StenoKey, Stenographic Education Innovation?

On June 19, I had the privilege of getting to talk with Katiana Walton from StenoKey. I’ve mentioned her program from time to time right alongside things like NCRA’s A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno as major positives for this field, but I never had a good grasp of what StenoKey was about. The discussion we had changed all that, and now I get to give readers a synopsis of all the good StenoKey is looking to do for our field and our students.

StenoKey is looking to have a science-based approach to learning. There are many reasons students struggle in stenographic programs, and the way they learn might just be one of them. As it was explained to me, Ms. Walton could’ve opened a traditional school in Florida right now, but because she’s looking to innovate, she must prove to the State of Florida that her method works in order to have a school. That’s where this pilot program comes in.

Centered on Magnum theory, StenoKey utilizes Realtime Coach to grade students instantly. Instead of a traditional model where students learn theory and then move into speed, StenoKey seeks to introduce speed right from the beginning. Students are expected to reach introductory levels of speed in each chapter, as high as 60 to 120 words per minute, before moving on to the next chapter. Briefs relevant to each chapter are also incorporated so that students have an early understanding of the concept of briefing.

Through practice logs, Ms. Walton is able to gauge each student’s level of engagement. This way, students that practice often but have difficulty progressing can receive relevant advice on what to practice to. Students that are not practicing can see in writing that they’re not practicing enough to make meaningful progress. In addition, students have designated times to call in, ask questions about things they’ve encountered during a lesson or take, and receive guidance or support. In the words of Ms. Walton, it “helps build community.”

Similar to our brick-and-mortar institutions, StenoKey seeks to get students to stop looking at the stenotype keys. As early as week two, students are encouraged to stop looking down. The program, by design, acknowledges that five-minute takes may be harder for people who are just starting out. Each chapter has a syllabic 120 WPM test. At chapters 11 to 20, that test is a 2 minute, 140 WPM test. By chapter 41, students are expected to be taking five-minute takes at up to 180 WPM.

The overall goal is not just to reach a working speed of 225, but to have students working towards RMR-like speeds of up to 240 to 260 WPM. Numbers, long the bane of learning reporters, are baked into the program from chapter 12 onward. As it is not yet a school, the program does not offer “academics,” but it does offer one grammar rule every chapter to keep students’ transcription sharp. In addition, it gets into the finer points of realtime writing by explaining conflicts. Magnum theory is conflict free, but the lessons go further by teaching learners about “inconsequential conflicts,” or conflicts that can be spotted and corrected easily during editing on a regular deposition or job.

Asked about superstars in the program, one learner was said to have made it through chapter 12 in six hours. Ms. Walton’s nieces, 12 and 14, also attend the program, and have completed 9 chapters. Part of the success of the program seems attributable to in-depth error analysis. Students are encouraged to identify and analyze their mistakes, either in how they practice or how they write, and fix it. Students are also encouraged to read each other’s notes because sometimes students have an easier time pointing out and learning from others’ mistakes than their own. Asked about the biggest challenge of running such a program, Ms. Walton admitted that not every individual commits to the program. Some just don’t put forward as much effort as they expressed they would during their introduction interview.

StenoKey is looking at helping people with all different learning styles. For visual learners, each chapter has two videos,  a professional video and a “Katiana Teaches” video. The videos work together to give students an in-depth understanding of each chapter. Student feedback from each chapter also goes into tweaking the program to be more successful. Not just for students, StenoKey also has had two working reporters join the program in order to improve their realtime writing. In that sense, StenoKey can also be viewed as a Realtime Development Program. “Magnum Steno is not hard to understand. It’s very systematic” says Walton. She explained that writers do not have to change their whole theory to adopt some Magnum and shorten their writing. “Look for what is holding you back in your writing. There are realtime reporters in every theory out there, and with the right mindset, you can be better.”

One might look at such an idea and wonder if there’s a way to get involved. To that end, Ms. Walton says she’s looking into the possibility of bringing on assistants for administering StenoKey and getting more people engaged with it. She may also be seeking a programmer to develop readback tools or materials.

At that point, Katiana had to go and counsel her program’s attendees. Before we hung up, I was able to get that the pilot program is currently $200 a month and always online. Currently, she’s looking at the possibility of having a longer, more valuable subscription model, and weighing options out. Overall, I think that the idea of fully integrating speed and theory is a valuable one. If students are able to hit working speeds faster than in the past, our shortage becomes a bad memory for the next three decades and beyond. I would urge associations and schools to keep an eye on developments here. If the results start coming in that this is a better method, it may be worth putting some money down on the expansion or adoption of this type of educational innovation. From a distance, I’ve read a little about Walton’s Lady Steno Speed Clinic. I’ve seen the testimonials. I know her heart’s in the right place when it comes to this field. I hope we’ll see similar success and glowing reviews for StenoKey!

Government v Gig Economy

There’s been quite a buzz in California because the politicians out there rather quickly moved to get rid of the gig economy. In my mind, it’s not hard to see why. The gig economy, as a whole, hurts workers. I have opined before that there are many benefits to classification as an employee. In brief, employers stand to save as much as thirty percent by misclassifying employees. Employees have many protections that independent contractors just don’t.

I rarely broach this topic. There are likely to be comments that these ideas are crazy or fanciful. We are independent contractors. We have always been independent contractors. But when you look at the common law definition of an employee, whether the “employer” has control over the work you’re doing, the waters can and do become very muddy. I came across a very interesting truth years ago. An employer and an “employee” can call the relationship an independently contracted relationship, but upon review in an executive or judicial matter like taxes, unemployment, discrimination, workers compensation, the government or a judge can still make a determination that the relationship is an employer-employee relationship. It doesn’t matter what you think, it matters how you’re treated. Of course, ironically, if you think you’re an independent contractor, chances are you’re not going to bring an unemployment claim under a common law employee theory!

Why is this worth talking about? Succinctly, the government has a very strong interest in eradicating the gig economy. There will always be, logically, more employees than employers. When you introduce the gig economy, that is, the misclassification of employees as independent contractors, you introduce many more entities the government has to track to enforce its tax laws. Government may also say it’s about protecting workers, but ultimately, I’d bet money it’s about the money.

So we, us, our entire industry, in many states, but right now California, will have to decide how to handle this. One solution that has been proposed is having a court reporter carve out, exempting us from any law that more strictly classifies workers. Another solution, I propose, is to be ready for reclassification. Start looking at all the different ways employment contracts can be structured and unions can be formed. Start figuring out ways to keep your current quality of life and work as, ostensibly, a commission-based employee, or an employee paid by the page.

This is not so much a declaration of how we should do things, but a serious suggestion to everyone that follows me, no matter what side you’re on, start thinking about how you can benefit yourself and your fellow reporter regardless of how things shake out. If you win an exemption in state law, fine. If you do not, and you find yourself reclassified, take advantage of every single one of your new rights without hesitation. Quite frankly, if it comes down to it, and you have to unionize and get the right to refuse work in your union contract, do it. Do whatever it takes. But let this be a time where we inform each other and share opinions on which way to go, and why that’s more or less valid than another option.

Keep in mind, even as independent contractors, understand that you can still lobby for legal protections. NYC has, according to the Freelancers Union and others, taken major steps to protect freelancers by requiring independently contracted employees actually have contracts, and enacted discrimination protection for independently contracted workers. So you see? It is not a binary choice of win or lose. This is now a matter of win no matter what happens. Do not close off your mind to the possibilities, and you will find a route to victory in every state this becomes an issue.

October Occupations 2019

Before we get into this post I just want to say I updated the old Get A Job post to include the exams page of NYSUCS. I still say that every jobseeker in New York should be checking the pages linked there every 15 to 30 days to be safe. Share findings. Be committed to keeping everyone up to date. If everyone is talking about where the work is, nobody’s left in the dark.

Even though this page launches October 1, postings are only current as of September 30.

DANY is still hiring for their grand jury reporter position. It’s a great job. Definitely give it a shot.

Special Narcotics Prosecutor, as I recall, had a posting for one grand jury reporter. Now there’s a posting for two. I say that if you haven’t applied yet, it’s your lucky day, go for it.

The state court system is still accepting applications for the provisional court reporter job. If you didn’t take the test, it still might make sense to apply. If they didn’t get enough passes on the civil service exam, they’re going to need you.

Southern District, that’s federal court, is still looking for a reporter. Don’t let this great opportunity go to waste if you’ve got the certifications or skill necessary to work with SDNY.

There are over ten vacancies federally all around the country. If New York’s not where your heart is, no big deal, but you’re not allowed to leave (joke).

Plaza continues to keep a posting for court reporting and English instructors.

New Jersey has apparently started hiring for the first time in a long time. I had posted this on Facebook but not on Stenonymous. Hopefully the government has realized the inherent value of having someone personally responsible for making the record.

Freelancers, I know that there’s often not a lot of postings on here with regard to work for you. I will work on something that might help there. Until then, you’re free to check out my recent post on historic data and inflation, as it impacts every dollar we make every day we breathe. I have been getting emails from Magna claiming over $100 in bonus fees. Now that I think about it, this probably gives you a clue what’s actually being charged for appearance fees, and a peak into the law of supply and demand. You’re in demand. Your skills are in demand. Act accordingly, do great work, and make a great record.

Fun fact. In the editor this post has no bullet points. In the preview it does. Which version will everyone see? That is the question. If you’ve ever wondered why some posts seem to have bizarre formatting, I blame computers.

Outfluence by Al Betz

I had posted in the New York State Court Reporters Association Facebook about how many people would be interested in participating in a business course. Regardless of how many votes that eventually gets and what happens, I wanted to put out there what Anthony Frisolone shared: There is this amazing company out there aimed at helping students with understanding communication and value. They tell it like it is on their site. Schools tend to teach academics and many of the finer points of how to be a professional go untaught or under-taught. At a glance, it’s something that could be invaluable to any student, and something that should be shared far and wide.

I’ve been in the field for years and didn’t know this was an option, so I’m willing to bet there are people out there that don’t know about this and could use it. Maybe associations can use it. Maybe schools. If enough people show an interest, I myself would be happy to organize something in the New York area. For now, however, let me make good on my promise to spread the word. Check out Outfluence.

How To Create Timed Dictation

There are various types of learners. Some like to see things in print. Some like to watch videos. I’m a one-man shop, and can’t tailor everything to every learning type, but I do make it a point to try to be accessible and offer multiple solutions to a thing. I’ve got a video on this topic, but it makes good sense to have written instructions.

It’s easy. Take the WPM you want to mark. Let’s say 40 WPM. Divide that by 4. That gives you how many words you need to say every 15 seconds to hit 40 WPM. Often we indicate the 15-second markers with some kind of indicator, like slash marks ( // ), either manually or automatically. Then we read back the dictation, and every 15 seconds, make sure we hit the slash mark. Just keep in mind that this is for word count only. Standard dictation has an average syllabic density of 1.5 syllables. So a marked dictation for word count, for a 40 WPM should look something like the example below:

“There are several things that we must remind ourselves //from time to time.
Succinctly, we must remember that in //a great state like New York the right of the //jury trial is not absolute. In New York City a //person charged with a B misdemeanor can be forced to //trial by judge as opposed to trial by jury. This //trial by a judge is also called a bench trial.
//This can be confusing for a layperson like myself because //we are taught that in America a person must be //found guilty by a jury of his or her peers //before he or she may be convicted of a crime. //There’s no shame in holding this belief, as Article III //of the American constitution and the Sixth Amendment suggest that //one must be tried by a jury.
The Supreme Court //of the United States decided that the right to a //jury trial only pertains to serious crimes. Serious crimes are //defined in terms of jail exposure. If the potential jail //time is six months or less, a crime is not //serious and so does not need to be tried by //jury.

Even more fascinating is that the jail time is //looked at per offense. So if someone is charged with //and convicted of 21 B misdemeanors and sentenced consecutively as //opposed to concurrently, that person could theoretically go to jail //for 10 years without a trial by jury.

I think //that the best way to find out what the American //public think of this concept is to publicize it. Obviously, //all of this information is available publicly and can be //found easily in an internet age. The problem with nearly //infinite knowledge is that we take it for granted and //don’t challenge our beliefs to see how accurate or inaccurate //they may be.

As I said before, from time to //time, you should remind yourself that there are things that //you may believe or take for granted that are not //true, or not completely true. Ignorance certainly has its place //in life, and we cannot always search for every answer //all the time, but it is worthwhile, from an academic //and philosophical perspective, to question.

Question yourself. Question what you //believe. When you’re finished questioning all of that, question it //again. Great things can come from an inquiring, honest mind. //One does not need to be a genius in order //to innovate. One need only be reliable, persistent, and considerate //to become an agent of change in the local, state, //national, or even international communities.”

It’s really that simple. With a little time and effort, anyone can do it.

Forgiving Your Impostor Syndrome

There can be a culture shock for students who get out of reporting school and jump directly into the freelance world. One minute you’re in a t-shirt and jeans tapping away in a class of people with about the same skill level as you, and the next minute you find yourself at the head of the table, more or less alone, and in charge of making the legal record of deposition proceedings. Even worse, the people you’re working with don’t always cooperate. Even worse, you may not have ever seen a legal proceeding before.

There may be a feeling building that you are inadequate, or that you handled a particular situation poorly, or even that you made a mistake! Everyone makes mistakes. The reporter who tells you, “I never make mistakes,” makes mistakes. The reporter who tells you they’ve never had a complaint makes mistakes. The reporter who tells you mistakes were made, usually on your part, most definitely makes mistakes! That multimillion dollar corporation you work for? They make mistakes too.

The mistakes are not the problem. Being unwilling to learn is where many struggle. Be trainable. Be willing to question yourself and sometimes even your “superiors” to find the right answer. Be willing to reach out and ask a mentor how you could’ve handled something better. Be willing to talk to several mentors if a topic seems controversial. In a regular office or court environment, we have coworkers, union reps, and generally people to talk to about how to handle things that come up. As independent contractors we’re our own business, and navigating these things on the fly can be challenging.

Those feelings of inadequacy? Treat them like a bad dream. Forget them, go about your day, and forgive yourself. Learn what you can and move on. A lot of times I try to offer numbers and science to back up what I’m telling people. Today’s a lesson straight from the “been there, done that” camp of court reporting. Years of observation. You know what you’ll see very rarely? People wearing their mistakes. Nobody is sitting there saying, “yeah, I totally botched a job at the start of my career 10, 20, 30 years ago.” The truth isn’t that nobody has ever botched a job in the history of reporting, but that professionals learn from what happened and move forward into long and illustrious careers.

Your career can be long and illustrious. But if you suffer from feelings of inadequacy or frustration from difficult challenges, one of the first steps is going to be learning to let them go and do what you’ve trained to do. The next step? Training yourself to do better. Before long, you’ve got yourself a staircase, and hopefully that day you’ll turn around and help others build theirs.

Shortage Solutions 10: Contract or Employment

Can you believe this blog has covered 10 ideas for addressing the shortage? Time flies. Having given the whole court reporting shortage issue some more brainstorming, it’s worth bringing up for discussion the solutions that will follow. As always, happy to have comment on this issue. First, contractual agreements. In the field today, many reporters work under a verbal agreement, or a very informal email or rate sheet agreement. Even in places where independent contractors are required to have contracts, much of the business is contracted verbally or less formally.

Anecdotally, there’s something respectable about putting things in writing. People are more likely to live up to their word when there are clear terms of engagement. Need a freelancer to be on call to cover? Get it in writing. Throw them a little consideration (money) for their availability. Create easy-to-understand terms and expectations on availability. Create fair and realistic penalties for breach of contract on either side, or remedial terms that both sides can live with.

That lets me move on to another thought process. There is nothing in US law, to my knowledge, that prohibits a company from hiring employees and paying them a per-page commission or per diem rate. Pretty much no reporter makes less than minimum wage, so compliance with minimum wage laws is trivial. What is stopping a company from shifting its workforce from 1099 reporters to employees? Nothing. Nothing but a different set of paperwork and some accounting changes. Compliance with workers compensation laws may need a little creative insuring to allow reporters to transcribe from home if they choose to give employees that option. But this does not seem like an impossibility, merely a challenge for the entrepreneurial to overcome.

Why these solutions? Frankly, one of the issues with shortage boils down to the inconsistency of freelance reporting. If reporting firms nail down some availability, via employment contract or independently-contracted agreement, they can have a more realistic idea of how many reporters they have versus how many they need. Businesses survive and thrive off of mastering their staffing needs. Reporting businesses will be no different, and in the end will rise and fall based on their ability to meet demand. In this case, the demand being the service that so many stenographic reporters are ready, willing, and able to provide.

The Resurgence

It was looking pretty bad for steno for a while. Schools were closing. Courts were pushing stenographers out. Easy example, a few decades ago, stenographers started getting pushed out of New Jersey courts. The wheels of progress and the winds of change are slow, but I was fortunate enough to see this spot for a stenographic reporter pop up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. This is evidence to me that we can recover lost ground.

And there is certainly ground to recover. The Workers Compensation Board of New York moved to recording and having their stenographers transcribe. Our NYSCRA and others pushed to have the legislature mandate use of stenographic reporting, and the bill to do so was passed by the assembly and senate, but vetoed by Governor Cuomo. Needless to say, whenever New York decides to elect a new governor, it will be time for us to try again.

But seeing such a push by stenographers everywhere to educate the public and continue training each other to provide the best quality records possible, there’s no doubt in my mind that we can continue to take back any areas of the market that were lost.

I’ve gone over the math many times. There are more of us and so many ways to spread the message that stenography is still relevant and superior in this modern world. Old keyboard, new tricks. The best part of it is that as the push continues, people and companies are rising up to start new education programs. Just this year, by my own count, we’ve had something like a half a dozen programs open up and enrolling future stenographers.

The sweeter irony is that digital reporting very well may face the same shortage it tried to use against us. As word about stenography spreads, many transcribers are realizing that stenography can save them time and money in their transcription work, or that they can use stenography as a springboard into a career that is, on average, about double the pay. I’ve seen at least two social media posts in the last seven days about transcribers and digitals switching to steno. Let’s face it, anyone saying stenography is equal is running on intel that’s six years old. At that rate, they’ll catch on and get back on the wagon sometime in the next sixty. We can’t wait for them.

The truth is that from independent people like myself or Mirabai Knight, to major stenographic organizations like ASSCR or NCRA, to all the many consumers, judges, lawyers, stenographic court reporting has a lot of allies. It’s not going away. The New York State Court System said as much. We know the truth. All that’s left is to get out there, tell it, train our students to be the best they can be, and see the resurgence of stenography spread across the country.

Do You Log Your Practice?

Steno students, do you keep track of how much you’re really practicing? Some of the most successful stenographers out there practiced at least 2 to 4 hours in addition to school to reach their goals. It is a whopping time commitment, and there are simple things you can do to increase your monitoring of practice and progress.

One easy, old-fashioned way to do it is a practice log. The one I have here will take all the hours you input into column B and add them together to give your entire month total of practice. A really solid month of practice and good goal to have for speed students is 100 hours a month. So take this log, or design your own, and take the next step in holding yourself accountable and living up to your potential. (DROPBOX)

Recording Grand Jury (NY)

So I’ve been following the facts on a series of cases picked up by the Batavian and Daily News. The very short story, with some extrapolation, is that a grand jury stenographer contracted by the district attorney was apparently using the AudioSync feature in our modern stenotypes. This caused the defense attorneys to seek dismissals of the indictments. As best I can tell, and after writing Batavian author Howard Owens and one of the attorneys, who had stated it was a Judiciary Law misdemeanor, I pieced together the following with regard to grand jury recording law in New York:

Criminal Procedure Law 190.25(4) makes it very clear that grand jury proceedings are secret. Judiciary Law 325 gets into how it shall be lawful for a stenographer to take grand jury proceedings, and doesn’t explicitly allow audio recording. Penal Law 215.70 talks about unlawful disclosure and lists the crime as a class E felony. Finally, Penal Law 110 tells us an attempted E felony becomes an A misdemeanor.

What can we further infer from all that? Well, as best I can tell, the indictments are only dismissed if it’s shown that the recording altered the testimony or proceedings in some way, and the defense is given the burden of proving that. As of writing, no indictment has been dismissed because of recording. That said, this opens up a serious concern for grand jury stenographers across New York. Recording the grand jury proceedings may be construed as attempted unlawful disclosure, and thanks to Judiciary Law 325, it may be difficult or impossible to argue that such recording is in the course of your lawful duties. Like Frank Housh in the video linked above, I was shocked that we could work in this industry for years and not ever be told the law surrounding that. Admittedly, I was a grand jury stenographer in New York City for months, and while I understood that not recording was a condition of my employment, I did not know that recording could theoretically give rise to a criminal prosecution. It is up to us to keep ourselves and each other informed, and now we know. This is not a joke, and you could go to jail for up to one year and have a criminal record for up to ten years on an A misdemeanor.

That caution stated, as of writing, there has been no prosecution of any grand jury stenographer for that specific reason, so it seems that the district attorneys or assistant district attorneys involved in these cases disagree with defense’s contention that this rises to the level of a misdemeanor. It also appears that recording of the proceedings does not automatically invalidate indictments.

The court rules Part 29 and Part 131 did not come up in my correspondence with anyone involved in this matter, but they are tangentially related and may be worth a review. And remember, nothing written here pertains to federal grand jury proceedings. We are talking strictly the New York State courts.

Any future updates to this matter will be posted right here.