Outreach Webinar by Project Steno – June 6, 2021

The New York State Court Reporters Association is promoting Project Steno’s June 6 outreach webinar, as told by NYSCRA’s Transcript Weekly, posted earlier today by NYSCRA Social Media Committee Chair Marina Dubson. Though stenographers have made great strides in recruitment and introducing people to this field through efforts like NCRA A to Z, Open Steno, and Project Steno, there remains a need to get word out to high school students and staff that court reporting is a viable and vibrant career that young people should give serious consideration. Resources will be provided, and it can all only be seen as a wonderful complement to the resources already published by the National Court Reporters Association. If you’ve got some time to attend at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time this Sunday, definitely consider registering today!

Because this is an image, you cannot click the link.

1 in 4 Court Reporting Companies May Be Unprofitable

In my Collective Power of Stenographers post, we explored how court reporters collectively out-earn every company in business today. In Aggressive Marketing — Growth or Flailing, we took a look at VIQ Solutions, parent of Net Transcripts, and saw how a transcription company could be making millions in revenue but be unprofitable. This all set me down a path of learning about zombie companies, companies that are not making enough to meet debt obligations, or just barely enough to make interest payments. You can watch Kerry Grinkmeyer describe how that happens here. This isn’t very rare. A Bloomberg analysis of 3,000 publicly-traded companies found one in five were zombies. The main takeaway? Companies can make lots of money and still be taking losses.

I had the pleasure of looking through the Kentley Insights June 2019 Court Reporting and Stenotype Services market research report. I do want to be upfront about it: I have some reservations about the methodologies and some of the reporting. Very much like the Ducker Report, as best I can tell, it’s based off a sampling of respondents from in or around the field. There are parts of the report that are arguably a little incomplete or unclear. For example, being industry experts, we all know the vast majority of the work is done by independent contractors. Independent contractor isn’t a term that appears in the report. Unsurprisingly, when we reach the job pay bands and employment section, it says there isn’t detailed data on the industry and compares us to the telephone call centers industry. So this report is not a must-have for court reporters, but it does have some interesting insights.

Those remarks aside, when we get to the profitability section of the report, we get to see something pretty striking. Based on their data, more than 1 in 4 court reporting companies are not profitable. Average net income as a percent of revenue for the ones that are profitable? About 9.3 percent. For the ones that are not profitable, a loss of about 9.6 percent. And a pretty chart that says as much.

I never want to see the term capital benchmarks again.

On the following page, there’s a forecast for operating expenses and industry revenue. That’s summed up in another pretty chart.

This was pre-pandemic, by the way.

If we look at the trends here, it’s pretty clear that the forecast is for expense growth to eclipse and outpace revenue growth. If that keeps up, the unprofitable companies are going to be looking at bigger losses year after year. Given all the information I have today, I surmise that the smaller court reporting companies are the more profitable ones and the bigger ones are the ones struggling. There are sure to be some outliers, like small court reporting shops that go bankrupt and leave their independent contractors unpaid. But overall, the smaller companies can’t afford to remain unprofitable for very long, so it’s probably the “big dogs” eating that 10 percent loss. If I’m right, that may also mean the push to go digital is the dying breath of companies that can’t figure out any other way forward. In February, I wrote “…we only lose if we do not compete.” That is becoming more evident with time and data. It is a great time for the stenographic reporter to open up shop and be a part of the 74%.

Speaking of data, if everybody that read this blog donated $1.50, we’d have enough money to stay ad-free for the next two decades. To all donors we’ve had to date, thank you so much, put your wallets away. To everybody else, check out this cool song from M.I.A. about taking your money.

Does Stenonymous Spend More On Steno Ads Than US Legal?

When you care about something, how difficult is it to do? I can only go by my own experiences here. I hate calling lawyers. A family member got fired and there was potentially an attached legal issue. I was on the phone chain calling lawyers for them until I found one that could speak to the family member that same day. I don’t have any desire to be a public speaker, but I figured it out when I thought our profession might need it. US Legal, by all appearances, cares a lot about attracting digital reporters and strengthening AAERT.

I would love to talk to you too, senior recruiter.

In fairness, US Legal does have a reporter corner and a few spots on their site where they specifically mention stenography. But we have to look at the totality of the circumstances to decide whether this is out of genuine care or whether it’s a facade to point at and say “look, we care!” It’s been known for a while that US Legal is backing digital reporting. They bought out Stenotrain, made some announcements to look good, and killed it. Now reporters are getting offers to join USL as long as reporters drop the stenotype and fall in line with whatever junk USL wants to peddle to consumers. Again, I have to look at my own experiences, and when I don’t advertise very much, my site can get as little as 500 views a year.

What a year that was. Am I right?

Meanwhile, when I spend a few hundred bucks on an ad, I get the word steno in front of thousands of people.

A seven-nation army couldn’t hold me back.

Hopefully the point is pretty clear. If and when they cry shortage and say they just can’t fill the seats, it’s a lie. According to Owler, they have a revenue of over $100 million. They’re taking that money and betting it against stenographic court reporters. There are national, state, and nonprofit databases of reporters. This is a game to take our relatively high-paying jobs and organized, educated workforce, and replace them with low-paying jobs and people who won’t have the same ethics culture we do.

It’s a game I need some help winning. All corporations are made up of people. Educate those people on the truth, and just maybe they’ll realize they’re risking everything by backing the losing horse. If you happen to get a message from one of the recruiters working on this, please don’t blast them, but let them know what’s happening. Chances are good they have no idea.

I do wish him luck and success. But I also hope he finds a better employer.

Vote Yes! NCRA 2021 Proposed Bylaw Amendments

The National Court Reporters Association gave members notice of proposed bylaws amendments recently. If you haven’t given these proposals some thought recently, and you intend to vote during convention time, then please take the time to consider them now. I’ll give a summary of each and what I see myself doing, and why, come voting time.

Amendment 1 – Fellows of the Academy of Professional Reporters

What’s the deal?
The proposal amends the requirements to become part of the Fellows of the Academy of Professional Reporters. The new language mostly points to needing to have stronger ties to NCRA to be a part of FAPR.

My takeaway:
I usually lean toward inclusion, but I also see validity in fellows having close NCRA ties. I believe I’m going to vote yes.

Amendment 2 – Stenographic Captioning and Stenographic Captioners

What’s the deal?
Stick the words “stenographic” captioning and “stenographic captioners” in areas where the bylaws say “stenographic reporting” or “stenographic reporter.” It’s making it a point to mention reporters AND captioners.

My takeaway:
I have always found the need to differentiate ourselves as a bit silly and the term reporter inclusive of who we are and what we do (steno). As an example, if someone walks into a room and greets a group of colleagues, “hey ladies,” I have two choices, I can huff, puff, and yell “I AM A MAN,” demanding that everyone acknowledge the difference, or I can roll with it and say hello. That said, the differentiation and explicit mentioning of captioners makes some of them feel good. It makes them feel included. It makes them feel respected as having a distinct and important skill. I am voting yes on this one without hesitation!

Amendment 3 – Holding Elective Office

What’s the deal?
In full disclosure, I am one of the people that proposed this amendment. This amendment would make it so all participating members who are stenographic reporters can hold elective office in the NCRA. As of today, you can pay dues and vote on the future of the organization if you are not a certified reporter, but you cannot hold elective office. If this amendment passes, any stenographic reporter that has been a member for five years would be able to hold elective office.

My takeaway:
I respect certification very much. I became an RPR shortly after proposing this amendment. But I feel it’s important for us to acknowledge that certifications do not necessarily make a person a leader. The bylaws committee has a little blurb against this stating anyone could claim to be a reporter, join, and run for office, and that much is true, but this idea that someone would join for a minimum of five years and then win an election without anyone else pointing out their complete lack of history is one I just can’t get behind. Take the leap, allow uncertified people to hold office, and open up this association to a pool of leaders it would otherwise not have. About forty percent of the association is not certified. It’s a reality that it’s time to address and tell all stenographic reporters that this association values them enough to give them a seat at the decision makers’ table if they win it fair and square. Any uncertified reporter that could win an election against a certified reporter has political savvy that we frankly need in leadership, so please vote yes.

Amendment 4 – Eligibility to Vote

What’s the deal?
In full disclosure, I am one of the people that proposed this amendment. In 2019 there was a membership dues increase. People that were not at the annual business meeting physically were not allowed to vote on it. This amendment would allow everyone to vote via e-mail.

My takeaway:
The dues increase was in line with inflation and completely warranted, but by limiting the pool of people that could vote for it, it made people really mad and gave the impression that leadership would do whatever it wanted and limit who had a say when it was convenient. In reality, it was done that way out of precedent. This amendment will force NCRA leadership to communicate more about dues increases, but I have a lot of confidence that members will vote for increases that keep the association healthy and strong. Please vote yes so that all voting members have a say on dues increases.

Amendment 5 – Conflict of Interest

What’s the deal?
In full disclosure, I am one of the people that proposed this amendment. This amendment would put the requirement for a conflict of interest policy in our bylaws and gives the board full authority to determine the scope of language and enforcement.

My takeaway:
Some time ago, Jim Cuddahy was NCRA’s Executive Director. That’s when the Ducker report was commissioned and we had a study done on our court reporter shortage. Fast forward, Jim Cuddahy is a part of the Speech To Text Institute and, in my view, one of many digital reporting proponents using the shortage to say “there are not enough court reporters, we must record it.” It makes it look like NCRA was used to do something that was later weaponized against members. People are angry about that, and NCRA has taken social media flak for it despite there being nothing NCRA could really do. One of the questions that floated up on social media was “WHY ISN’T THERE A POLICY?” Only when this proposal was made was I made aware there was a COI policy, and that’s the point, letting members know in big, bold letters there is one.

There’s a blurb about how counsel interprets this amendment to be illegal, but the association already has a conflict of interest policy. Honestly, I’m stunned. We have a conflict of interest policy, but putting the requirement for a COI policy in our bylaws would be illegal? Baloney. In full fairness, to the extent a COI policy can be viewed as a non-compete agreement, it could be illegal, but that’s why this amendment gives the board power over the language and enforcement. Every single board member and the NCRA have a duty to follow the law and they are required to interpret this amendment in a way that follows the law. Again, it is stunning to me that for purposes of proposal, everyone seems to be assuming it must be interpreted in the most unfavorable possible light. I am hoping that you will all see this as I do and vote yes.

Amendment 6 – Virtual Annual Business Meetings

What’s the deal?
This amendment will allow NCRA to have virtual annual business meetings.

My takeaway:
I think this modernizes our bylaws to help us operate even when force majeure would not apply. It’s an obvious yes.

Amendment 7 – Integration of CLVS as Participating Members

What’s the deal?
Certified Legal Video Specialists will be allowed to vote in the association, but will not be able to hold elective office.

My takeaway:
It seems unfair to be a certification body for people that have zero input. NCRA advisory opinion 44 points to the verbatim reporter and video specialist roles not mixing, so there’s no reason to think this is some attempt to undermine the association’s goals or membership. This is a chance to show CLVS members that we value their certs without losing any steno board seats. I’ll vote yes.

Final Thoughts

Associations have a duty to follow their bylaws and the law. The votes we make here dictate to NCRA how it must conduct itself in the future. I’m not against anyone that votes against me here. These votes are unlikely to make or break the association, but they will shift perceptions. On amendment 3, we have a shot at telling reporters without certs we want them to be active in the association, not just collect their money and votes. On amendment 4, we have a shot at telling voting members they deserve a say in dues increases whether or not they can physically make it to the business meeting. On amendment 5, we have a shot at telling all members yes, we have a conflict of interest policy. We have a shot at adding value to membership. Value leads to growth. In the interest of growing our national association, I am voting yes, and I hope you do too.

Court Reporters Speak Up For The Record On Future Trials

The New York State Unified Court System commissioned the Future Trials Working Group to look at many possibilities for use of technology in the courtroom. In April 2021, the Future Trials Working Group released a report with recommendations for the court system. On page 13 of that report, there was a section regarding the possibility of automatic transcription, and specifically automatic trial transcription.

The report had a strange view on the possibility of automatic transcription. In one area, it noted “the most foreseeable endgame in the evolution of trial transcription likely is full automation.” In another part just down the page, it stated there were “…obstacles to the use of such technology on a fully automated or even predominantly automated basis for the foreseeable future”, going on to note “…automated transcription — at least at its current stage — could threaten access to justice if widely employed.” The most foreseeable endgame is automatic, but in the foreseeable future, the technology is unreliable. This is, in my view, a strange view to take. The report goes on to recommend that the court system study outside vendor offerings for automated/remote transcription or translation.

Court reporters and the people that represent them did not sit in silence. A response was prepared by the New York State Court Reporters Association and the Association of Surrogate’s and Supreme Court Reporters. Several unions supported the response, and the full letter and list of supporting unions can be read below. My personal favorite quote? “…use of automated speech technology for trial transcripts, by all available information, would not threaten access to justice, it would implode it.” We have, as a profession, put our foot down and said “we are here to guard the record, we have been guarding the record for over a century, and we will do all we can to educate the system on why other technologies are inadequate.” State and national association membership has never been more important. Union membership has never been more important. When you contribute to these organizations, you give them strength to advocate for you.

In full disclosure, I did contribute to the letter. But without the work of ASSCR President Eric Allen and NYSCRA President Joshua Edwards, this would not have been possible. Again, it all points to the importance of association and union membership. Members empower leaders. Leaders fight for an advocate on the behalf of members. It’s a symbiotic relationship that, if you are not currently a part of, you certainly want to be.

MGR Interviewed on the Treatment of Reporters

This month I had a chance to sit down with Marc Russo of MGR Reporting. Marc’s a working reporter and business owner. We got to hit a lot of topics in this video, including Marc’s history in the field, how reporter skill relates to reporter treatment, and how scheduling ahead can help reporting firms fill their clients’ needs.

Using Marc’s words, it’s about treating reporters like people instead of numbers.

Don’t take my word for it, check out the interview here!

Need Continuing Education? Consider CCR Seminars.

Wind the clock back about eleven months ago. I grabbed my RPR after a decade of not grabbing my RPR, and I was quickly introduced to the world of court reporting continuing education. We have to complete 30 hours of continuing education every three years. There’s a lot of ways to get it done. You can hit up prerecorded educational material. You can pay per credit. You can also do longer courses and effectively pay bulk prices for the credits. I want to talk about the value of a longer course today.

Last year I tuned into the Spring 2020 and Fall 2020 CCR Seminars webinars. I have to say that overall I really appreciated the presentations. There were things like building your brand, apps for court reporters; all kinds of stuff that gave me new perspectives. Last year, thanks to CCR Seminars and NCRA’s Stenopalooza, I was able to complete all my required credits. So that brings me to this year, I get this in my inbox:

Humorless humorist? Is he talking about me?

The value being offered here is high. This is a little under $15 per hour or per 0.1 education credits. There are instances where you can pay $45 per credit, so this is cutting your cost down by 66%. Using these types of services and events can bring your cycle cost down by up to $900. My advice? Get on the mailing list. If you need the credits or just want to attend courses that might be helpful to you, CCR is a great option. The user experience is positive. Everything is logged into your account on the website so it’s easy to track.

If I had to come up with a “negative,” it was that I disagreed a little bit with one presenter’s personal opinion on one topic. That, to me, is a great presentation. Disagreement makes you sit there and think a little bit. It makes you examine why you feel the way you do about a topic, and it doesn’t take anything away from what you’re actually learning. Good value, good customer service, and presenters who aren’t afraid to present professional opinions right alongside facts/content. I’m definitely thinking of attending again this year despite my unfortunate credit situation:

I have at least one reader that has more credits.
She’s also cooler than me.

If you’re not sure about where you are on your cycle, remember that you can always check the transcript here. It can be a little intimidating if you’re just starting out, but it becomes really easy and second nature. Feel free to chime in with thoughts on continuing education!

Shortage Solutions 8: Retirement

The document that alerted us to an impending shortage was the 2013 Ducker Report. In there, it told us that in about 20 years from then, a very large percentage of reporters would be retiring. Off the top of my head, I think it was as high as 70 percent, but you’re free to read it. That point is about 10 to 14 years from today.

Obviously, this brings great opportunity, because if supply can’t meet demand, the price for the service should rise. In many markets, it has risen, especially where reporters have pushed to be paid more. Some reporters are getting out there and grabbing their own private clients because it’s a seller’s market. In response to the shortage, the field had a great many recruitment ideas including A to Z, Project Steno, Open Steno, and many schools got online to reach a larger pool of students.

A big issue for us has been if enough jobs go completely uncovered, there are interests in the market ready to jump on that and say we don’t need stenography. We can use digital recording. We can use AI transcription. We can use whatever. Veritext, from my perspective, led this charge. Notably, they’re also putting money into stenographic initiatives, but this seems to be a clear case of hedging bets in case our commitment to what we do beats the money being poured into our replacement.

So here’s where we stand: We have a large group of people slated to retire. Do we tell them not to retire? No chance. But we can collectively start spreading the word that the retired are valuable. We had this push maybe a year ago in New York. Our Association, NYSCRA, didn’t give retired reporters or educators power. Not because of any ill will or resentment, but because of a simple bylaws issue. As luck had it, who had the most time to take part in and help shape up ideas? The educators and retired! So we took a stand and voted to give them equal voting power and right to be on the board.

Let’s face facts. If we are working 9 to 6 and then going home to transcribe for an hour, it leaves us very little time to advocate for this field. We may not be able to financially take time away from work or training to be a recruiter or voice in support of this field. We may not be able to advocate for others or mentor students. It’s a great time to consider forming programs and workshops for the retired who want to remain in the field as advocates. Look at the lobbying industry. Somebody works in a field for 30 years, a private interest or association grabs them up, and then they are the spokesperson who goes out and educates politicians on the issue — sometimes for big money.

If you’re retired, if you’re about to retire, or if you know someone about to retire, and especially if you’re somewhat of an altruist, you’ve got a chance to make a difference. Anything from a kind word to a student to full-blown involvement on a board or in a professional management corporation can change outcomes. As a matter of fact, a lot of these large corporations keep veteran stenographers at the head of their court reporting programs. Even traditionally transcription-oriented companies, like Escribers, had a stenographer in management. There’s no reason why the retired can’t, if they are so inclined, put down the machine, pick up the phone, and continue to make money from this field, for this field, and grow it in a way that keeps the career bridge they just crossed standing firm.

Law For Stenographers (US) (FRCP)

I had previously shared law for Stenographers in New York and my understanding of New York law as it pertains to remote swearing of witnesses. I wanted to bring out some information about the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which govern our federal depositions and activity there. The bulk of the Federal Rules have nothing to do with stenographers, but there are a number of Federal Rules that pertain specifically to our duties as stenographers and what they label as officers or deposition officers.

Rule 28. Rule 28 (a)(1)(A) lays out that a deposition may be taken before an officer authorized to administer oaths by federal law or by the place of examination within the United States. You should be very familiar with your state law as to who can administer oaths, or ask to be qualified by stipulation pursuant to any of the rules we are about to get into.

Rule 30. Rule 30 (b)(5), very similar to our CPLR in New York, has language that “unless stipulated by the parties…” long story short is that that “unless” language opens up the opportunity for parties to stipulate to things like remote swearing, or alter the procedure. Once again, one of the few times in law that attorneys can stipulate away the law. Please know a reader wrote to me on 1/16/20 and stated their interpretation was not that the attorneys can stipulate away notary law and have the notary swear the witness, but rather proceed as if the witness is under oath and have them read and sign as such. As of yet, I have no case law on this issue.

Do note there there is a list of stuff you as the officer is supposed to do here, like placing your name and address on the record, the date, time, place of the deposition, deponent’s name, your administration of the oath, and the identity of all persons present. At the end, you must state that the deposition is complete and set out any stipulations of the attorneys.

Rule 30 (b)(3) states the method of recording the deposition must be in the deposition notice. Do yourself a favor and educate attorneys to ensure their deposition notice says stenographically recorded.

Rule 30 (b)(4) explicitly allows remote proceedings, and with the language in Rule 30 (b) (5), and in the absence of contrary case law, one may draw an inference that so long as you are not violating your state law, it is also permissible to swear a witness while not in their presence.

Rule 30 (c) (2). Again, like our CPLR in New York, objections need to be made at the time of the examination on the record. If they have objections to the way you’re swearing or what’s occurring, they need to make them then and there. Long story short, they can’t really come back 9 months later and say you did something wrong — though they may try.

Rule 30 (e) tells us that upon request by a deponent or party before the deposition is completed, the deponent must be allowed to review the transcript. This is what we call read and sign.

Rule 30 (f) explains how the officer is to send the deposition to the ordering attorney. Common sense stuff like identifying it and sealing the envelope. It then largely becomes the responsibility of the attorney.

Rule 30 (f)(3) says unless otherwise stipulated, you have to retain your stenographic notes and provide a transcript upon payment of reasonable fees.

Rule 32. Rule 32 (d)(2) makes it resoundingly clear that any objection to your qualifications as an officer at the deposition must be challenged promptly, either at the deposition or soon thereafter. Rule 32 (d)(3) again makes it clear that objections that are not made pretty much at the time of the deposition are waived.

Addendum:

Unsworn depositions, particularly on the federal side, can open up reporters to liability. See Dineen Squillante’s post on this. Looking forward to its publication in Vermont!

To Our Litigators

RE: Stenographic Reporters

If you’re reading, I’m going to hope you’re the kind of lawyer that we all look up to. You’re responsive to clients, you’re honest with potential clients about what you can do for them, and you’re ready when it comes to filings, motions, discovery, or trial. Maybe you’re the one at your firm tailoring your service to your client’s budget, or maybe you oversee someone doing that for you. But the end is the same, giving the consumer the best value for the budget.

That’s what urges me to write today. There has been a lot said about “AI” transcription and digital recording versus stenographic reporting. There has been a lot said in my field about the Ducker Report and a forecasted shortage of court reporters. Some brave companies are turning to remote reporting, where legal, to allow a stenographer to appear remotely. Other courageous reporters are doubling their workload to meet your demand.

There is one solution that’s come out known as digital reporting. The main idea is that someone will record the proceedings, run it through a computer program, and then someone will fix up what the computer does. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is what we stenographers actually do. The major difference is we are stenographically recording (typing!) every word, and the computer is accepting that stenographic word and turning it into your English transcript.

The bottom line is: It simply ends up being more efficient to do it our way. One person, perhaps two, can stenographically record and transcribe an entire proceeding and have it to you that night or the next morning. For your dollar, there’s just not better value. Stenographers type four to five times faster than your average typist, so to finish the same proceeding, we are talking about four or five times the usual turnaround time for transcribers, or four or five times the staffing. Take the number of stenographers you have today, and multiply that number by 3, 4, or 5. If you think there’s a shortage and/or workflow issues now, imagine a world where you need five court reporters to put together your one proceeding. Imagine a world where the transcript is questioned and you need to bring those people in to testify instead of one stenographer.

Trust me when I say the firms switching to digital reporting or demanding you change your deposition notices to allow digital reporters are not saving you or your clients any money. Ever notice how there are almost never prices posted online for services? That’s because most of these companies act as middlemen. They make an agreement with you or the insurer, and then they make an agreement with us, the stenographers or transcribers, and they keep what’s in the middle. It’s really that simple. I would not be surprised, as a stenographer, to learn that I only made $3.25 a page on some of my old depositions with 25 cents per copy while the agency I worked with charged whatever they charged. 5? 6? 7? I don’t know. I only know that when I consulted a lawyer, the lawyer wanted almost 15 dollars a page if my case went to depositions.

I’ve been a stenographer for a long time, and I see two roads that you, the litigators, may take. You can let the sellers decide the market, and eventually stenographers won’t be an option, or you can make a sustained demand for a stenographic reporter at every dep. When lawyers start turning to direct market apps like Appear Me, Expedite Legal, and NexDep to get stenographers, those agencies pushing the digital and AI will jump on board and do whatever it takes to increase your supply of stenographers and get your business back.

Stenographers have been serving the legal community for decades. There’s been a push in recent years to do away with us because of a public perception that our methods are antiquated. Ironically, the people leading this charge are the companies we trusted with selling our services. So to our litigators: You now know all I know, and the customer is always right. Which will you choose?