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.
For what it’s worth, Kentucky is leading the charge there.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 wouldhurt. 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.
Many reporters reached out to let me know that Veritext used or uses BlueLedge, but I didn’t have time to look into it. Finally, someone sent me the Google search. Step A, if you want to complete Veritext’s digital court reporter partner program, is to register with and complete the BlueLedge program.
This, by itself, isn’t much of a problem. But it strengthens the argument that the court reporting shortage is being exaggerated and exacerbated by Veritext. If the company was genuinely interested in recruiting stenographers, it might have constructed such a detailed pipeline for the education of stenographers. Instead, the company routinely tells stenographers what they want to hear and pours its resources into expanding its digital business despite the potential harm to minority speakers. One reporter brought up to me that Veritext has some involvement with a school in Maryland. I have even reported on its scholarship activities. I’m happy about those pro-steno activities. But at a time when 50% of our field, according to Ducker, is in California, Texas, Illinois, and New York, and while Veritext is working with BlueLedge, a company that has hooked its claws into national recruitment using Ed 2 Go, it remains clear where Veritext’s priorities are — expanding digital recruitment not as a supplement to our shortage, but at the direct expense of stenographic court reporters.
Telling consumers/attorneys that no stenographer is available while taking steps to alienate practicing reporters and undermining our industry’s intense recruitment efforts is just wrong. It’s like Burger King lighting cattle fields on fire and yelling about a beef patty shortage. The only difference is we would all immediately identify the arson as criminal, whereas here, if you hide the dishonest, anticompetitive, and potentially criminal behavior behind layers of dissolved companies and corporate paperwork, you get people defending the bad behavior. What would we do without Veritext? Probably be a lot better off!
Less importantly, Stenograph was getting cozy with BlueLedge as early as August 2021.
So let me add that to Stenograph’s PR problem. We need to boycott the company until it sells for stenography and voice writing only. We want no more expansion of digital court reporting. Keep hard on that line and it will happen. Consider Stenograph an arms dealer. It thinks it will sit there and sell to both sides. Except, in this very particular case, our field of stenographers has far more customers and most of our money is earned as opposed to being “borrowed” from investors. We are in a much stronger position financially even if we believe digital reporting has more actual dollars down on it. A lot of people in our field became CaseCAT trainers. They’re killing your industry and income to build digital. I want to grow stenography so you have more business. So even the CaseCAT trainers have a reason to stand up in defiance here, let alone the rest of us.
Succinctly, the money being sunk into digital reporting is money that investors will be expecting back. When it does not make the returns promised, and we have good reason to suspect it won’t because of companies like VIQ Solutions giving us a window into digital reporting financials ($10 million in losses June 2021), the faucet will turn off. All the companies relying on investor cash flow instead of company profit will start to decline. It is in our best interest as a profession to take the power of our good money away from it. The digital money will dry up on its own. If Stenograph is smart, it will cave to our demands. If it is not smart, we can crowdfund, buy it when it goes bankrupt, and put its employees back to work for us like I’m sure many of them want to be. We can even divvy up what Dutta’s salary would’ve been and give them a raise.
Stenograph, at this point, is relying on our nostalgia of it being “our company” and assuming we will not turn our backs on it. I’ve got some nostalgia of my own. There’s a scene in the original StarCraft that sums up my feelings well. Acting predictably is our enemy. We predictably divide and conquer ourselves time and again. Stand together on this one and watch things roll our way. It’s really that simple.
This continues to be a profound moment in our field where we must choose between loyalty to each other and loyalty to companies whispering “trust us, trust us” while they systematically work to reduce our numbers and undermine our judicial system for profit. Not the hardest decision in history.
So I stumbled across the CourtReporterEdu.org website. A pleasant website that is facially neutral. You look at it, and it doesn’t seem to be anything “bad.” It talks about stenographers and shorthand. It has a picture of a stenotype. Looks like the kind of marketing stenographers should be doing.
Then you, reader, head on over to a magical place, court reporting info by state.
And when the reader goes to look at their state, they’ll infallibly get a long list of schools that have “court reporter programs.”
From my review of the New York schools listed, none have a digital court reporter degree. The few that mention digital court reporting sell the digital court reporting as a “continuing education” program. In short, they’re selling continuing education for a degree track that does not exist. Some of these schools have zero mention of digital court reporting on their website. Some schools, like BMCC, you reach out to admissions, and they know nothing about the program.
So, of course, I ask Ed 2 Go what the deal is, because Mark Pugal from Ed 2 Go has been trying to sell me on Digital Court Reporting for like a month now.
And of course, I trust, but verify.
BMCC asked for my concerns, so I put them out there.
Now, just to explain, in part, why I think CourtReporterEDU and possibly Ed 2 Go is being dishonest: (1) In many of the schools listed, when one goes to independently verify the existence of the program, it doesn’t seem to exist. Attempting to verify the program with the schools that actually do seem to offer it leads to this roundabout “we don’t have that program, but actually we do” response. Maybe at the point colleges are selling programs with no future and are so insignificant the admissions department doesn’t know they exist, or they don’t exist, we’ve gone too far. (2) Even where the program exists, it is selling students a course in something that is not the industry standard and does not have as many opportunities. (3) Putting a stenotype on your homepage and then diverting people to digital court reporting via esyoh.com and Ed 2 Go is just dishonest. Even if we forgive everything else, the way this page is set up is to confuse people and lend legitimacy to digital court reporting that it does not deserve.
At the bottom of this page is a video walking people through that part. Now for a bit of speculation. We know from the WHOIS lookup that the registrant’s address was in Florida. The server the site is hosted on appears to be in California, but that’s likely irrelevant.
Luckily, one of the schools actually advertising the program gives us a peek into who might be promoting it. Wagner College lists Merritt Gilbert and Natalie Hartsfield.
Merritt Gilbert is apparently in Florida and connected to BlueLedge. BlueLedge, as some may remember from a prior post, are aggressively marketing digital as the answer to the stenographer shortage exaggerated and exacerbated by STTI, Veritext, and US Legal. The author of that article stating digital reporting is the answer to shortage? Benjamin Jaffe. Who is Benjamin Jaffe? BlueLedge.
Who is Merritt Gilbert? BlueLedge.
Who is Natalie Hartsfield? Digital, BlueLedge, Florida.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. Remember when I wrote yesterday that US Legal has been on inactive status in New York since 2001? BlueLedge, according to Florida Department of State, has been dissolved since 2019.
And just for anyone who thinks “maybe there are two BlueLedge companies in Florida,” take a look at that mailing address, 101 E Kennedy Blvd. Guess what the address for BlueLedge is.
How is it legal for a dissolved company to misdirect the public, searching for stenographic reporter training, to Ed 2 Go and digital court reporting? It might not be, but it’s going to depend on us asking our various government agencies to look into this as a matter of false advertising and possibly operating illegally in the state. I reached out to my New York State Education Department as it pertained to this course being sold to New York consumers. Maybe this is something the members of each state association can tackle.
This situation blew my mind. We cannot stand for this. We have to fight and understand that we are playing against people that do not play by the rules or within the bounds of our self-imposed moral code. I have collected these images and ideas in a central place. Please use them to do good. I should note that at least one consumer was extremely confused and came onto our message boards asking about how to buy a stenotype for digital court reporting. We must act with compassion. Consumers are being lied to and we are the only people with the knowledge to explain it to them. They WILL stumble onto our message boards confused because they ARE being bombarded by lies.
It came to my attention some time ago that Verbit was using a real proceeding’s audio to test its potential transcribers. After entering one’s information, one will get to a screen that encourages him or her to download all the files and put together a transcript from the information and audio given.
But this just takes my criticism of digital reporting and Verbit to a whole new level. Anyone with access to the link from anywhere in the world can just pop on and download a bunch of files from somebody’s case. These files have been accessible since July 2021 that I personally know of, and these files were still accessible as of September 15, 2021.
The whole thing leaves me in a pretty tough position. I want to prove this is happening so that court reporters can warn the legal community. But just dumping the evidence onto the internet a second time will violate the parties’ privacy more than it has already been violated. With heavy redaction, though, we can go through the various files and get a good idea of it. Let’s start with the cover page. Just remember, the redactions were put there by me. In the actual files there are no redactions.
There’s a file labeled TAG, which appears to be the digital reporter or video operator’s annotations. If I am correct about that, this is a window into just how useless the annotations are for a transcriber.
There’s a file containing a notice of deposition. To limit the time spent redacting, I’ll offer up the first page only.
The “must read” file comes next. Since that’s created entirely by Verbit, it’s downloadable here.
Then there’s a Verbit guidelines page, which seems harmless enough. But it hilariously refers to a “USLS” manual. The file is literally named “redone for USLS,” which to me seems to be fairly good circumstantial evidence that Verbit has a connection to US Legal Support. Not only is US Legal potentially defrauding consumers by making bad claims about the stenographer shortage, they might be working with a company so ignorant of good court reporting practice that it posted a proceeding online.
For the sake of completeness, I went looking for a USLS Manual and I found a 2017 version. Interestingly enough, it reads very much like an employee manual and has very specific formats for jobs. Remember, common law employees are all about who has direction and control of the work. I would say that if US Legal is or was using a 150-something page manual to “train” its “freelancers,” those people are actually common law employees and US Legal probably should have been paying employment taxes for them. What a shame it would be if I uploaded that manual and someone let the IRS know there was potentially a failure to withhold those taxes.
Back to Verbit’s files, they offer a template, which is more or less a transcription of the audio file they’re asking transcribers to transcribe. It is the single greatest indictment against digital reporting I have ever seen. The reporter’s name, Hang Nguyen, is misspelled as Han. The term “court reporter” is spelled “core reporter.” There’s a missing apostrophe. There’s a zero in the word “point.” She asks them to state their appearance and how they’re attending, but somehow it’s transcribed as “state your up here.” There are so many errors that quite frankly I hope my reporting colleagues do not let this go and that they take the time to send this to their bar associations. I am quite sure there are stenographic reporters that make mistakes. I personally make mistakes. But this falls well within the territory of “way too many mistakes to be normalized and accepted by our justice system.”
There’s a Kentuckiana reporter worksheet that’s published by Verbit. It’s a pretty standard worksheet, so I will not bother to publish it here.
We get to the audio file, and it’s a 22-minute file. Given that this proceeding is a family court matter between two individuals, it’s not appropriate for me to republish, but again, it was available on the internet for months and being used to screen or train Verbit transcribers. It’s real testimony about a family court matter.
I set out to investigate whether permission had been granted to Verbit to publish these proceedings on the internet. In full disclosure, court reporters have shared audio in our field, but it’s usually a snippet of a word or sentence for clarification purposes and not large chunks of testimony with information that can identify parties. Now, I don’t really like Kentuckiana because of their pro-digital stance, but when I reached out, Michael McDonner seemed very reasonable and made it very clear, permission was not given to distribute this audio.
But what about the attorneys? Maybe John Schmidt said it was okay.
But perhaps Amber Cook had given permission?
I reached out to Hang Nguyen on LinkedIn but I got no response as of writing. I also reached out to Leor Eliashiv from Verbit. Predictably, there was no response. But at the very least, Kentuckiana made a commitment to demand the audio be taken off the internet after I told them where to find it.
For so long our institutions and businesses have been trying to find a way to say we are the superior product. Maybe the answer is to just show consumers what they’re really signing up for if they entrust the future of the legal record to companies like Verbit, tons of errors and potential breaches of privacy. We have to direct people to the many resources to learn stenographic court reporting, such as NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno. We have to get serious about educating consumers. Please consider a donation to Protect Your Record Project today. They have been pioneers and powerhouses in consumer awareness, and it is largely thanks to them that this article will reach thousands.
Within 24 hours after the posting of this blog the files were taken off of the internet.
Though I have written very much on this topic, never have I sat down and written something that can be handed to anybody. Today’s the day! This is the context of the stenographer shortage forecasted eight years ago and ongoing debate regarding that. It is my hope that having this out there lets court reporters share this instead of having to painstakingly debate the merits one discussion at a time. If you’re looking for a career as a stenographic court reporter, check out National Court Reporters A to Z program, Project Steno, and Open Steno. My resource page also has a lot of industry links to help find manufacturers, retailers, and educators.
In the court reporting and captioning industries, there are three modalities, stenographic, voice writing, and digital. Stenographic reporting has a stenographer using a chorded keyboard called a stenotype to write strings of letters that form words, sounds, and statements. Voice writing consists of speaking into an automatic speech recognition system trained to the voice writer. Digital reporting consists of having a person record the testimony, ideally with multitrack or sophisticated equipment, monitor the audio, and annotate it for a transcriber. Some companies, like Verbit, insist that by running audio through an automatic speech recognition system, technology can “improve the human.” There is a fraud being perpetrated on consumers and digital reporters themselves just about every day where they are being told these models are equivalent or even that digital reporting is better. Let’s go deeper.
It’s notcheaper. Where the stenographic reporter works on a per-page basis with a small appearance fee, the digital reporter is paid hourly, typically within the range of $15 to $50 an hour. The cost of the transcript is added to that, which is heavily subsidized off the exploitation of offshore transcribers, who can make as little as $0.84 a page or $0.24 a minute, as I learned in my previously published discussion with one. The companies utilizing digital reporting are trying to cut their transcription costs down to a fourth of what they were, but none of these savings, if any, are being passed to the consumer or courthouse. There have also been past studies that show samey costs for digital and steno. When one factors in the cost of replacing equipment, which likely has a useful life of around four years, the cost for digital can only spiral out of control. We stenographers eat all of our equipment costs. In the event that we were deleted from the field, the lack of competition could only drive those recording equipment costs up further (higher demand for ostensibly the same supply). In addition, reporting companies would have no incentive not to pass those costs to the consumer because there would be zero competition to keep them in check.
Storage is more expensive. This often gets waved away because of the “common sense” mantra that digital storage is CHEAP. But again, this is a cost that is often taken up by the court reporter and would likely transition to the court and consumers. Audio files can be anywhere from 10 to almost 10,000 times larger than our raw stenographic text files. This means that in a worst-case scenario, courts are spending 10,000 times on storage what they would if it was a stenographically reported court. In a best-case scenario, a digitally recorded court could switch to stenographic reporting and bring their storage costs down to about one ten thousandth of what it is today. I arrived at these numbers by comparing hundreds of my raw stenographic notes for 7-hour days to the average recording rates of various formats. Those files are usually in the ballpark of 200 to 400 KB or 28 KB an hour. Something like a an mp3 can be 28 MB an hour. Something like a wav can be 10 MB a minute! To put these numbers into perspective, an MB or megabyte is about 1,000 times larger than a KB or kilobyte. Technology fans point to YouTube and its ability to compress and hold so many videos, to which I have always pointed out that YouTube is a for-profit business, so unless we want to sit through advertisements while waiting for our court cases, maybe they’re not a good model for justice system record storage. We are also assuming that Youtube would share its compression with the government at no additional cost. I have also pointed out that YouTube has existed for less than 17 years. Some courts have record retention requirements that exceed 50. So assuming that the digital model would translate well in perpetuity is shortsighted and a leap of faith. It’s much more likely to provide spiraling costs and force shorter record retention times on courts in the future.
It’s less efficient. By switching to digital reporting, a company is necessarily adding to the number of people required to do a job. Math-wise, theoretically, we were always bound to be 2x to 4x as fast because average typing speed is in the ballpark of 50 words per minute, really fast transcribers get to 100 words per minute, and stenographers are taking down stuff at 225 words per minute. My theory was completely wrong; it requires many more people or much more time. Self-reported, transcribers can take up to six hours to transcribe one hour of audio. According to a Lisa Migliore, as revealed in my PCRA article, the company Verbit even admitted that it would take up to eight transcribers to provide a next-day transcript. Stenography is constantly belittled for its low pass rate. The argument is made that we cannot solve the shortage because of an 80 to 90% dropout rate. But if we’re going to multiply the number of people required by 8 or 9 (someone should man the recorder according to AAERT best practices) then this argument is hollow and an obvious lie. Let’s say you have 10 stenographic reporters. You get 100 students, and 90 percent drop out, you’ve replaced those 10 stenographers. If you need 9 people to replace one stenographer, then we’re already talking about 90 people to replace those 10 stenographers with digital. If you can recruit and train 90 people, why are they not being recruited and trained for stenography? Anybody that says we cannot solve the shortage is saying “we can recruit 90 people, but recruiting 100 is impossible.”
The turnover is comparatively astronomical. Stenographic court reporters stay in the business past retirement age. You can see this from a snapshot of our field’s age about eight years ago, pictured above. The average employee stays about 4 years. The stenographic reporter stays three or four decades. So in addition to requiring about the same number of recruits to fill demand, we know that getting them to stay means getting them into stenographic reporting. Failing to use stenographic reporters means needing those same 90 people I mentioned above every 4 years. Again, assume 10 stenographers retire. We can recruit 100 students who will replace those stenographers, and in 12 years there is a high likelihood they’ll still be in the game. Alternatively, we can recruit and train about 100 digital reporters / transcribers who will stay about four years, and then another 100, and then another 100. So if you’re willing to recruit 300 people over 12 years but not willing to recruit 100 people over the next 2, you’re not thinking logically. 40 years, those same 100 recruits produce those same 10 stenographers. Meanwhile, statistically, one will have needed to recruit and train about 900 digital court reporters and transcribers.
No education culture exists for digital reporting. As pointed out in a past article, when looking at comparable nonprofits, stenographic nonprofits and our education system has about ten times the funding and five times the number of schools. This lack of support on the digital side will allow for companies to dictate best practices to digital reporters and transcribers, and corporate morality is highly questionable. There’s already evidence that cost shifting is being used to kill competition. What happens when we move from a field where there is already guidance on what to do when asked to alter the record to one where an employee is seen as interchangeable and low skill? How much pressure will those poor people be under to change things if they’re making a fourth of what we are? This happens. I’ve been asked to change stuff. Colleagues have been asked to change stuff. Digital reporters and transcribers will be asked to change stuff and they will be under incredible pressure to actually do it. We can stop that by letting them know about steno. As of eight years ago, stenographic court reporting was said to be some 96% of the field. It makes perfect sense for digital reporters to join the majority and become stenographers.
Companies are already showing contempt for their own digital reportersand that will likely only get worse. As I pointed out in a past article, while advertising digital reporters to lawyers, Verbit put out an infographic that stated they were not highly trained. There’s already this misconception that digital reporters are not skilled workers, which will make it easier for them to be exploited, to the aforementioned detriment of the consumer. Even with all of our stenographic institutional knowledge and support systems, companies managed to freeze the value of our rates for over three decades. If companies are successful in pushing the narrative that digital reporting is the future, there’s no reason to believe they won’t freeze the digital rates right where they are and the cycle of exploitation will continue. Think I’m wrong? Stenographic court reporters are already being offered below half of market rate for their services. So there’s a SHORTAGE and companies are doing everything in their power to make stenography look as unappealing as possible. Great way to make the situation worse. If we cannot count on them to not exploit people during a shortage, we cannot count on them. This also heavily incentivizes digital reporters to become stenographers, because there are nonprofits to help set them up with mentors in almost every state. Not so with digital reporting.
Offshoring will put transcribers beyond the reach of our courts. There has been no secret that digital reporting companies are offshoring their work to places like Manila, Kenya, or India. In the stenographic model, if there is a problem with the transcript, the stenographer can be subpoenaed to testify about the stenographic notes he or she took down. In the digital reporting model, the digital reporter may be available to testify as to what he or she can recall, but the transcriber will likely be outside the reach of our law enforcement. Add in the fact that there might be eight transcribers to ask about any one transcript, and we have a major problem. Just from experience, I can tell readers that when you’re listening to hundreds or thousands of proceedings, it all starts to blend in. Without someone contemporaneously taking down stenographic notes at the time of a proceeding, how can one be sure audio has not been tampered with? Audio is easy to edit without any sophisticated tools. Advanced technology like deepfakes and voice cloning will make tampering that much easier. There are already enough fakes in the world that forensic audio analysts are necessary. Taking court reporters out of their role of guardian of the record will only add to the chaos and lead to an era of “to the best of my recollection, that sounds like what happened.” The legal field needs to avoid declaring this modality adequate. People’s lives and livelihoods are on the line and it’s painfully obvious that there’s been no real thought put into shifting from stenography to digital reporting. What good is blockchain-like tracking if you can’t get a hold of everyone involved in the process?
Centralization encourages attacksand successful attacks would be more catastrophic. As I have seen, there are two distinct ways that courts operate. Either they operate on a centralized model where the court controls all the records or a decentralized model where reporters are given limited autonomy to store and edit their records. Some courts run on a hybrid model where they keep the raw stenographic notes in case of a problem but the reporter is responsible for the maintenance of all else. Something like grand juries in New York City would be a centralized model. The district attorneys buy the stenotypes and equipment and all work is done on the office’s intranet, which has limited connectivity with the outside world. Decentralization is more along the lines of having each reporter responsible for maintaining their records. Stenographic court reporting leans toward decentralization, meaning that anyone looking to sabotage court records in bulk would have to hack not only the court’s system but also each individual stenographer. In a centralized model, a system compromised by a steganography attack or some other attack could be wiped or hijacked. Basically malicious pieces of code can be hidden inside images and audio, and court computers can then be used to mine Bitcoin for criminals. Decentralization typically suffers from lighter security but makes it harder for a would-be attacker to get access to everything, especially machines that are not connected to the internet. Centralization typically has amazing security, but once an attacker is in, they have access. In a hybrid court like many of New York’s courts, a gang of criminals would have to break both the decentralized and centralized models to wipe records. Good luck with that! It’s no wonder that the New York courts have told ASSCR President Eric Allen many times “we want stenographic court reporters!” Again, we take on the cost of our equipment and the responsibility of its security independent of the system. This is a working condition we proudly accept because it creates redundancy and reduces the risk of lost records. This problem by itself wouldn’t be a big deal, there’s some risk no matter what, but combined with all else is pretty damning.
Lost audio eats any savings. It is always a bad day when any record goes missing. But again, taking this model from one where the stenographer is responsible for the record and can land themselves in extremely hot water if they do not do what they are supposed to do and trusting an audio-only record is dangerous. As I posited in the Summer 2020 NYSCRA Transcript, just three hours of reconstruction hearing can cost $1,000 in resources. In the best-case scenario where people are following best practices and an audio monitor is present and responsible for the audio, this risk is less. But as I’m about to show you, there’s no comfort there either.
Consumer protections for stenographers are better. I would happily assume those audio monitors take their job as seriously as I do. But considering that digital reporting companies have shown no qualms with offshoring or even posting legal proceeding audio on the internet, it’s time to put this to bed. Proponents of digital court reporting are only going to follow best practices where they are forced to by law. Putting our faith in that is foolish. It’s been over a hundred years since the stenotype was invented and regulations related to our field are still incredibly relaxed in some states, like New York. I’d wager that at this rate it’ll take another hundred years before legislators get around to protecting digital reporting consumers and courts. Consumer choice is the way to win here. If people demand a stenographic reporter every time, we can start focusing on how to improve ourselves rather than having to justify our existence every time somebody with a smartphone goes “I can do your job!”
Even in states with incredible consumer protection, companies that support digital reporting, like US Legal, have argued they’re not bound by those laws because they are not court reporting companies. Yet 70% of their business is court reporting? How much more obvious does it need to get that these companies don’t care what is right or legal? They care only what they can get away with. And they got away with violating the law in the Holly Moose case seemingly because plaintiff had trouble showing damages. The government’s position is clear: “You can violate our laws, claim you’re not providing the service that makes up the bulk of your business, and be as dishonest as you want to be. As long as the wrong person is calling you out on it, it’s just fine by us.” Just to give this some more context, the California licensing board for reporters has a long history of being as anti-court reporter as possible. They refuse to step in and regulate digital court reporters, but their stenographic reporters have some of the most stringent regulations in the country. The licensing board of California is basically tying two arms and a leg behind every stenographic court reporter’s back and stenographic reporters are still winning the race there. This is probably a result of bureaucracy and not some conspiratorial nonsense, but it’s the reality that stenographic reporters are living — governments are quick to come after us and can’t be bothered with enforcing the law against anyone that can afford a legal team. Assuming arguendo that digital proponents’ position that the modality is equivalent to stenography is true for just a moment, it’s almost like here in New York City if we decided it was important to license barbers that use scissors and strictly test them on their skills and knowledge, but having no regulation if they practice as a barber using an automatic shaver/buzzer. Both could mess up your hair pretty bad in the wrong hands. Not too many people would want only one to be under government-granted license. Now throw that same idea down, but instead of hair we are talking about appeal records that could decide whether or not someone goes to jail, gets executed, or loses a million dollars.
Just to be clear for anyone that believes the incompetence of regulatory authorities is overstated or hyperbole, according to the California Regulatory Law Reporter, Spring-Summer 1990, authorities have known about digital reporting, then called electronic reporting, for thirty years. Now they’ve expressly disclaimed their obligation to protect consumers. It’s writ-of-mandamus levels of incompetence. A licensing board so useless that court reporters and consumers would be better off asking the California legislature to dissolve it in its entirety.
Likely financial suffering of companies using digital reporting. In a 2019 Kentley Insights report, it was noted that 1 in 4 court reporting companies is not profitable. If the vast majority of the field is stenographic and only companies that can afford to run at a loss are the ones attracting big private equity money, it follows that the unprofitable minority are the ones that are trying to change the field are doing so at a loss. They are able to do this because if they are successful the rates can subsequently be jacked up and those losses can be recouped. This is something that was labeled as anticompetitive decades ago, but go ahead and try to prove such a thing in court — maybe the court will once again decide the plaintiff is missing some obscure element and therefore any and all misbehavior is just fine! This also has a regular-world example. Uber did its best to kill the taxi industry at a loss to itself. Then its prices skyrocketed up 50% or more. Want your court reporting bill to double in the future? Allow these companies to continue to push digital reporting.
Blatant dishonesty of companies that push digital reporting. In addition to my thoughts about worker exploitation and the Holly Moose issue, I’ve tackled more misconceptions in the last five years than anyone should ever care to. Just some examples, VTestify had a calculator on their site that claimed they could save thousands per deposition, which was false. Veritext was trying to train attorneys to allow for digital court reporting in deposition notices before ostensibly throwing its then VP of Sales under the bus for going in the exact direction the company was going. US Legal stuck a bogus equation on JD Supra to make the stenographer shortage seem hopeless. Verbit says whatever makes it look good at the time. This is who we want to entrust the future of legal records to? First there was a question of whether digital reporting was even in use by some of them. That was then thoroughly documented and there was a shift to “we can’t hire stenographic reporters due to shortage” which was a lie because few if any recruitment efforts were made to find stenographers through public directories like NCRA Sourcebook. What kind of excuse is that? How about I walk into court tomorrow and say “I’m really trying, judge, I just can’t get the words.” If these companies cannot figure it out they are useless to the legal profession and should dissolve so that stenographers can meet the needs of their clients. It’s become difficult to wave away the sheer incompetence and failure to assist stenographers as honest mistake. If I give you a flat tire once and apologize, chances are you’ll forgive me. If I do it several times over half a decade, how long are you turning the other cheek? At what point do you turn around and tell me “stop now or I will take action to make you stop”? We have suffered too many flat tires. We are ready to go as far as this needs to go. The law itself recognizes that, in dealing with human affairs, there are very few things in this world that we know with absolute certainty. Anyone waiting for an admission of dishonesty better stop holding their breath. In many ways, Stenonymous has become the force to make this stop. We were pushed and pushed to a point where the path of least resistance was to punch back with what we’re best at, preserving history. I’m working on a couple of articles about US Legal’s dishonesty in particular. When I’m done with them, I’ll link them here.
Automatic Speech Recognition.
Inherent danger to already-marginalized speakers. When the Testifying While Black study came out, news media slapped court reporters around a bit because we were only 80% accurate when being tested on African American Vernacular English dialect. I slapped back. The study showed we were twice as good as the average person at understanding this dialect and 1.5x as good as lawyers. As the New York State Court Reporters Association told the New York State Unified Court System, use of automatic speech recognition technologies would not threaten access to justice, it would implode it. To do away with stenographic court reporters would be doing away with the people that, with no formal dialect training whatsoever, understand AAVE speakers the most. We are not a monolith, and some of us will always perform better than others, but as I’m about to show you, we outperform computers too.
Doesn’t actually work. Companies like Verbit have backpedaled from their stance that automation is the way to go to saying things like “technology will enhance the human.” They’re convinced having human transcribers clean up ASR output is the way to go. With all the major players having difficulty getting accuracy above 80% in the study “racial disparities in automatic speech recognition,” it’s clear why. There are inherent problems surrounding ASR through machine learning and the constant presence of language drift. It seems highly unlikely that stenographic reporting or captioning could be adequately automated. Have you seen a really good ASR demo? Please consider that just like Peter Molyneux and Project Natal, that demo might be scripted. I demonstrated how easily voice recognition could be faked by faking it myself with my amateur computer coding knowledge. If all the richest companies in the world are having extreme problems with automatic speech recognition and making it consistently perform at high accuracy, it follows that the small fish like Verbit, Otter, or Parrot are not being honest about their capabilities. Some people marvel at the technology today. “I can just dictate this into my phone! We might not need you guys soon, heh, heh, heh.” Yes, the technology has come along wonderfully. Would you like me to have Siri or Alexa transcribe your loved one’s murder trial? No? Oh…
If it cannot be automated, then we are talking about having all the problems inherent to digital reporting.
Some Related Myths
Over the past few days I’ve had it pointed out to me that some of the corporations I’m accusing of being anti-steno send financial support to Project Steno or help with schools. As for the schooling, with half of our industry being in New York, Illinois, Texas, and California, if a school is not training students for those places, it is a drop in the bucket and meaningless compared to the measures being taken to crush us. As for supporting nonprofits, there’s probably a write off there, so it’s not quite as altruistic as one might assume. And then that leads to, “well, it’s a business.” Exactly. Now you get it. It’s a business. It does not care about you, me, my field, this country, or anything else. The only thing that makes it care is when we unequivocally tell it it will cease to exist if it doesn’t start caring now.
How About This?
Debate and reason are vital to the health of our field. Confronting uncomfortable truths has been nothing but victory after victory. Let’s keep on the road of information dispersal and advocacy. Most people will support us if they are armed with the facts and circumstances. We’re at a tipping point, and the way that the cards fall depends largely on how hard we blow. Learned something new? Pass this along and help increase consumer critical thinking so that they catch this stuff before it gets to this point. See a flaw in my reason? Point it out. Worst that happens is I abandon a weak position for a stronger one.
I should say that this is all omitting the possibility that something is inaudible on a recording or that a recording goes missing. Careful consideration will have to be given to who is responsible and to what extent when things don’t work right if the country is to adopt a full digital model. Stuff happens even to the best of us. The benefit of the stenographer is that he or she can alert parties as soon as there’s an equipment issue. In a world of full automation, which is where digital proponents clearly want to go, parties would get to find out about problems whenever they ordered the transcript, which could be days, months, or years after a proceeding.