court. There are also state and regional attitudes to consider.
  • On the quote about jurors dozing off, I have to say that my personal stance is to generally avoid commenting on matters I’ve taken, especially if they are identifiable. This is not to say I believe court reporters should never have or even express an opinion. Again, this is not to say Judy Bellinger did anything wrong. But there are ways to make comments about sleeping jurors without making comments about sleeping jurors. “You know, I’ve been doing this for X years, and I notice that sometimes jurors don’t appear to be paying full attention.” “What about in this case?” “I decline to comment on this case.” I’d propose going ahead and having a discussion with students about talking to the media.
  • On the right v wrong argument. No matter where you sit on the spectrum of any argument or debate, there’s a “reality wins” component. For an idea of how this works, we can examine my blogging. I’ve made the case many times that the pay in New York is atrocious to the point of being “wrong.” Some court reporting companies do not care and continue to pay stenographers less than $3.50 per page. The reality of the situation changes dependent upon how successful I am at applying social and/or economic pressure and not how “right” I am. Similarly, in an analysis of whether Judy Bellinger did anything wrong, being right means very little. The real challenge is in creating, communicating, and seeing through the adoption of better ways to handle similar situations. Training our students to be solution-oriented people and avoid the black-and-white, good-versus-evil thinking that grips many of us, including myself from time to time, will create better outcomes.

I have no idea what might arise as a result of the media coverage. Should new developments arise, I’ll post an addendum. Please feel free to comment below even if you disagree with my assessment! I’ve never censored a non-spam comment and don’t intend to start!

New York’s Short(age) Squeeze

Everyone has different page rates, but utilizing historic data from 1991 and 1999, we can get a rough idea of what the page rates would be today had they been consistently updated for inflation. It’s my hope that putting this out there often enough helps reporters know their value.

First, let’s look at the freelance rates adjusted for inflation by year. For the freelance rates, I pulled the 1991 rates right out of an old Federation of Shorthand manual.

Federation of Shorthand page rates 1989-1991

I took the 2.75 rate from 1991, and I adjusted it for inflation each year using a Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator. In 1992, for example, that $2.75 in 1991 dollars was worth $2.82 in 1992 dollars. If a reporter didn’t get a $0.07 raise between 1991 and 1992, that reporter lost buying power, and would have to work about 2% harder to make the same buying power. Doesn’t seem that bad, right? But by 2022, that $2.75 in 1991 dollars is worth $5.74 in 2022 dollars. This means that a reporter that is not making $5.74 in 2022 on a regular has to work harder to have the same buying power as a 1991 reporter. This means a reporter making $4.00 a page has to take 30% more pages than a reporter in 1991 in order to have the same buying power.

This chart shows the starting rates for 1991 data adjusted for inflation each year.

As an example of how this plays out for new reporters, when I was a new reporter in 2010 at Jaguar Reporting, I was offered $2.80 a page. Not knowing anything about the field, I took it. Adjusted for inflation, the 2010 rate would have been $4.43 on a regular. This means that to have the same buying power as a 1991 reporter, I would have had to have taken almost 40% more pages than that 1991 reporter. That’s a lot of efficiency to squeeze out of workers, whether you want to consider us common law employees or independent contractors.

Juxtaposing freelance versus official rates can be even more concerning. Officials typically receive their pages on top of a salary. Many are producing fewer pages, but adjusted for inflation, the rates appear to be far higher.

This chart shows the starting rates in 1999 adjusted for inflation each year.

This “squeezing of efficiency” is not sustainable in the long term. The rates must go up in order to obtain and retain talent. For as long as they do not, we are asking reporters to work harder for less buying power.

This is not normal. The average workers’ pay has gone up slightly, adjusted for inflation. Because most court reporters are working for less than they were 30 years ago adjusted for inflation, stenographers’ pay has gone down. Just check out the Statista data on that. After a 2009 to 2015 crash, wages sharply rose on average. And this data doesn’t even take into account “the great resignation” of 2021 and 2022, where employees are leaving jobs for higher pay at rates never seen before!

Statistic: Median inflation adjusted hourly earnings of wage and salary workers in the United States from 1979 to 2020 (in constant 2020 U.S. dollars) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

While I’ll be the first to say that this is a wonderful career and I enjoy it very much, and I’ll even go so far as to concede we don’t have to keep up with inflation perfectly for it to remain a great career, I think this data makes the case for why there is a shortage today. We are simply not competitive in terms of wage growth, and we are asking young people and newbies to work harder for less buying power — again, in some cases, 40% less. This is compared to the average worker between 1991 and 2020, who, by 2020, could work about 15% less and have the same buying power that they did in 1991!

The lack of data in and on our field remains a fundamental problem. Trade associations are entitled to collect and distribute aggregated rate data. If we had good data from 1991 to now on the average page rate, we could simply adjust those years to be in 2022 dollars and show everyone that they’ve gone up or down. Because we do not have the data, we’re stuck with taking a fixed point in history where we knew the rate, adjusting that each year, and then comparing that to what each of us makes personally.

I’ve created another spreadsheet with all of this information. It’s available for everyone, and I encourage people to share it. It not only informs people in the stenographic camp, but also in voice writing and digital court reporting, because ultimately if they are working for less than stenographic court reporters, they are being taken advantage of while being used to push us out of the market.

Hourly Conversion for Digitals:
A stenographic to digital comparison is possible by estimating average pages per hour. As a freelancer, I averaged about 40 pages an hour. Current freelancers have told me they can get as much as 60 pages an hour. The court reporter page rate encompasses transcription time and “writing time.” It can be 1 to 2 hours for every hour on the machine, so it’s safe to assume writing time is about a third of the page rate. If we take the $5.74, that 1991 rate adjusted into 2022 dollars, we can calculate that a third of that is $1.89.

Assuming 40 pages an hour, that “writing time” is worth about $75.77 an hour.

Assuming 60 pages an hour, that “writing time” is worth about $113.65 an hour.

This creates a valid argument that a digital charging less than $75.77 an hour is being underpaid. Obviously, I don’t personally believe, based on all I know today, that digital reporting is equivalent to stenography, but there are some outfits and organizations that insist on perpetuating this myth of equivalency. If they are equal, the next question is whether they are being paid equally to their historic “equals.” If the answer is no, the next question is “why?”

Conversions for Transcribers:
Again, taking my assumption, based on my own experience, that transcription time is worth at least two thirds of the page rate, we can create page and hourly conversions for transcribers. From that $5.74 rate, we can derive a page rate of $3.82 in transcription time.

Assuming 40 pages an hour, that’s about $152.80 an hour.

Assuming 60 pages an hour, that’s about $229.20 an hour.

Hourly Conversion for Stenographers and Voice Writers:
Assuming 40 pages an hour and the $5.74 adjusted rate, the transcription time and writing time together is worth about $229.60 an hour.

Assuming 60 pages an hour and the $5.74 adjusted rate, the transcription time and writing time together is worth about $344.40 an hour.

This might seem like a lot of money. But remember that the $229.60 to $344.40 an hour figures encompass 3 hours’ worth of work. Interestingly enough, this averages out to $76.53 to $114.80 an hour, which is comparable to what captioners charge.

_____________________________________________________
Ultimately, we can play with numbers all day long. If my work falls on blind eyes, then people will continue to get underpaid, grow discontent with the field, and leave. Because this is a very specialized field where we get better with time in, the loss of a practitioner is massive — you cannot just replace someone who’s been at this for a year, or two, or ten, slip someone brand new in, and get the same quality transcript. People will move on regardless of the methodology. I have offered fairly concrete math on the fact that we are underpaying most practitioners during a time of alleged shortage.

My next step, when I have some more time or funding, will be to begin collecting and distributing data myself. But again, I have to stress that this is something that our associations should have been doing for the last 30 years, and instead were trained and training reporters that they could not do, which enabled rate abuse that drove reporters out of the field over the last decade. This is why it is so insulting to me when it is alleged that the stenographer shortage cannot be solved. It does not take a genius to figure out that giving a class of workers the equivalent of $5.74 in 1991 and watching that value erode year after year is going to drive workers away — a fact that has somehow eluded the CEOs and business types of steno-America, and a fact that I hope is understood and embraced by the majority of our field over the next decade.

Addendum:

Lisa Migliore had this to add. While I feel it doesn’t detract from the overall flow of what I’m saying, I do think it is an important point and information that deserves to be included here.