FTC to Crack Down on Companies Taking Advantage of Gig Workers

The FTC seems very conscious of gig workers, a label that freelance court reporters almost certainly fall into. Our industry was doing gig work before it was popular.

While nothing in the statement linked above specifically mentions our industry, it does show that they have a very good understanding of how markets like ours operate. It talks about the concentration of markets. In ours, this is similar to how the private equity brigade is quietly buying everybody out so that it’s an open secret they own dozens of smaller firms and are using that power to turn around and dictate rates to court reporters. This becomes illegal if and when they start agreeing with each other to fix prices on us, at least as can be inferred from this bulletin.

The FTC is more or less coming out for the workers here. That’s the “freelancers” that might be subject to the illegal conduct described below.

Court reporting companies should take note. This reads to me like a warning shot. “Clean up your markets and treat your people well, or the government gets involved.”

We made a lot of noise at the FTC back in January. While I can’t guarantee that this action is related to the concerns raised by us and other antitrust activists, I’ve got a feeling our industry is on their radar despite its size.

This also makes the deceptive actions of companies like Veritext risky. How long before consumers are aware that the company has used its market power to limit consumer choice? Can the company guarantee that not one consumer has been denied a stenographer under the guise of shortage? And if the company can, then it calls into question shortage claims, because the statistics say 20% of the jobs should be going uncovered. If I had some advice for the private equity brigade, it would be to stop squeezing the people that perform the work. It’s not a good look for you. It’s only going to shake consumer confidence when they find out that instead of helping to grow and develop the existing processes, you sought to make money off of worker turnover — virtually guaranteeing a workforce of amateurs, exactly what every lawyer asks for at their legal proceeding! Even if there isn’t some kind of suit and direct losses, the loss in reputation will be phenomenal, and in this business, reputation is everything.

For now, this is a solid case of “let’s see what happens.”

Veritext Partners with John Jay College on Digital Court Reporting

I’m informed that John Jay is now partnered with Veritext.

Of course, I object to this for many reasons. I still believe that stenography will lead to better accuracy outcomes, particularly for minority speakers. In the Testifying While Black study, stenographers were only 80% accurate taking down African American Vernacular English. Laypeople were 40% accurate (pilot study 1). Since emphasis in the above examples is on short-duration training, which accuracy level do we expect from digital reporting?

If Veritext wasn’t threatening the futures of our students with its lies and misinformation, I’d admire the company for its brilliance. It’s set up to earn money from digital, at least according to Twitter.

“They require you to buy their equipment…”

Of course, we still have the fact that we are honest, hard-working people on our side. We still constitute the majority of workers in this field. Our collective voices can still win this. We have a choice to remain silent and resign the future to the agendas of others or resist and lead this field into its next iteration.

Link 1, Link 2, Link 3

Thank you to my readers for informing me of this development. Without you, what am I?

If you have ever doubted that we are under attack as a profession and that the incomes and outcomes of our students are at risk, here is your sign. It is time to be bold. It is time to stand up for the profession that has given us so much. Share this with your fellow colleagues so that they know what’s happening and can begin to talk about solutions.

Veritext’s Digital Reporter Ad & Assorted Thoughts

Has anyone seen anything like this for steno?

Veritext ad for digital court reporting instead of stenographic reporting.

If yes, I think a valid argument could be made that the company does, as it has stated in the past, support all its contractors. Please throw it up in the comments.

But if not, let me humbly suggest that Veritext is clearly expanding digital over steno because it likely has financial interests in digital court reporter training. If successful, it means fewer opportunities for our stenographic students.

This goes to my previous comments, that their actions can exacerbate our stenographer shortage. When you put a spotlight on the demand for something, you pull attention from other things. We now have evidence on this blog of constant digital reporting spotlighting from companies that claim to want and need stenographers. Other than supporting that school over in Maryland, I rarely see stenographic support from Veritext. This is why the shortage exists. There’s not a clear strategy beyond hedging.

When the available evidence suggests digital technologies are not up to the task of reliable transcription and these folks are all piling their effort and money into it, I really think it’s fine to stop supporting it. If you’re somebody that’s got to work for them, I get it. Otherwise, why contribute to stenographers’ elimination? Perhaps if the company were to just be honest, “this is the direction we’re going,” I’d feel differently. But it’s been a complicated maze of claims and actions.

While we’re on the topic of Veritext, let’s talk private equity. There were a number of research firms looking into our field recently. It’s possible that one or more of the PE giants was looking for a buyout and buyers were looking into the field. Though this is mostly speculation on my part. It is still a mystery how profitable those PE giants are. The whole thing is troubling because in the event one or more of them are zombies they’ll be able to operate until cash flow is a problem, all the while influencing the market. That would be like stenographers being able to operate at a loss for multiple years — we could all offer $1.00 per page if big money was subsidizing us.

Happy Friday!

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.

The Irreversible Institute

Speech-to-Text Institute is an association that claims it wants to define, modernize, and lead the court reporting industry. About three years ago, in the Impossible Institute post, I wrote about how it appeared that the STTI had already concluded our shortage was impossible to solve. My position was simple: “There have been no updates since Ducker. How can anyone make that claim?

The Speech-to-Text Institute erroneously claims the stenographer shortage is impossible to solve.

Several readers sent me the STTI’s newest production, a series of slides that make more claims about our industry and profession.

The Speech-to-Text Institute states there is a steady and irreversible decline in the number of stenographic court reporters even though there is no good, current data on which that claim can be made.

This is one of those times that it’s difficult to choose how to respond. Spreading their materials gives them free publicity. Being silent gives them free rein over the discussion. I think it makes the most sense to analyze the materials publicly and see what discussion springs from that.

  • STTI submits there is a steady and irreversible decline of stenographers. My feelings here are similar to the “impossible” argument. It’s a future prediction that’s not predicated on anything other than a forecast that’s been around the better part of a decade and a survey that could not possibly capture all the factors at play in our industry.
  • STTI submits digital reporting technology is “more than capable…” Arguendo, let’s say that digital IS more than capable. This is an imperfect world. Transcripts are going to be imperfect. And we’ve seen this when it’s studied. Stenographers were only about 80% accurate in the Testifying While Black (2019) study. But a pilot study from TWB revealed laypeople transcribed statements with about 40% accuracy. Half the accuracy! Not utilizing stenographers likely has a significant cost to accuracy.
  • STTI mentions the current or future capabilities of automatic speech recognition (ASR). There is a patent from around 2000 that shows 90% accuracy was thought to be possible. More recently, in the Racial Disparities in Automatic Speech Recognition (2020) study, ASR from major players like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and IBM were tested. Their tech was about 80% accurate for white speakers, 65% accurate for black speakers, and as low as 25% accurate for African American Vernacular English speakers. Succinctly, the current capabilities of ASR are not very good when studied objectively. Future capabilities are another unknown, and a case of wishful thinking. Dragon remains the best ASR, and that’s the domain of another established method, voice writing.

STTI then mentions that this is an era of alternative facts in order to disparage dissenting views. But this is a clever deflection, as STTI itself is guilty of pushing alternative facts. Just look at this old STTI graphic.

Speech-to-Text Institute erroneously pushes a narrative of an irresolvable stenographer shortage so that business owners and practitioners come to its conclusion, that digital reporting expansion is necessary.

If we assume these numbers are correct and that there were 27,700 stenographers in 2018 and a supply gap of 5,500, that means that as of 2018, nearly 1/5 of every single job would be going uncovered, and it would get worse every year. It’s 2022. Agency owners may be having some trouble finding coverage, but not one has expressed that 20% of their work is going uncovered.

STTI points to how difficult it would be to recruit a large number of stenography students to make up for the historically lower graduation numbers. But a little comparative analysis is in order. Stenography has 26 NCRA-approved schools, tons of schools that are not yet approved (>100), and three separate nationwide initiatives to introduce people to stenography (A to Z, Project Steno, Open Steno). Digital has BlueLedge and the few schools that can be convinced to teach stenography and digital side by side. Digital is less efficient than stenography and it’s likely that multiple transcribers will be needed in addition to each digital reporter in order to make up for the efficiency loss. When turnover of audio monitors and transcribers is factored in, we are likely talking about recruiting similar numbers of people. The difference is that stenography has more infrastructure to introduce people to it. So companies turning to digital doesn’t appear to be a legitimate shortage concern, it appears to be about making money on the “labor churn.”

BlueLedge charging over $1,500 to forget to tell students there’s a better career path with more options in steno.

STTI’s next slide continues to paint a stark picture of the situation.

Misleading claims by Speech-to-Text Institute lead readers to believe that digital court reporting is the future of the industry.
  • The slide is misleading in that it makes tactical use of the word “some.” A large percentage of firms having “some” level of struggle isn’t surprising. Firms were having “some” level of struggle to cover things before the shortage too.
  • STTI claims the majority of court reporting firms use digital. But STTI only surveyed 156 firm owners. According to the Kentley Insights Court Reporting & Stenotype Services 2019 market research report, there were over 3,000 firms in the industry. A population of 3,000 would need a sample size of 341, assuming a confidence interval of 5, according to this sample size calculator. If we wanted to be more certain, with a confidence interval of 2, the sample size jumps to 1,334. And again, there is tactical use of the word “some.” “Some” digital use could be one digital reporter sent out on one job. I can’t blame STTI for trying to collect data, but the data is not reliable for making definitive, sweeping, or predictive statements.
  • STTI mentions the widespread use of remote reporting, but fails to mention that this has increased stenographers’ coverage abilities. Many of us are no longer sitting in traffic and are able to jump job, to job, to job.

The technology slide points to how technology suppliers want us to embrace what they’re selling. It’s self-serving. “Trying to change stuff is futile, now buy my new software.” It is laughable to me that they think ASR is a future supplement for this field when they have not even worked out good and consistent cross-compatibility among softwares. Who would believe that these companies are going to succeed where the tech giants have failed?

We actually see this play out in a later slide where the technology suppliers outright admit they’re aiming for the business of digital court reporters, court reporting firms, and courts. It’s not about selling what’s efficient or best for your business, it’s about selling.

Speech-to-Text Institute survey finds massive shift in audience products are aimed at.

This is about making business owners afraid that if they do not jump on the digital/tech train, they will be left behind. We can all appreciate the importance of technology. But there is, to some extent, a practice among tech suppliers to make consumers afraid so that consumers open their wallets. Nobody wants to be Kodak, so everybody piles blindly into what they are told is the future.

Satire: Have you heard of the court reporter shortage? You have to use digital court reporters now! Many agencies report some digital reporter use!

I operate under the belief that most people seek truth. By summing up how and why these claims are questionable, I hopefully enable others to educate. If you feel there is some merit to these arguments, feel free to share, and enable more reporters and business owners to understand what’s out there, what’s being said, and why it may not be accurate.

Steno: It’s Like Believing Your Husband When He Says “She Meant Nothing to Me.”

In our field, we face two concurrent issues: Communicating to each other that many court reporting companies are not being honest with us about their intentions for the industry and communicating to consumers that their choice as consumers is under attack. I recently came across the following post by Jeanese Johnson. Jeanese’s post is probably the most on-the-nose portrayal of the situation for communicating it to each other that I’ve seen, and I am very grateful to her for allowing me to host it here on Stenonymous.

By Jeanese Johnson:

When a digital-supporting company tells you that they only use the digiz for shit jobs you don’t want and you believe it, that’s akin to your husband saying… “Yeah, she didn’t mean anything to me.”

When a digital-employing company tells you they “sparingly” use digitals ONLY when you’re not available, ask them – “Why do you call them ‘reporters,’ though?”

If you “really” wanted us to be on the higher echelon, wouldn’t you call us “Certified/Licensed Court Reporters” and them… Well… something else?

Why aren’t there two tiers of pricing? Does the one tier — our tier — “Cure” the “shortage”? (I call BULLSHIT!)

Ask them, “Why do you charge the same as a real court reporter?”

Ask them, “Don’t you think that’s confusing the marketplace?”

Ask them, “Did you really want to send a first-year reporter to a multi realtime patent case?” (We don’t believe you) Because first-year reporters need the smaller jobs. And not all reporters only want all-day. Not all reporters are realtime. And the smartest reporter I ever met stood next to me in court and said, “Yeah, at this stage, I like short… all day long…” and I was too new and too stupid to know what she was talking about. And I still admire her to this moment.

Tell them that what they think is a “shit” job is one that many “real” court reporters prefer; i.e., short, light, fast, easy – over so we can pick up our kids. And tell them that we don’t buy their “new explanation” for why they’re raking in the money on cheap digital – I mean — excuse me/pardon me — “curing the shortage” by piling on millions and buying up companies — I mean — “Looking out for ‘precious’ us” – who “don’t want to take the shit jobs.” 🙄

Ask them if they network the job to an agency that does have reporters available.

I just attended a meeting where Esquire has purchased TSG Reporting.

Esquire came out and said they were going to address “the elephant in the room” (Hmmm… I remember saying these exact words, and I promptly got kicked out of the Veritext court group — by “accident” 😉 ) Can’t believe after all we know those reporters are still helping them. So sad. They must have stock in Veritext.

Anyway, I found the Esquire group to be just as I expected.

I found them somewhat phoney; i.e., “We LOVE court reporters! You’re our first priority! We’re nothing without you!”

If you’re not the type to believe “She didn’t mean anything to me…” then ask them to prove it. Ask them to see the invoices where a recorder person (because, remember, if you agree to work for them, you’ve already said they should not call them court reporters – because that’s insulting to everyone and confusing to the marketplace) took one of those dreadful, awful public meetings (the “new” reason for the using digitals – it’s not because we have remote now and better coverage – it’s NOT that they get to keep copy orders and all the profits like it was a real reporter) and show how much the client paid – then… that’s when you see why they use them. 💡 And that’s when you’ll see that it really did mean something. 💔

There was nothing in the meeting redeeming. There was nothing in the meeting inspiring – even though the presenters seemed to think so. Esquire — through all of its Gallo iterations — came to the meeting knowing how we see them – and that’s why it was yucky – and nothing was done to address… the “yucky in the room.”

Esquire was asked if they have CSRs transcribe the fake proceedings. And they answered yes. They seemed proud of that – where we’re likely disgusted.

Esquire admitted “vaguely” that they “only use digital in five states…” It was peppered down.

We should ask them: “Which five states?”

My direct question along with who was going to be their RIC in July and do they use digital in California — was not answered.

So looks like TSG will be removed from the job boards if we do not have this answer.

I understand the “get out” move – plenty have done it. And all have a right to do so. No problems there. Congratulations to Rixon – would have been nice if he was on the call – but I suppose he’s already in the Bahamas! Salut! 💃

In parting: They said their attys know and agree to using a DIGITAL REPORTER – they seemed also proud of this — there were all smiles on the face of the Esquire personnel – kind of creepy smiles, though – Why would you be proud of substituting your “precious” <— and they used that word —> court reporters for fake court reporters? And why are you okay with the marketplace being okay with this?

Because of the legacy that Veritext taught you. That’s the answer. They’re teaching all of these companies how to do it – and Esquire one-upped them by at least explaining to their clients that they’re recording. And Esquire claimed to have top-of-the-line technology and all the best stuff – they were also quite proud – while reporters sat and listened and asked the most degrading questions like we were still in the year 2000 — “When we get assigned, how…” “Will our rates be…”

So powerless they were.

So you’ll say, “But, Jeanese, you don’t want to take the shit public meeting either. We read your post about the first agency you worked with used to send you to the downtown L.A. Metro meetings and it was God-awful.”

You’re right. Absolutely. I have no fight there.

But I wasn’t recording anything. I was writing my ass off. And the agency I worked for didn’t charge rates for “just recording it” while using a licensed reporter – and keep the difference in profits.

Esquire said they don’t use people off the street. Hmmm, maybe they heard our complaint about CraigsList. They said their people have degrees and are AAERT certified.

And this tells me they’ve also been listening to our complaints about: Well, we have a license, so… why? What makes this okay?

But they haven’t told us that they denounce this — they just keep saying… “She didn’t mean anything to me.”

That doesn’t sit well with me. I’d still want to know how much a “degreed individual” is paid. Don’t just shake your head and agree to everything they say.

Their faces showed — it’s all bullshit.

If CR is the best – show me by only using CRs –

Or open another company and call them “We’re too lazy – so we just record it!” Company – and charge accordingly.

Then at least I could respect it. And the clients would know the difference. And we’d all have a job.

I saw a couple of reporters on the meeting nodding their head when Esquire was explaining their position…

This scares me.

Do we REALLY believe that a company that has people with degrees and higher education and employs salespeople and et cetera, et cetera, can’t think of a solution other than “recording it”?

That’s the best they got?

LOL.

They can think of marketing tools. And they can bring tumblers and calendars – but they can’t fight for reciprocation? They can’t schedule around like interpreters do? Like doctors do? Like any valued — pardon me, excuse me — “TRULY” valued human would to your company? Really? We’re “highly valued…” but there’s just this little “work around…” “No, but really, You’re valued.” And… and… it doesn’t really mean anything…

Images for search engines:

Digital court reporting deception commentary by Jeanese Johnson
Digital court reporting deception commentary by Jeanese Johnson
Digital court reporting deception commentary by Jeanese Johnson
Digital court reporting deception commentary by Jeanese Johnson
Digital court reporting deception commentary by Jeanese Johnson

Why Stenographic Court Reporting Is Superior to Digital

There are two prevailing schools of thought when it comes to the gold standard of machine shorthand stenography in United States legal proceedings. There are those that truly believe in the standard. There are those that give it lip service, only ever talking about stenography when pressed or pressured. Of course, there’s a third school of thought in the people that can’t or won’t spend much time thinking about why we still use our chorded stenotype keyboard design over a century after its development. For the third schoolers, we use QWERTY layouts despite that design being over a hundred years old too. It’s easy to imagine why: 1. There’s a market for it. 2. No technology has come along that is more intuitive and better.

I recently had an experience where I had to pick something off of an audio recording painstakingly in transcription mode. It gave me a lot of insight into where stenography’s superiority comes from. It’s in the room control. Some people are always going to be able to speak faster than we can “write” or type. You throw a stenographer into a situation where they have no room control and the participants are speaking above the stenographer’s skill level, and what do you get? You basically get digital court reporting / recording. The stenographic notes are a useless game of fill in the blank.

For the last twelve years that I’ve been in the industry, companies have been pushing reporters to interrupt less. I get it. Just like anybody else, lawyers don’t like to be interrupted. The loudest complaints were probably from the ones that are most self-important. The companies likely sought to end complaints by telling stenographers to let the audio catch it. But every time we do that, we risk record degradation “Didn’t understand that when they said it, don’t understand it no matter how many times I replay it.” It also increases the amount of time we have to spend on the matter due to re-listening to testimony rather than having it clearly in our notes. Since many depositions go unread until there’s a motion to be filed or trial’s coming up, the number of complaints related to poor transcript quality will likely always be lower than the number of “your reporter interrupted me” complaints. This skews the world the non-reporter owned agency lives in. Make the customer happy and things will work out. Just hope they don’t need whatever was inaudible or unintelligible to make their case.

That’s a major problem for digital, and I am not the first one to write something like this thanks to Jean Whalen. You have audio monitors that may or may not know anything about legal transcription listening for issues that they anticipate the transcriber will have. By removing the ability of the person responsible for the transcript to interrupt, you increase the chance of serious errors. Throw away all my prior calculations. The answer is really that simple.

From a productivity standpoint, room control makes a big difference. I’ve timed myself no audio versus heavy audio use, and I personally can be an astounding 12x slower putting together a transcript when heavy audio use is involved. This is why collectives like Ana Fatima Costa’s Speak Up For The Record group are so vital. In some jurisdictions, there is no mandatory license. There is no legal standard. Our newbies and veterans alike are connected to best practices through the stories and experiences we share amongst ourselves and the encouragement we give each other to be better. Let that be my share: We will not be attracting anyone to this field if they’re peeling things off audio in the name of “our client doesn’t like to be interrupted.”

The Lip Service School

More mainstream legal news has been picking up on the fact that there’s an ongoing debate. I’d like to share some highlights from the article “Glitches Still Persist In Digital Court Reporting Tech” by Steven Lerner, Law360 Pulse.

  1. “…90 hours of testimony digitally recorded in a trial in the Northern Mariana Islands in 2008 resulted in poor audio quality and transcripts that were deemed unreliable and inaccurate.” It’s worth mentioning, but since it was so many years ago, it’s a minor point.
  2. Planet Depos told Law360 Pulse that the problem with a 285-page transcript in Maryland was not the technology, but rather the setting of a public hearing where they were unable to control audio quality, overlapping speakers, and random unidentified speakers scattered across a large room. This goes directly to my points about room control. If we are not serious about speaking up when the record is in danger, we are not serious about record accuracy. Customer education is going to be this decade’s biggest challenge.
  3. Brian Jasper, an attorney at Thomas Law Offices PLLC told Law360 Pulse “the technology was a problem, and it interrupted the deposition. I don’t scrutinize the depositions for perfection, but as an attorney, I have much more confidence in a stenographer because they are taking it down in real time.” This speaks to my point on room control. We generally know when we’re not getting it.
  4. The article talks about the Stanford study where voice recognition by Apple, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon was tested. Error rates for black men were over 40%. I’m happy that this is getting more attention, because the adoption of automatic speech recognition (ASR) into legal transcription can really hurt equality and quality in general.
  5. Stenograph, through Anir Dutta, claimed the average wait times for customers is seven minutes. This conflicts with reports at the end of last year that wait times for some were over a half an hour. Anir Dutta is quoted as saying “if that means that that customer is going to go on Facebook and make it so that everybody thinks that our average hold times are tremendously high, I think it’s unfair and frankly malicious.”
  6. Lisa Migliore Black is quoted. “After 25 or more years of always keeping my Stenograph support contract up to date so that I would have the most current software advances, I let my support contract expire in January of 2022 due to long hold times with technical support and their failure to resolve the problems I was experiencing over the course of several months.” “My perception as a customer is that Stenograph is pulling too many available resources to develop the ASR side of their business.” I have to say I’m with Lisa. after over a decade of using CaseCAT, I’m very slowly teaching myself Eclipse, because being married to Stenograph just comes off as risky to me. The company seems obsessed with being at the helm of an evolution in court reporting that may never actually happen.
  7. Dutta stated 80% of the company’s investment is still in stenography and that it is a “false narrative” that going into digital court reporting is shifting its focus. He’s quoted saying “If Apple started making iPhones, does it mean that they make substandard laptops?” Again, this goes against what has been documented prior, a drop in customer service.
  8. Asked about the Stanford study, Dutta stated “People can quote studies from three years ago….” “…technology moves a million miles every three months.” This is demonstrably false. There’s a patent from 2000 showing 90% automatic speech recognition (ASR) accuracy was thought to be possible. The 2020 Stanford study showed accuracy lower than 80%. Is there anyone on Earth that believes 90% to 80% over the course of two decades is technology moving a million miles every thee months? ASR has improved. But it largely depends on who’s speaking and how good the audio is. I also find it humorous that Dutta takes exception to a 2020 study being cited when the entire basis for digital court reporting infiltration is Jim Cudahy, Speech-to-Text Institute, and a 2013-2014 Court Reporting Industry Outlook. Odd that an entire industry should shift focus for something that was done almost a decade ago and never adjusted for but should pay no mind to current events because “tEcHnOloGy.”

It’s a very interesting time to be in court reporting because nobody knows what happens next. Do the shot callers realize they’re wasting a lot of money trying to create a market for digital court reporting and start investing in the training of stenographers that will make them consistent profits? Will there be a breakthrough technology that renders stenography obsolete? Will our shortage get worse? Will our adoption of remote technologies compensate for the uneven distribution of court reporters across the country?

The data we’ve got doesn’t point to replacement. Until there’s a magic box that does everything, humans will be required to control the room, and it never gets more efficient than someone turning the speech into text right then and there with 95% or more accuracy. I’ll speculate that technology like CoverCrow will become more polished, mainstream, and accepted in helping with stenographer shortage woes. Agencies say they’re having coverage issues, and from what I understand, CoverCrow aims to work collaboratively with companies rather than cutting them from the equation.

As it stands, stenographers have a huge say in what happens next. Why?

  1. There’s a market for it. 2. No technology has come along that’s more intuitive and better.

Why I Suspect Big Box is Ready for Big Burial

I’ve been through lots of market research in the last year. Just to connect a few dots, we know two of the largest companies in our industry, Veritext and US Legal, are merely investments in the portfolios of larger holding companies, Leonard Green and Abry Partners. Those larger companies are invested in the private equity game, a game of buying, holding, and flipping (BHF) companies for profit in the same way someone might BHF houses, stocks, or bonds.

Approximately one out of every four court reporting companies are unprofitable. Combine that with the knowledge that in order to BHF companies, holding companies often load up the investment company with debt in what’s called a leveraged buyout. Veritext and US Legal may be servicing huge debts that the smaller shops don’t have. Their seemingly endless cash flow and price warfare over the last decade may have been at a loss. They wouldn’t be the first. VIQ Solutions has a bunch of transcription subsidiaries and operates with losses in the millions.

Anecdotally, multiple sources have reported lawyers are unhappy with both Veritext and US Legal, and it appears both corporations are increasing their rates faster than smaller court reporting companies, something they wouldn’t be doing if they were not feeling some financial strain.

This is probably the decade and the next golden age for court reporting. The behemoths are likely weighed down by debt and a management structure that cannot be supported without ridiculous prices. Smaller, more efficient firms will be able to rise up and take back all of the business that was gobbled up. I don’t need an anecdote for that one. The latest from MAGNA, Veritext, and the Big Bully Brigade was “waaah we’re bigger and can provide things little people can’t. Just believe us! Because bigness!” A lie so unconvincing that I think a six year old could’ve figured it out as long as that six year old was not Victoria Hudgins.

Stenographers need a pat on the back. The increased competition over the last few months alone has the larger corporations showing signs of strain. US Legal, still terrified to mention court reporting’s biggest commercial blog, has appointed Sara Giammanco as the Director of Reporter Engagement.

I wonder why they needed one of those. Could it be because Peter Giammanco supports digital court reporting? Does anyone really believe they’ll stop acting passive aggressively toward court reporters until court reporters put the company down a la some increased competition and bankruptcy? It’s very simple. People say what they’re paid to say. We’ve seen it with Stenograph. We’ll see it here too.

Maybe I can help the big boxes. Here’s some free consulting for them: Cudahy lied. The stenographer shortage can be solved by recruitment. The science and data available today, namely the Testifying While Black 2019 and Racial Disparities in Automatic Speech Recognition 2020 studies, show that alternatives to stenography aren’t as accurate. They aren’t cheaper. The market preference is stenographers. So basically you morons threw out the fundamentals of business by ignoring consumer preference, service quality, and cost of revenue, a blunder from which I doubt you’ll be able to recover, given the only thing you’ve ever been good at is wrongfully convincing stenographers they’re overpaid. People are prone to confirmation bias, and the business types have allowed their belief in technology™️ to rob them of all common sense. It would’ve been a lot smarter to turn stenographers into salespeople and train them to sell upcharges like expedites, roughs, and realtime instead of beating us down on price and constantly putting us in a state of feeling unworthy. You know, maybe I’ll start a company here in New York City and do just that.

Knowing that the big boxes are probably servicing big debts and seeing how they’re now scrambling to appease the profession that months ago they were claiming was dying no matter what™️, I think it is incumbent on every reporter to realize a single truth: If you fight, you will win.

Naegeli Charged $11.50 Per Page on a Copy Sale

As explained in August, many court reporting firms attempt to beat the competition through what can be described as cost shifting. The CR firms charge really low on the original transcripts that their clients buy and charge astronomical prices on copy sales in order to make up for the loss. This has a net effect of making it harder for small businesses to compete. As far as I understand, this occurs in many markets in the United States and is not rare, but the news media and government pay little attention to our $3 billion industry, allowing rampant abuse and fraud against our consumers, attorneys across America. Perhaps I should be grateful. The complete failure of the media to provide anything but thinly-veiled marketing for digital court reporting has opened up a special niche for me.

When a source passed me this letter from the late Richard R. Johnson, Esq., I was delighted. It was yet another tangible piece of evidence that the abuse we have, as a field, long suspected was occurring, was actually occurring. After all, we cannot solve problems in our industry without discussing them. For reference, the proceeding occurred in May 2017. The letter was written in June 2019.

Mr. Johnson uses that word “unreasonable.” For many court reporters, that term unreasonable rings a bell, US Legal Support was accused of the same. And we do not have to take his word for it, we have also been provided with a copy of the bill Naegeli sent.

What’s more, my source tells me that the deposition was taken by a digital court reporter named April J. Austin. I hope Austin finds stenography for all the reasons I’ve covered in past articles. I am further informed that Washington is a mandatory CCR state, RCW 18.145.010, which means that the use of digital court reporters is likely illegal. I know what my audience is thinking. “Isn’t that what got StoryCloud in trouble?” Yep. Here are some documents related to that fiasco. For more on the practice of court reporting in Washington State, see RCW 18.145.020.

I asked Naegeli to comment. Naegeli’s Richard Teraci tried to tell me that the reason the copy was so high was because it was an expedite. He also asked me to please remove it from my blog.

A source close to the issue stated that the matter was ultimately concluded by Mr. Johnson consulting a court reporter in Washington State on what a reasonable fee would be for the copy. Mr. Johnson allegedly forwarded that amount to Naegeli and that was the end of the matter. The source also stated that normal copy fees at that time were under $3.25 per page in Washington and that currently a normal copy fee is under $3.50, though some agencies do charge “considerably” more, up to $3.80 per page.

Even without Naegeli’s cooperation, we do have some idea of that Washington market. We also know what Naegeli is looking to pay transcribers on digital matters, so we can work out about what it might have cost Naegeli to produce the transcript. Just for a recap, Naegeli wants to pay transcribers $1.75 per page. That’s about $105 for a 60-page transcript. Succinctly, on a copy sale, it appears that Naegeli intended to charge about 7x what it would have cost to produce the original. For people that don’t understand the way this business works, in conventional court reporting, the original has always been a higher cost than the copy, and the split between court reporters and firms in markets where court reporters aren’t 30 years behind inflation is a lot closer to 50/50 than giving the transcriber a pathetic 15%. This also assumes that the transcriber was given a percentage of the copy money, which is an assumption so generous Robin Hood would probably cringe. Transcribers typically aren’t given anything and may even live offshore.

If those market comparisons are unclear, let’s try some more comparisons. Let’s compare Washington State to New York. In New York, the freelance stenographic reporters routinely make somewhere in the ballpark of 25 cents on a copy. The officials make somewhere in the ballpark of a dollar. As of writing, the cost of living in New York City is about 33% higher than Seattle, so you would expect the New York prices to be somewhere in the ballpark of 33% higher. Again, New York court reporting rates are 30 years behind inflation, meaning New York’s prices should be about double what they are. That would be in the ballpark of $0.50 a copy for freelancers and $2.00 a copy for officials. Assuming a traditional 50/50 split, a reasonable copy could be said to be in the realm of $4.00 per page. The bill from Naegeli is about 3x what is reasonable on a copy and about 7x what it would’ve cost to produce. Even if we buy what Mr. Teraci says about it being an expedite, expedites are usually in the realm of 50% higher price, not triple.

There is also an elephant in the room. The copy sale does not stand alone, it stands alongside whatever Naegeli made on the original. Handing out generous assumptions to prove a point, assume the original was one third of the copy sale. That would be $15.30 per page. If that’s reasonable, then every stenographer in New York City should move to Washington, because our reporters routinely get a comparable amount of work done for $4.50 a page or less. Assuming an expedite, under $6.00 a page. I cannot make it clearer that court reporters can compete with these “large” agencies and probably make more money doing so. The simple truth is every reporter produces most of the work and has none of the overhead. That’s like Walmart treating its workers poorly if every single employee had the ability to compete with Walmart. Agencies have a value, as I will cover in a future post, but their value to us is diminished when they’re not selling steno.

All of these comparisons, of course, are assuming parity with stenographic court reporting. Digital court reporting is not as efficient as stenography, and therefore in any real-world evaluation, that fact must be taken into account. Stenographer rates are being charged for what is an inherently inferior service. Put it this way, digital reporting is so bad that it has to defraud people interested in court reporting to get them to go digital.

May this set the stage for us to discuss price structure as a field. While there are certainly antitrust concerns when court reporters discuss pricing due to our heavy use of independent contractors, it seems reasonable to ask ourselves if this is a fair way for consumers to be treated or business to be conducted. It also seems fair for our trade associations to begin collecting and dispersing historic, regional rate data so that our students can never be taken advantage of again in the way that my generation was.

“…unlikely to raise competitive issues.”

For what it’s worth, Kentucky is leading the charge there.

“The Kentucky Court Reporters Association board has created a salary survey for the benefit of correcting misinformation that is being disseminated.”

Legality aside, imagine if you were the Johnson firm. Is it fair to be locked into a copy sale from a service that can just charge whatever it wants, see if you pay it, and then cut the bill down to a third of what it was if you complain? Reminds me a lot of the way medical billing is today. Think of how happy receiving surprise medical bills makes you. Now, just think, that’s what’s happening every time a law office gets a bill for $11.50 on something where the actual value is about $4.00.

Reporters need to start competing. Digital isn’t cheaper than you and the rapacious behavior of companies like Naegeli is destroying your profession. Our collective job security relies on broadcasting that fact.

Addendum:

I have been informed by its owner that Cover Crow will soon release tools to track and release rate data. This may be an opportunity for associations to get a head start on collection of data from multiple sources.

Day 1 of Stenograph Boycott, Company Releases Pro-Steno Teaser

My Facebook page has become the steno channel. If it’s good for the working reporter, it’s on my page.

And though it may be difficult to read, I do try to keep it entertaining.

Christopher Day calls for Stenograph boycott, November 2021

For anyone that doubts calling out the bad customer service and horrible PR blunders is having an impact, you can stop doubting now. For the first time since March, Stenograph threw up a pro-stenographer image on its Instagram.

Stenograph Instagram, 11/17/21

Truth be told, I still view this sort of thing as corporate appeasement. They hope you will forget that they are screwing the students you mentor and continue to purchase their products and services. It’s a great sign that the Stenograph company wants to appease stenographers, because it means that we represent a large enough part of their customer base that pulling out would hurt. Withdrawing our support would matter. If more reporters heed my words and pull out fast and hard, we’ll be able to end this a lot sooner.

But seeing that image got me curious. I rolled through the Instagram to see the last time a comparable image was posted. There are some nice pictures advertising Q&A by Cyndi Lynch (who is awesome) and some marketing stuff, but nothing nice like this. While that’s a somewhat subjective measure, you can go through all the images yourself and see that the company hasn’t featured a person paired with a stenotype since about March.

The top left is November 2021, the bottom right is March 2021, Stenograph’s Instagram.

I will be covering the STTI podcast with Anir Dutta, Stenograph’s president, soon. In the meantime, if you’re completely confused, just see what I wrote to a student asking about my shenanigans on Reddit.

Follow me and our field gets results. Stenograph is eager to jump into a technology that will disproportionately hurt minority speakers. We are in a unique position to stop that.