How court reporting companies are getting away with charging top-shelf prices for undervalued work…
The overpriced court reporter page is something that comes up occasionally in legal circles. All through my early career, law firm owners I worked with mentioned how their firms were stuck with expensive court reporter bills. As a young stenographic court reporter, I was paid very little, and later learned that court reporters in my city were about 30 years behind inflation. This set me down a path of skepticism when it came to what court reporters are told about themselves, their industry, and the public’s perception of them. How could lawyers be paying so much when I was making so little and such a large part of the transcript creation was on me?
Years later, as it turned out, some of the largest court reporting companies would get together using a nonprofit called the Speech-to-Text Institute (STTI). That nonprofit would go on to mislead consumers about the stenographer shortage to artificially increase demand for digital court reporting. Tellingly, while a U.S. Legal Support representative had no problem using the word “libel” on one of the female members of my profession, USL and the other multimillion dollar corporations never dared utter a word about my eventual fraud allegations. The companies wanted to trick consumers into believing stenographers were unavailable due to shortage and force digital court reporting on them, where matters are recorded and transcribed.
This set off alarm bells in the world of court reporting. Stenotype manufacturing giant, Stenograph, also represented in STTI’s leadership, shifted from supporting realtime stenographic reporters to shoddy service, and began to call its MAXScribe technology realtime. Realtime, as many attorneys know, is a highly trained subset of court reporting that often comes with a premium. These bait-and-switch tactics on the digital court reporter side of the industry caused a nonprofit called Protect Your Record Project to spring up and begin educating attorneys on what was happening in our field. But as of today, the nonprofit has not reached a level of funding that would allow it to advertise these issues on a national scale — this blog’s in the same boat.
So as more of the workforce is switched to digital reporters / recorders and transcribers, we’re seeing companies use influencers and other media to lure transcribers in for low pay. In short, digital court reporting is now synonymous with side hustle. These companies are going to take the field of skilled reporters that law firms and courts know and love, replace them with transcribers, and go on charging the same money. For the stenographer shortage, these folks were dead silent for the better part of a decade. Now that they need transcribers to replace us, they’re going all out to recruit.
TranscribeMe, by the way, just entered a partnership with Stenograph.
“What do I care?” That’s what a lot of lawyers and paralegals might be asking at this point. Well, I may not write as well as Alex Su, but I’ll do my best here. First, there are egalitarian concerns. In the Testifying While Black study, stenographers only scored 80% accuracy on the African American Vernacular English dialect. This was widely reported in the media, but what was lost by the media was the reveal of pilot study 1, which showed everyday people only transcribe with an accuracy of about 40% (e226). When we’re talking about replacing court reporters with “side hustle technology,” we’re talking about a potential 50% drop in accuracy and a reduction in court record quality for minority speakers, something courts are largely unaware of. According to the Racial Disparities in Automatic Speech Recognition study, automation isn’t coming to save us either. Voice writing is the best bet for the futurists, and it’s being completely ignored by these big companies.
There are also security concerns. When we’re talking about utilizing transcribers, we’re talking about people that have an economic incentive to sell any private data they might gain from the audio or transcript. If transcription is outsourced, a bribe as low as $600 might be enough to get people acting unethically. Digital court reporting companies have already shown they’re not protective of people’s data — in fact, companies represented in the Speech-to-Text Institute. This also leads to questions about remedies for suspected omissions or tampering. Would you rather subpoena one local stenographer or teams of transcribers, some possibly outside of the jurisdiction?
Finally, there’s an efficiency issue with digital court reporting. Turnaround times can be much slower. Self-reported, it can take up to 6 hours to transcribe 1 hour of audio. By comparison, 1 hour of proceedings can take a qualified stenographer 1 to 2 hours to transcribe. That’s 3 to 6 times faster. Everyone here knows stenographers aren’t perfect and that backlogs happen. Now imagine a world where the backlog is 3 to 6 times what it is today. In one case, a transcript took about two months to deliver. If we’re going to hire teams of transcribers to do the work of one stenographic court reporter, aren’t we going backwards?
This is eerily similar to what went on in medical transcription. Competing interests played games to nobody’s benefit.
Consumers are the ones with the power here. They can demand stenographers, utilize companies that aren’t economically incentivized to lie to them, and spread awareness to other consumers. Consumers, lawyers and court administrators, decide the future. Knowing what you do now, do you want a court reporter or a side hustler at your next deposition or criminal case?
Written by Christopher Day, a stenographic court reporter in New York City that has been serving the legal community since 2010. He is also a former board member of the New York State Court Reporters Association and a former volunteer for the National Court Reporters Association STRONG Committee. Day also authors the Stenonymous blog, the industry’s leading independent publication on court reporting media, information, data, analyses, satire, and archiving of current events. He also appeared on VICE with regard to the Testifying While Black study and fiercely advocated for more linguistics training for court reporters in and around New York State.
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By sheer coincidence, an article on the side hustle was released the same day as my post. NCRA STRONG’s Lisa Migliore Black and Kim Falgiani really hit it out of the park with this one. Apparently FTR and Rev say they have security in place to prevent sensitive data from being shared. But FTR is known for selling “deficit products,” and Rev is known for its massive security breach. So check out the article by Chelsea Simeon linked above and enjoy!