U.S. Legal Support Charged the Equivalent of $4.90 on a Copy Sale in CA

Thanks to my amazing network of sources, I got my hands on another document that gives us a more complete picture of what attorneys are dealing with.

In brief, US Legal wanted $550 for a 112-page transcript copy. That boils down to the equivalent of $4.90 a page. The lawyer wanted to pay $0.25. The court more or less split the baby and said $2.50 was reasonable.

Three major highlights: Herein it talks about US Legal charging for things the attorney did not explicitly order. I cannot think of anything that would support my contention that the company has an honesty problem more. But since over a thousand people have liked my Tweet about Giammanco, I guess that’s old news.

But more than that, reporters making less than $2.50 on a copy should realize that a court just came to a conclusion that $2.50 is reasonable. Guess what New York companies have been paying reporters for the last decade? About 25 cents. Hey, New York, it’s time for a raise. Even our court copy rate of $1.00 falls well short of what California calls reasonable. This isn’t greed, it’s basic math and economics.

But more than that, we now have good evidence of the cost shifting I wrote about. By undercharging original clients and inflating copy costs, the larger companies in my field are overcomplicating the market. Add that to the despicable lies of Veritext and US Legal, and you have a pretty compelling reason to never do business with either.

And in its own defense, US Legal wanted to make the argument that all the court reporting companies charge inflated prices, an argument which was, thankfully, flatly rejected.

They’re not alone though. I’ve reviewed documents showing Naegeli attempted to charge about $11.50 a page on a copy sale in Washington State. But that story is for another day. In the meantime, court reporters, remember that your worth is what you are able to negotiate. It is not tied to what anyone dictates to you. Don’t believe me? There are plenty of other role models to look at.

Though not too many of them are fighting for you the way you could.

PS. For anyone feeling a little lost, court reporters tend to charge by the page. Original transcripts tend to be more than copies of that same original. Depending on the market, we are about 30 years behind inflation. So while systematically underpaying court reporters, companies like USL are actually charging ridiculous amounts to satisfy their bloated management overhead. Because we stenographers are a heavy ethics culture and fairly connected to each other, the companies have an interest in breaking us and replacing us with digital reporters despite evidence that utilization of digital reporting disproportionately impacts minority speakers.

BLS Statistics on Our Field May Be Unreliable

During the course of the ad campaign about US Legal’s dishonesty, an astute commentator mentioned that they believed I was giving people bad life advice by advocating for them to get into court reporting. The reasoning was actually very sound. They said the field is growing much slower than average. In fact, if you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics page for us, this is ostensibly true, the growth is a slow 3%

But this doesn’t tell us the whole story. What about if we use the WayBack machine to see what the page read in January 2014?

10% growth and an employment change of 2,000 expected by 2022! And when did that data get updated? As far as I can tell, sometime between 2014 and December 2016.

What changed between 2014 and 2016? We started recruiting more. So the idea that we went from a 10% growth to a 2% or 3% growth that then remained mostly stable until October 2021 and somehow that resulted in the addition of only 100 jobs is just ludicrous. Our big retirement shortage crisis was set to start in 2018 and continue through 2033. Ducker was a forecast made before NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and the growth of Open Steno. The abysmal 3% growth rate is after Ducker. What’s missing? BLS has our numbers all wrong. They think about a third of the field is self-employed.

In actuality, at least according to Ducker’s 2013-2014 outlook, we’re about 70% freelance.

Some small sliver of the freelancers are employees or were in the past, but that’s the exception, not the norm.

So the BLS thinks we’re 34% self-employed. 34% of that 21,000 number is about 7,000, and we’re about 70% self-employed, which is roughly double their estimate. Based on that, I conclude they’re probably not counting about 7,000 freelancers, which puts us just ahead of NCRA’s estimate of 27,000 and gives us about 28,000 court reporters.

In brief, the health of our field may be far better than presently-available BLS statistics show. I would love to get the straight number of graduates between 2013 and 2021 and compare that to the 2018 opportunity forecasted by Ducker, which was about 5,690. The 2018 forecasted supply of stenographers was 27,610, very close to that 27,000 estimate by NCRA or my 28,000 estimate that assumes the BLS is wrong. I do not presently have access to graduate numbers, but if the graduate pool was much higher or much lower than 6,000, it would give us a more accurate picture of where we are, with a higher amount of graduates being very good and a lower amount of graduates being very bad. California would be in the most dire position. Their shortage was forecasted to be 5x to 20x worse than any other state. If California can survive and thrive over the next decade, the rest of us can too.

If we believe the NCRA’s numbers, we have likely recruited just under what we needed to by 2018. If my assessment of the BLS and Ducker data is correct, we recruited just above what we needed in 2018. Either way, it seems we will need to continue this period of heavy recruitment to keep pace with the retirements that are going to happen over the next ten years. Failing to do so would be catastrophic for our field. While I still think it’s very clear that the shortage has been exacerbated by companies like US Legal, Veritext, and Planet Depos, and am horrified by their collective, seemingly intentional, failure to attempt to recruit stenographers, at the end of the day, it’s up to us to make up for their bad behavior and end this shortage the same way we ended the last one. We have to keep building interest in this field, whether that’s through media, press releases, word of mouth, or smoke signal.

Anyone demoralized by the 3% growth number should take comfort in seeing just how fast those stats can change. Our actions greatly impact those numbers. Consider that the 10% estimate came just after a wave of recruitment by schools, the same wave that I was recruited during, and that the 3% estimate came in the middle of a depressed market where court reporters were not recommending this job to anyone because they were working very hard to maintain the quality of life of past reporters. Perhaps if investors were plopping down $200 million on stenographic companies with no future, we’d be growing at 22% too.

That’s not even a joke. Let me lose $10 million in a quarter and I’ll double everyone’s page rates. This field would be about triple its size. The money being dumped on digital reporting is literally the only thing that keeps it competitive with stenography.

If you lost $10 million between March and June, raise your hand.

The only way to get people interested in our field is to broadcast ourselves. To that end, if you or your organization would like help writing and releasing a paid press release, please reach out to me. I can’t do it for free but I’m very serious about boosting the amount of content out there on us. The numbers show that with the slightest effort we will produce more content than digital reporting companies, recruit enough people to take back the rest of the industry, and enjoy much more of our $3 billion field. Sound good? ChristopherDay227@gmail.com.

Was Ducker Worldwide Wrong About Stenographer Shortage?

The main talking point of some industry hacks, is that we have a low pass rate for stenographic court reporting, about 10 to 20%, and therefore we cannot solve the stenography shortage by recruiting because recruitment will “never” keep up with demand. This is extrapolated from the information that was provided in the Court Reporting Industry Outlook 2013-2014 by Ducker Worldwide. As stated in the beginning of the report, the way that this forecast was created was by interviewing about 120 people from in and around our field, as well as some proprietary data analysis by Ducker.

My main strategy, up to now, has been to explain why these people are extrapolating incorrectly or making bad arguments. I’ve made counter arguments that suggest the shortage is best solved through stenographic reporting that put theirs to shame and have not been refuted. I’ve unapologetically named names on the corporations that are trying to bump us out because this matters to me. This is my field. This is what I want to do. This is where I can help society the most. If they are successful in changing the minds of reporters and consumers, my job is likely to be eliminated someday or the pay is likely to be substantially reduced. People will suffer greater inaccuracies in their court records because ASR is 25 to 80% accurate and non-stenographers transcribe English dialects like African American Vernacular English (AAVE) at a rate half as accurate as court reporters. To me, there is no greater dishonor than to do well and lift the ladder up while others are trying to climb. Not only are companies attempting to lift the ladder, they are indifferent to the fact that they would hurt people in the process.

I tried to be diplomatic about it for four years. I tried to convince colleagues and companies in a more polite, erudite manner. I made a very open warning that if they did not make companies where we were the standard, we would build them. We’re building. Look at the lawyers who started Steno. They put us in the name of their company. Not to mention Steno Captions LLC, a company that not only put Steno in the name, but gave me solid data that helped me show our field that VITAC was offering a disgustingly low amount of money. I’m not prescient, but I just told you that I love my field. I know my field. Humans are literally built to be this way; we get better and more knowledgeable at anything we do a lot. Now I have another open warning: Change direction or we will figuratively burn pathetic digital reporting businesses to the ground. It clearly isn’t as scalable or logistically feasible as it was thought to be and digital proponents look like clowns to anyone paying attention.

In this country, the elements for defamation are that plaintiff must prove defendant published a false statement of fact to a third party that causes damage to plaintiff. It’s been years of publishing information and not a single company has threatened to sue. That’s a clear indicator to me that I am accurate or real close in just about everything I publish, including that big companies may well be facing financial trouble. Sooner or later, the majority of reporters are going to work out that I am publishing truth. They will, as I have, work out that millions of dollars don’t mean much if these companies don’t have a good business model. By trying to force us out of the market, companies are giving themselves 27,000 competitors, a move that should make shareholders physically ill. No longer will we accept the false narrative that “there’s nothing they can do.” They’re bright people. Insist that they figure it out and see how fast they figure it out. Tell them to stop throwing up their little social media posts or reporter corners and calling that support while they put advertisement dollars and training effort down on digital. Nobody who thinks about the situation for more than a minute or two believes that they’re using digital because they can’t find stenographers. We have a national database of stenographers that goes underutilized. How do I know it’s underutilized? Easy. When I was a young reporter, I got inundated with emails from agencies that found me on Sourcebook. Today, after about four years of blogging, out of all the garbage-like companies that were pushing garbage-like product, namely US Legal, Planet Depos, and Veritext, I have received maybe one email looking for reporters, if that. Other companies are writing me and looking for stenographers. We certainly don’t see any recruitment campaigns as we do with digital. One email in four years? Nothing they can do? How about working with the very established industry that they’re operating in instead of trying to outsmart it? Tipping points are hard. Not getting fully behind stenographers is going to be much, much harder for businesses. Look at the news. Watson didn’t work out. Automation is looking less likely every day. Even the poster child for automation, Elon Musk, is having a rough time making good on his big tech promises. What hope does anyone with less fame or money have? We’re not even playing particularly rough and digital proponents can’t make it work. What happens to big firms when reporters start poaching clients, publishing invoices, publishing client lists, and creating marketing firms that could eclipse the annual marketing budget of any court reporting firm in the country? Again, this is not prescience, it’s observation. I am one guy with a blog. I have about as much money as the bear that wasn’t a bear. If I am able to poke holes and publish things that professional news organizations miss, just imagine what any person reading this is capable of, let alone many thousands of court reporters. That TikTok I posted Monday said it best: Do not fuck with stenographers.

In addition to changing the strategy from diplomacy to Hell March 2, I have to now point out the inherent flaws of relying on Ducker’s 2013 information in 2021. The industry outlook is eight years old at this point. Stenographers had a choice in 2013, go big or go home. After that time, NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno all went big. Plenty of other reporters did too. Kim Xavier began Stenovator Pathway Solutions. Allison Hall set up programs and initiatives to get students in schools and help them find their way, and most recently received an award from the Oklahoma judiciary. Katiana Walton started training people under StenoKey. Shaunise Day started Confessions of a Stenographer. Protect Your Record Project set up strategies to help educate consumers against the pushing of inferior digital reporting products. NCRA Strong created resources for members to help educate consumers. So many people did so many things that I regret ending the list there. The recruitment and content creation efforts of stenographers didn’t double or triple, it exploded exponentially into a runaway train that only keeps accelerating and will only go faster now. Ducker’s top reason for low enrollment was that stenography was relatively unknown. That just isn’t going to be the case anymore. The median age of reporters in 2013 was 51 according to page eight of the report. Today, NCRA statistics state the median age of reporters is 55. It has been eight years. Without any activity whatsoever, the median age should have been 59. We can already see the results of our work.

Another “problem” with relying on the forecast or cherry-picking data from it is that focusing directly on the shortage ignores all the nuance and the actual messaging of the report. Let’s go through the report together and see just how much it supported the conclusion that stenographic court reporters were needed. Check out page six, where they published the segmentation of court reporters to voice writers.

Remember, this is 2013 data.

Voice writing is actually a decent product. Yet voice writers still were only 4% of the field. For about five years companies stood silent. When they had the slightest hiccup in scheduling, 2018, they went digital because “stenographers take too long to train and have too high of a failure rate.” If that were true, perhaps they would have built the voice writing side of their business, since it was already far more established as a modality than digital reporting. It is far more likely that some companies’ ultimate goal is to offshore the work, a disastrous result for our justice system in America due to the fact that offshore transcribers will be beyond the subpoena power of local and state courts. Even if it is not the goal, it is the logical consequence of moving reporter transcription from the front end to the back end and taking us away from public view. What school would open to fill a job that nobody sees or knows about?

The number of reporters entering and retiring is touted by know-nothing companies like US Legal as the reason the stenographer shortage cannot be solved by recruiting more reporters. Recently they put out that we have an annual shrinkage of 920, and I explained why, even assuming that was true, they were wrong. The equation they presented would eventually lead to negative stenographers, which is impossible if there are 200 new entrants a year. Ducker also explains why they’re wrong. At the worst of our decline, when the study was commissioned, we had an estimated 1,500 entrants coming into the field from 2013 to 2018, about 300 a year. Are we really to believe that with all of the effort going into training court reporters and bringing attention to the field that the number of annual new entrants fell between now and then?

It took eight years for our median age to rise by four years.
That means we’re winning.

In addition to Ducker’s forecast with regard to the actual number of opportunities, there was data about violent crime which led to them to believe the demand for criminal court reporters would go up. According to them, it was trending up at that moment.

Trending up, but still negative until 2012.

But when we look at sites like Statista, we see that the violent crime did rise for about three years as predicted by Ducker. Then it started falling again. It is hard to say, given the events of 2020 and 2021, where that per capita violent crime rate is going to go in the years to come. But what we can see with clarity is that Ducker’s information became outdated on violent crime as quickly as 2016. That leads us to the question: What other information might be outdated that we simply do not know about?

Fun fact. You can prove violent video games do not cause violence because violent crime went down while violent video games prospered.

The next few pages of the Ducker Report focus on the demand for stenographic court reporters. It’s probably the single greatest marketing piece of its time for us. We needed people, and the forecast told us that. Page 13 of the report gave us some striking infographics that let us know California and the west coast were going to have the hardest time with meeting the demand.

If California survived past its catastrophic 2018 opportunity, I am pretty sure the rest of the country is going to be okay.
Their shortage is nearly 20x worse than the rest of the country and they have some of the craziest licensing laws there are.

The rest of the report focuses on state projections. Some states were projected to have a surplus. This means that any state with a surplus could theoretically lose reporters to states with shortage problems and still be fine. This is likely what occurred in 2020 when depositions moved online. The fact that depositions moved online and companies continued to push digital is another clear indication that this was never about the shortage. It was about messaging. Signal to reporters that their job is over and get them repeating that news over and over under the mantra of “nothing else we can do but go digital.” Let me pull a word from Stacey Raikes’s amazing JCR article: Hogwash. It was a sweet lie to ride on. It’s over now. And make no mistake that it is a lie so blatantly obvious that I predicted it would occur back in February, writing “there will be a strong push from certain entities to say there aren’t enough of us. That will happen regardless of the truth.” Let’s repeat this: Stenographic reporting is here to stay. There is a place for every single one of our students as long as they work hard and do good work.

So was Ducker Worldwide wrong? Not by my assessment. They made an accurate forecast based off accurate data that existed when the industry outlook was written. That said, as an industry, we need to stop letting others tell us what the report said, really look at it, and encourage colleagues to look at it. It was a message that stenographers were needed. The shortage was not ever impossible to solve. That was a lie propagated by STTI that the corporations picked up when they saw a chance at pushing our educated and highly trained workforce out so that they could exploit digital reporters. Offshore transcribers are also being exploited, with some of them being paid as little as $0.80 a page or $0.24 a minute. The only way that we get pushed out is if we let it happen. I began documenting these events years ago with hope that we would not. Don’t let me down.

Two years ago. This didn’t age well. About six months later the study “racial disparities in automatic speech recognition” was released and showed us ASR was 25 to 80% accurate depending on who’s speaking. Given old patents that show 92% ASR accuracy was possible in 2000, the idea that growth was exponential became laughable.

Addendum:

An awesome Reddit user pointed out that the way I describe the median age here does not account for retiring reporters and assumes none retired out. To that, I would have to partially agree, but also point out that Ducker conceded that many reporters stay past the retirement age, as shown in purple below. The number of reporters that reached retirement age in the last 8 years was not the retirement cliff we have been anticipating. The next ten years is the retirement cliff. So I see it as I do because the reporters that were not yet retirement age as of the Ducker Report are likely to still be with us in large numbers, with some exceptions, such as our very recently retired and beloved Dominick Tursi. Given the substantial increase in stenographic reporter recruitment in the last 8 years, the logical conclusion is that the reporters staying past retirement age are bringing the median age up. There is no doubt that we need to continue our recruitment efforts, but we should no longer be swayed by the arguments that the situation is “impossible.”

“Taking into account that court reporters tend to stay in the workplace longer than average…”

The Magic of Cost Shifting – How Big Companies Beat the Working Reporter

After releasing the article on how a New York reporter doubled their money by taking private clients, I was hit with a scenario. “Chris, I went to get private clients, but they showed me invoices they were getting, and they were lower than what I get from my agency! How does anybody make money in this city?” Subsequently I came across an article regarding Veritext’s lawsuit with US Adjustment Corp., and from that lawsuit I was able to get a whole lot of old invoices.

At a glance, most of the invoices seem to be between $3.40 and $3.95, and this is indeed competitive with the rates given to reporters for O+2 work, which usually lands somewhere between $3.25 and $4.25 with no upcharges. For non-NY readers, your O+1 is our O+2. The witness’s attorney customarily gets their copy without charge. For those of you that would like to peruse 200 pages of invoices, enjoy. The rest of you, keep reading.

Just in case anybody missed it, at least one of these invoices is listed at the Cutting Edge Deposition office, a one-star digital reporting outfit. So there’s at least circumstantial evidence that Veritext was linked to or had a relationship with digital reporting services as early as 2015. Note also that there’s basically no difference between the price listed at the digital firm’s office and any other invoice. As old studies have shown, digital reporting is not cheaper.

Judging by that rating, Cutting Edge might cut some corners.

Obviously, these are all over half a decade old and may not reflect current market rates. Obviously whatever rates USAC was getting were probably discounted for the bulk work in the same way Diamond gave the Law Department great rates. The point stands that companies are finding a way to charge less than the reporter is making. How is that possible?

1. Cost shifting via copies.
2. Zombie behavior.

Cost shifting?
Cost shifting, in this context, is when one party underpays for a service or product, and the cost of that service or product is recovered from another party who is overpaying.

Again, using New York City’s market as an example, an agency could pay a reporter $3.25, $4.25, or whatever rate was agreed upon. The reporter generally makes the majority of that O+2. Where the agencies get their money is typically the copies. Let’s say you send Johnny on a deposition for $4.25 a page, but you give your client a sweet $3.95 rate because they have so much bulk work. A loss, right? Only if the job is an O+2. There’s no statutory cap on copies here that I know of, and copy rates are notoriously bad in New York City, between 25 cents and 50 cents, so a single copy of more than $0.55/page means profit for the company on that job. Just to put this into perspective, I’ve reviewed a Veritext email from the Midwest region that had copy rates in the $3.80 (regular) to $4.80 (expedite) ballpark. The copy rate for officials in New York, who also collect a salary in addition to their pages, has been hovering around a dollar for the last couple of decades. The idea that private sector is not charging more for that is pretty naive. So assuming an original of 3.95/page, a copy sale of 3.80/page, and a payment to Johnny of 4.50/page, the agency is pulling in $7.75/page in revenue. That’s nearly 42% of the money for them for what is essentially a finder’s fee. It also complicates things for Johnny, who can’t promise clients $3.95 unless he’s willing to take a pay cut and gamble on getting copies.

It goes beyond that with what’s called a sliding scale. The sliding scale awards the client, and sometimes the copy purchasers, with a discount dependent on the number of copies sold. Because the reporters are not fighting for their copies, companies have a lot of wiggle room. They can put $8 on a copy invoice. If a lawyer pays it, then they’ve just made $8 a page under the client’s assumption that “court reporters are so expensive.” If the lawyer complains, they can cut that rate down to $4 or $2, tell the lawyer they’re such a great client and getting such a great deal, pay the 25 cents to the reporter, and walk away with significant amounts of money. Think about it this way: Let’s send Sally on an O+6 for a rocking $5.25 a page, original and 4 copy sales at Johnny’s same rates. The agency can charge 2 bucks a page to everyone, walk away with $10 a page, and again make about what Sally is making despite it being Sally that’s doing 99% of the work because binding transcripts really isn’t hard. Again, Sally is stuck in a situation where working on her own might actually make her less money unless and until copy sales come into play. If Sally can’t survive the short-term pay cut, she doesn’t make it to the big bucks that are keeping agency rents paid, and she’s more likely to accept whatever rate the agency wants instead of the best rate her skill can command. And that $5.25 is generous, because prior to the court reporter shortage getting bad, some companies, like Diamond, didn’t even bother to pay all of their reporters copies. So a company like Diamond as it was would’ve been making 60% of the money from the job before factoring in the proofreading fee that some reporters were asked or told to pay.

The darker side of the sliding scale is when companies ask reporters to change their layout or give a discount on multiple copy sales/realtime hookups. There is typically zero guarantee that they are passing on those savings to clients. Think about that the next time you send a job in your preferred layout and an agency asks you to cram it into a new one that widens the margins or changes the page count. The N word can be your friend sometimes. I knew a realtimer who was asked to slide their rate back because of all the parties ordering. Acquiescence meant losing half their money on that job, but failing to acquiesce might’ve meant the entire job being given to someone else. They used the N word, got the job, and made lots of money. Reporters win when they stand up for themselves.

A hyper-realistic depiction of a court reporter using the N word.

Zombie Behavior? Brains…
Several articles ago I explained the concept of zombie companies. Companies can make money through loans and investors, keeping cash flow positive while losing money and/or earning no profit. Zombies can also be defined as companies that are just barely making their debt obligations. 1 in 5 companies examined by Bloomberg were zombies. In a 2019 Kentley Insights report, 1 in 4 court reporting companies was said to be not profitable. Those that were not profitable lost an average of 10% of their revenue a year. These companies can basically use their investor money to hire people and give customers great discounts. If they obtain large enough market share and run competitors into the ground, they can then jack up their prices monopoly style.

This isn’t a fantasy-land scenario. It’s what Uber did. It gave great discounts and even occasionally gave drivers incentives. It killed the taxi industry as best it could, made itself a fixture in people’s lives, and jacked up the rates while claiming a shortage. Meanwhile, the business model is losing billions of dollars a year. Honestly, I’m more concerned with the cost shifting than I am with the zombies. If companies can’t make money exploiting the “driving” skill, companies are doomed when it comes to a specialized skill like legal reporting. This is a simple calculation. About 80% of America drives and about 0.01% of America court reports. It’s about supply and demand. To me, that says that reporting zombie firms are about 8,000 times less likely to be profitable than Uber, a company which despite ubiquity and billions lost has not managed to turn a profit. But the danger of zombies is evident: They can take up significant market share, impact market rates, and bankrupt other service providers for decades before the money runs out. Again, look at what they did to the medallions. A high of $1 million in sales went as low as $140,000 in recent years, likely thanks to companies that do not even have a sustainable model.

What do we do?
Hope. I’ve been told “what? That’s business! You hate business? They’re not doing anything wrong!” Legally they are probably not doing anything wrong in New York. I’ll concede that much until I have real evidence to the contrary. But morally it’s pretty clear this is wrong. Why are the page rates such a shell game? Why is everything so hidden instead of the yesteryear commission split that reporters made? Why aren’t young reporters being taught the value of the copy and their work? It’s easy to control ignorant people and conclude a lot of companies want reporters to be ignorant so that the companies can continue to leech off of the work of reporters. So to address the morality question, ask yourself how you would feel about me if my mantra was “I need you to be dumb so I can profit off your work.” That would be pretty evil, right? How about if I reduced standard turnaround times so you were always too busy with work to think about the situation and whether you were getting a fair deal? Let’s say I wasn’t evil and circumstances just lined up perfectly for me to profit off your ignorance, and I let it happen. Am I a “good person” yet? Am I “not doing anything wrong?” Sometimes it seems we have this bizarre notion that anything goes in business except standing up and saying “no, this is wrong, I won’t cooperate with this.” I’m still in the process of vetting the following, but I was told by a colleague that reporting companies here in New York City brought on salespeople, the salespeople saw the money to be made in this field, started creating their own companies, killed the union, and from there our rates literally stagnated for about 30 years. In my younger years I was literally told “if you don’t like the way it is, leave.” A good four people that I knew in or around my graduating class of 2010 did leave. It’s been an incredible decade and we are now at the point where people are talking about this stuff pretty freely instead of telling newbies they’re the problem and that they should leave. As I see it, hope and communication are winning us many battles.

I can’t say with certainty where the tolerance to everything that keeps reporter rates down comes from Perhaps it’s all exacerbated by antitrust concerns and the fact that our associations cannot engage in anticompetitive behavior such as group boycotts. Perhaps we see they are silenced, so we mimic that silence. NCRA, for example, could never legally denounce Veritext, US Legal, or Planet Depos in the same way I’m allowed to. Maybe that tolerance is linked to survivorship bias. “I was successful and therefore anyone who is not successful must not be trying hard enough.” Maybe that tolerance is linked to expectations and the Pygmalion effect. “There’s nothing I can do, so I won’t try to change anything, and therefore nothing changes, validating my belief that there was nothing I could do.”

There’s no end to the list of “maybes,” but there is a profound power in spreading knowledge. With knowledge on how the court reporting firms are making their money, everyone from the grizzled four-decade reporter to the newbie graduate can compete. That’s a pretty scary thought for anybody who’s been making money off of reporter ignorance. That’s a scary thought for reporting companies that can’t even make a profit in the current climate. But for the people that actually do the work in this field and the reporter-owned companies, it provides real opportunity. Not so entrepreneurial? You’ve seen now hundreds of invoices and just how much money is in this field. It’s time to ask for your fair share. A typical finder’s fee is something between 5% and 35%. Why should you give up 95% on a copy?

Entrepreneurial? Try subcontracting your O+2 out to your non-entrepreneurial colleagues and grabbing those copy jobs. It may be frightening to lose money on any one job, but if you lose $100 on one job and make $1,000 on another, you put more in your pocket, and as I just showed you, it works out mathematically. You can pay your colleagues well and still make boatloads of money. If you’d like to be added to the list of agencies I compiled so that New York reporters can find you, let me know.

There’s no cheap fix. Industry health is a lot like personal health. Took me a long time to get heavy. It was about a decade of decline until I peaked at 290 pounds. It also took a long time and a lot of reporter apathy to get from the golden age 80s to the nightmare of a field I stepped into where rates were lower in 2010 than they were in 1991. Those of you who saw me at NCRA 2021 saw I’m a lot closer to 240 now and headed in a somewhat healthier direction. Without some communication from people that loved me, I probably would’ve remained hopeless and just kept gaining the weight. Similarly we can rehabilitate this field and make the working reporter’s wallet a lot healthier on average, but it’s going to take consistent effort to get word out to the newbies. The long-term consequence of an informed field is probably more stable pricing for consumers, the people we’re doing all this for to begin with, and I can’t see a single drawback.

Addendum:
As pointed out in a comment below, I neglected to point out that agencies also create a word index or concordance index and charge for those pages. Some firms charge a reduced rate and others charge a full rate. In my past experience, no firm paid the reporter for the index. Since it’s a practice that relates so closely to this topic, I am adding it here.

Is VITAC Paying Below Market Rates for Captioners?

About three months ago, after Verbit’s acquisition of VITAC, a well-known captioning provider, I published a strategic overview for captioners and how they can stand up for consumers. Not long ago, a live steno captioner position was posted by VITAC for less than $20 an hour. The position did boast other incentives, such as the potential for health insurance and a 401(k) for full-time captioners. With health insurance being valued by sources like Griffin at $1.52 to $7.42 an hour, it’s fair to say that we can consider a $19.23 hourly rate with benefits a value of about $30 an hour at best and a value of $20.75 at worst.

Remember, the value is slightly higher than the dollar value if benefits are offered.

Stenography is a highly specialized skill. But even other highly specialized skills, like realtime voice writing, were undervalued. The voice captioner posting said $30 hourly at the top, but then in the body of the description, a $17/hr training rate was advertised. It was further advertised that $35,000 could be made in the first year. $35,000 divided by 52 weeks in a year is about $673.08 a week. Assuming a 40-hour workweek, that’s about $16.83/hr — close to half the advertised rate!

Come work for me for $30 an hour! I mean $17! I mean $16.83!

I thought, “if a company is going to pay its specialized workforce $20 or $30 an hour, certainly I feel bad for the positions that do not have labor shortages or specialized skills.” Then I came across VITAC’s posting for Sales Engineer I (SE1). An SE1’s job is all about onboarding new clients and responding to requests from Operations and Sales personnel. They’re offered $58,000 to $70,000 annually, the equivalent of $27.88/hr and $33.65/hr assuming the same 40-hour workweek. So VITAC’s apparent strategy is to pay the stenographer that is providing the actual service to the consumer about 60% of what they’re paying the salespeople. But just to make sure they look good, they added a modern stenotype to the website.

No offense, sales engineer I, but I think captioners have it a little harder than you do.
Maybe if you were offering more than $20/hr, I wouldn’t find this picture so comical.

Of course, having been in the field the last eleven years, I also have some basic familiarity with the rates that captioners and CART providers charge. $20 to $30 for a “live steno captioner” job seemed low to me. Knowing how companies in the court reporting sector have taken advantage of young reporters, I requested information from several service providers in the field with varying degrees of experience in the hopes that I could get solid info out there for young or unknowing captioners. This is what I learned:

Provider A stated that they did not provide broadcast captioning, but did caption telephone calls and Zoom meetings at a rate of “almost $40 an hour” through Innocaption. It was stated that the work was super easy and may even be possible for students to take, though Provider A did mention they usually do not recommend students work. Asked about their understanding of broadcast captioning rates, Provider A stated broadcast captioning was higher.

Provider B
stated “Even as a brand new CART provider, I never made less than $60 an hour. With one company, after I got my [certification], they bumped me to $65. Another company has always been $65 across the board. The third company has different rates for different jobs. Classes are $60 but if you are doing town halls, harder jobs, it is $75. Fourth Company was a smaller company and [they] paid me $80 per hour, and it was only classes. First company I spoke of is out of Illinois, second is Denver, third is California, fourth is Chicago. And I have never done broadcast captioning. I hope that helps!”

Provider C stated that they performed work for call services that did live captioning and were offered $40 an hour, but they were only taking down one side of a conversation.

Provider D, a 27-year veteran of our field and certified realtime reporter, stated that when they took on captioning work, it was 2014, they had a full-time job, and they did not need to make the same high rates independent contractors usually did. They made $50/hr in 2014 and a 2-hour minimum. That work came to a close. Come 2020, Provider D was again offered $50/hr and attempted to negotiate for $80 because the work was dense and contained a lot of science. The firm “did not know” if they could pay $80, and asked Provider D to come down to $70, which Provider D did with the caveat that they would renegotiate at a later date.

Provider D also received a call from a California-based company and negotiated $100/hr with a 2-hour minimum. The firm paying $100/hr expected no rough draft after events. The firm paying $70/hr required a rough draft. A third firm in Florida offered $80/hr. Provider D stated that the swing was generally between $50/hr to $100/hr and that they would never work for $20/hr because captioning is more than knowing realtime, you have to know how to connect to a multitude of platforms and devices, as well as troubleshoot on the fly.

Provider E wrote “My first response when I read [the $20 rate] was OMG! Yeah, that is SUPER low! So here’s what I know from where I sit in the Pacific Northwest:

There are four levels of captioning that I have ascertained.
1. Broadcast captioning, which is a whole other sphere that requires encoding software and usually above and beyond training to do TV captioning. I don’t really know much about that…” “I don’t know what rates they’re charging, but it has to be higher because the software is not cheap, like a $7k add-on with Eclipse.

2. CART captioning, either in person or remote, through a freelance company or own shingle. This is stuff like government meetings, group conferences, seminars and such, $120-$125/hr with 2-3 hour minimum in my area. We are sometimes requested to bring a projector and/or screen, which adds to rental fees. About half of people charge after hours rates on this. I feel the remote world has let this go a bit. But I know when I go back in person that’ll definitely go back in.

3. Schools. One on one with one student. they are notoriously cheap in my opinion even though they’re being paid by ADA funds, from my understanding. Most commonly in my area $85/hr, 2-hr min. But I’ve negotiated more for after hours and weekend work with one college.

4. There is one company whose name escapes me, probably more, who provide a captioner for phone calls. they only pay $30/hr. I was really bothered by this undercutting of the industry when I found out about the rates folks were accepting. But a reporter I talked to about it said [it’s] mostly sitting there doing nothing because you’re only writing half of the conversation, no transcripts, so super easy work. She considered it easy supplemental income.

That $20 is WAY out of line, especially if that requires continuous writing…”

Provider F wrote “everyone has their baseline. I will do $70 and hide my head, for a friend. But my default is $80 or $85. However, if it’s MY work, my clients, I charge 100 or 125 and pay $80 or $90 or $100 depending on the job…”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, $50 in 2014 money is worth $58.08 in June 2021 dollars. $100 in 2014 money is worth $116.15 in June 2021 dollars. Again, for new captioners, this should put into perspective the value of the work and the importance of occasional raises.

I also reached out to StenoCaptions LLC and received the following response:

“Good afternoon, Mr. Day,

Thank you for your question about our company.  StenoCaptions LLC is proud to be a minority woman-owned business.  Our team of independent contractor captioners earn between $100-120 per hour depending on their qualifications and length of time in the field.  As our website discloses, we charge $140 per hour for most jobs.  This means that our captioners, who are the people doing the difficult and demanding work of providing live accurate Communication Access Real-time Translation, net between 70-86% of what we bill.  StenoCaptions LLC is proud to support our highly trained, highly reliable stenographic captioners.  

We are happy to be quoted on your  blog.  Let us know if you have any further questions.

Sincerely,
Wendy Baquerizo and Joshua Edwards
Co-owners
StenoCaptions LLC
StenoCaptions.com”

As of writing, there is little doubt in my mind that the rates being offered by VITAC, and I suppose by extension Verbit, are well below what could be considered a market rate no matter which market in the United States we examine. Again, in the best-case scenario of a $30/hr value, they are paying 40% less than Provider D, whose full-time job was not captioning, made in 2014! A company like Steno Captions is literally paying six times as much to their providers. This has some troubling implications. Verbit’s entire model, as I understand it, is automatic speech recognition transcription coupled with a human transcriber. Verbit claims on its site that after 8 hours it can provide ADA-compliant material at 99% accuracy, at least that’s how I understand their infographic. They also make the claim of 95% accuracy with an 8 to 12-second delay.

To be fair, it takes me about 8 hours to get 99 percent accuracy on 160 pages. But I’m not a captioner.

We have to deal with the hard fact that, in its series A funding, Verbit made the claim that its “adaptive speech recognition tech” could generate detailed transcriptions with over 99 percent accuracy at record speeds. In its series B funding, Verbit, through CEO Livne, said it would not take the human transcriber out of its workflow. Now it’s apparent that Verbit regards “record speeds” as 8 hours. We have to deal with the hard fact that, when studied by people at Stanford, an entire host of automatic speech recognition products from companies far larger than Verbit had accuracy levels that were 25 to 80 percent dependent on who was speaking.

There’s just no good reason to believe that Verbit consistently has the capabilities that it says it has. This is all part of the claim game that I demonstrated earlier this year. In the video I just linked, I tell six lies, one partial truth, and one actual truth in fifteen seconds. I challenged my readers to think about how long it would take to prove the truth or falsity of each claim. I have to make the same challenge here. Verbit’s website boasts that they are trusted by “400+ organizations,” but when one flips through the organization list, one sees about 16 organizations. Even if one wanted to spend the time and energy to fact check the claim of being trusted by 400 organizations, one could not do so. Why bring it up? Because stenographers need to be aware that a lot of the “intimidating” information out there falls apart when given any sort of investigation. Likewise, there are entities out there that will try to convince young captioners that their skill is not worth very much. I’m publishing this information today to counter that.

Perhaps the low pay wouldn’t bother me, but it goes directly against digital recording’s main talking point of “we need to record it because there are not enough stenographers to meet demand.”

You guys showcase the shortage. I’ll keep showcasing your BS.

Maybe the shortage of stenographic court reporters and captioners is exacerbated by companies like this coming in and offering pay that’s nowhere near the market rate. There’s no innovation involved. It’s a shameless war on workers. It doesn’t take a particularly bright person to say “gee, there would be more money for the company if only we could reduce the labor costs.” It also doesn’t take a particularly bright person to point out to captioners that they cannot accept this if they want a healthy field. We’re going to need the entrepreneurial individuals among us to consider jumping in, setting up shop, and competing. We’re going to need captioners to demand the pay they deserve. So if you come across an inexperienced reporter getting told they’re only worth $20/hr, please share this with them and be a major part of pushing back.

Addendum:
I realized after my initial draft that the $20 an hour could be a full-time job. Assuming 7 hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year, that’s a salary of about $36,400, below the national average, and well below what I started working for as a court reporter around $70,000 a year. So even looking at it from the standpoint and potential of “more hours for less pay” I am unimpressed and captioners should be too.

Thinking of Taking Private Clients? New York Reporter: …Trust Yourself and Go Do It.

I had an e-mail exchange recently with a New York stenographic court reporter that began taking private clients. With the understanding their identity would remain anonymous, they gave me good insight into how it has increased their profit. I have presented plenty of academic theory on how low our page rates are here in New York and the importance of copies. Today I get to bring reporters a real-world example of just how much a little risk can increase your bottom line. Check out our Q&A below!

Q. How long have you been reporting?
A. I’ve been reporting for 10 1/2 years.


Q. We’ve had multiple discussions now where you’ve disclosed you’ve taken up private clients. How is that going for you?
A. So far it’s a success. I work with my clients 1-2 times a week, which I expected. They aren’t big firms, so I didn’t expect constant work. In March and September they gave me 15 jobs. One thing I hear people express concern about is collecting money for copies. That is, of course, a concern, and I have had to lean on law firms. But I can say that so far no law firm has stiffed me. And while some have been a little slow to respond, all have. So, fortunately, I haven’t had to chase anyone for payment yet. The best thing is the vastly increased copy rates, which makes this work a whole lot more enjoyable 😉.


Q. Did anybody give you permission to do this or did you just start doing it?
A. No one gave me permission. I took it upon myself. It’s all about developing a relationship with the attorney. I should say mostly. A law firm that has used one agency for many years and is happy with the service will not likely change. But still, without developing the relationship, it is unlikely that they will try to work with you. It can take a while, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. I probably worked with my first client four or five times, but we got along very well. I brought up the possibility of his working with me at a time when there was little pressure. I definitely did not bring it up while on a job for someone else. I took a chance and it worked. He said yes. There are other factors that induced him to switch to me. We worked out a good financial arrangement which benefited his law firm, too.


Q. What are your feelings on poaching?
A. By poaching, do you mean taking clients? When we use that term, it makes this sound like you’re doing something wrong if you take a client. This is common practice in all industries. Most of the client the agencies have, they probably acquired through “poaching.” The only thing to avoid is unethical practices. As I said, I would never broach the subject while on a job for someone else. And of course don’t lie.


Q. The audience is going to want to know some hard numbers. What kind of differences are you seeing in take-home pay?
A. I turned in a job 131 pages long, including the [word index], and got two copies. Total take-home was roughly $1200. That was for a med mal case that might have gone two hours . And by the way, I do not charge high rates. So with a different client with the same factors, the total could have been considerably more. This is not the only one.


Q. Wow. That’s like $9 a page. You charge your clients $9 a page in New York?
A. [No], my rate is closer to 4. Again, this is a relatively low rate. But the real profit is in the copy rate. That’s where you’ll make the money. (Just a side note, not one law firm has contested my copy rates. Hopefully that will never be an issue. I’m saying this for those who are concerned about collecting the payment.) So I don’t mind if the law firm wants to negotiate a rate down a little, not too much, as long as I’m aware I can keep the copy rate. On that 131-page job, nearly $800 of my pay was from the copy rate! Keep this in mind, remember this, we’re in business providing a service for law firms. So a) be gracious and patient in dealing with the law firms; b) be open to negotiate rates, just as long as you keep in mind where you’re really earning your money from.


Q. Isn’t it a challenge getting them to pay you?
A. Sure. But I’ll take this challenge over the challenge of trying to make money when agencies are charging 4 dollars a page per copy and they’re giving, so generously, 40 cents a copy. Exactly what was said there. No more needs to be said. We have to strive upwards. I accept the challenge of collecting over the challenge of squeezing small incremental rate increases.


Q. Isn’t the cost of printing eating into your money?
A. Not really. I had a $1,200 job the other day. When it was all said and done, I paid $90 to have it printed up. How come reporters are willing to blow a third of their money on scopists but not willing to even consider seeking their own clients and spending 10 percent on printing? Compare the costs to that of most industries. The cost here is very small in comparison to that in most fields.


Q. Anything else you’d like to tell reporters generally or New York reporters?
A. Look, if someone does want to go out on their own, it’s understandable. For years, I said I would. I made halfhearted attempts, but didn’t really follow up. Even when I got my first client, I almost didn’t expect the attorney to take it seriously. But now that I see the huge difference in what I can earn per job, it’s motivated me to try and get more clients. I will say to those who want to try and do it on their own, just try it. Don’t be afraid of being blackballed by other agencies. You have nothing to lose and so much to gain. I’ve heard people say they don’t want to bother with putting transcripts together. First of all, it takes maybe 10 minutes. That’s it!

Second, it’s a great experience in motivating yourself to be an even better reporter, because you don’t want to turn in an error-filled transcript to your own client! You will be so much more careful and your notes will be so much better! I know because I’ve improved significantly just in the three months since I picked up my first client. If you’re so inclined to strike out on your own, I urge you to trust yourself and go and do it. Develop those relationships. Make business cards. Give them to everyone you know who knows attorneys. It can take time, so don’t get frustrated. Eventually you’ll get a first client. Not every job is big payday, but you will have some jobs where you will see double and maybe even more than what you would’ve earned if it was work for an agency.


In my view, this speaks for itself. Taking private clients can double your money. Collecting can become problematic, but the alternative of allowing certain agencies to continue to push substandard means of reporting on consumers is not a good one.

My girlfriend is very upset that I blew our vacation money on an ad campaign for steno. I’m not allowed to hire graphic designers anymore. Everybody that wants to donate to my vacation fund can do so at paypal.me/stenonymous. (joke)

Addendum:

A reader asked how many copies were charged in the above example. Our anonymous respondent said “2 copies. Keep in mind I give a discount to my client when I have copies. I also only charge 3/copy. I’m pretty sure many agencies, if not all, are charging more.” For more context on this model, it is called a sliding scale. Companies will often decrease the cost to their client when copies are sold so as to be giving them a page rate that cannot be undercut. After all, why would a reporter offer someone $2.60 a page when they could work for an agency for around $4.00? But in New York this continues to hide the value of copies from the working reporter, who up until recently were accepting as little as $0.00 to $0.25 on a copy.

Over-Engineering Will Hurt Your Business

A close friend sent me a Bill Maher clip from a while back. Obviously, Maher has his political leanings, but after he gets done with flaunting those, he makes a decent point. He describes the over-engineering of society and gives some pretty striking examples. His preferred vape’s newest model has no mouthpiece despite being something you put in your mouth. Car handles are replaced with buttons in some cars despite no efficiency gains. He describes a situation where his rental car asked him if he’d like to open the trunk while going 60 miles an hour. The point is clear, change for the sake of change is not always worthwhile or efficient. Indeed, change for the sake of change can be very dangerous.

This is connected to the exaggerated claims of salespeople that I’ve written about extensively, especially as it relates to voice recognition. I described it several posts ago as the claim game. Anybody can say anything. Anybody can make their business seem like the new, hot thing. Take this blog post by Kaplan Leaman & Wolfe from about a year ago. It reads nicely, and it sounds innovative. It mentions a flat-rate fee, affordable per-page price structure, a design to significantly reduce legal expenses. At the point in 2020 the post was written, everybody was doing remote stuff. Pretty much everybody’s got a per-page price structure. Anybody can claim their service is affordable or reduces expenses. It’s called puffery and it’s an ordinary part of business.

Where it gets messy, and where I’ve tried to educate reporters, is some advertisements are easier to spot than others. If Burger King says they’ve got the best burger, most everyone knows that’s puffery and sales. Things get harder with technology. How do you prove or disprove whether someone has made a technological breakthrough without a comprehensive understanding of the science and concepts at work? Not all reporters understand the concept of machine learning. Even those of us that have researched quite a lot can’t possibly know everything there is to know. This leaves a gap for tech sellers to come in and try to fool consumers into buying services that may not suit their needs using the hype train.

Told you I write a lot about this. I read a decent amount too.

This also leaves reporters playing a catch-up game of learning about these systems so they can help their clients navigate claims and discern fact from fiction. For example, the truism that technology is improving every day. We look around ourselves and marvel at this magical modern world. But I’ve taken the pretty hard stance that certain technologies, namely voice recognition and associated technologies, are not improving every day. Give it speech it’s used to and it’ll do fine. Give it speech that’s just a little off from what it’s trained for and it’ll turn “would you raise your right hand” into “it’s rage right hand.”

Yes, it’s rage’s right hand.

But surely reinventing the wheel and all these claims of being BETTER aren’t BAD for business, right? If puffery is normal then a little bit of stretching the truth won’t hurt anybody! But we already see that’s not the case. Take Maher’s example. One little glitch on the highway and you could have dead motorists. Take the fact that 25 percent of court reporting companies may be unprofitable; court reporting has been around a long time, it’s likely the losers are the ones trying to switch it up too much too fast. Take vTestify’s massive switch from boasting about providing inexpensive court reporting services to providing an online platform for the legal industry. Take Verbit’s claims in its series A funding of 99 percent accuracy and its subsequent announcement that it will use human transcribers after all, and the very real possibility that it is, despite all its funding, not profitable.

Exaggerated claims serve only as a cliff from which these companies have a chance to walk off of or step back from. The competition is going to wise up. The consumers are going to wise up. I can only hope that a lot of these tech companies realize this, wise up, and start putting their resources behind actually improving our technology. It’s a lot easier to compete in a field with maybe seven players like Stenograph or Advantage than it is to beat out thousands upon thousands of independent contractors and hundreds of reporting firms, many with their own clients and connections. It’s frighteningly easy to see there’s a more lucrative path than over-engineering what stenographic court reporters have made simple, and I can only hope that business owners realize this before walking investors’ money off that cliff.

1 in 4 Court Reporting Companies May Be Unprofitable

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

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

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

I never want to see the term capital benchmarks again.

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

This was pre-pandemic, by the way.

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

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

What Law Offices Need To Know About A Court Reporter Shortage

There’s been a great deal of marketing and many press releases about “disruptive” technology in my field. I’ve been a stenographic court reporter for a decade. I’ve worked right next to reporters who have been working for three or four decades. All of us concede that technology, on average, is getting better. Computers today can do things that few could have imagined in 1970. Computer programs used to be written on punch cards. Try inserting one of those into your iPhone. It’s no wonder that when people see some of the older stenotypes, they ask where the punch card goes.

You write on a stenotype but type on a typewriter. Can’t explain that!

Of course there’s no punch card. But we end up getting a pretty bad rep because the keyboard layout we use is a hundred years old. It’s easy to look at that and forget there’s a whole arsenal of technology attached to that keyboard layout. By 1963 we were using magnetic tape for computer transcription. By 1987, our stenotypes were rocking floppy disks. Today’s stenotypes are so damn good you can read my notes off the screen without any special training.

You would be able to read the notes off the screen, if I ever took any.

There was no secret that there was a court reporter shortage coming. Our field first learned this shortage was coming towards us in 2013. By 2019, the entire country knew there was a shortage. There is a court reporter association in almost every state, a National Court Reporters Association, and myriad nonprofits and other initiatives aimed at solving the shortage. Since 2013, we’ve seen things like Open Steno, A to Z, and Project Steno all aimed at meeting the demand for stenographers in their own way.

With even a gentle push from the larger corporations in our field, things would have been fine. But we started to see some strange moves in our industry by some companies. Some companies started to ask law offices to change their deposition notices to allow for audio recording. Some companies started saying that reporters were unavailable even when we were all sitting at home on social media chatting away with each other. Some companies started completely fabricating news, saying things like “…this world hasn’t been digitized…” Some companies say AI is making things better even though AI only gets 65 to 80 percent of what’s being said. Some companies started to push “digital” court reporters. Digital reporters, while they are nice people, are just recording your deposition and taking some notes. They are being used by those companies as part of the record and transcribe method. These companies are literally taking people who could fill the stenographic reporter gap and telling them “no, do this instead, it’s newer.” They don’t bother to tell them that stenographic reporting utilized the record-and-transcribe method several decades ago with Dictaphone technology and has since evolved to be far more efficient. Stenography has been digital since before some of us were born.

Eventually, you have to ask yourself, “what’s the deal? If there’s is a shortage, why does Veritext, or Planet Depos, or US Legal advertise that they’re hiring digital court reporter positions in New York, but almost never a single ad for a stenographic reporter?” Well, reporting firms, like just about any other industry, make a good deal of their money being the broker for the buyer and seller. You buy our services, we sell them, and the court reporting companies make money by knowing how low we’ll go and how high you’ll go. I started out as a deposition reporter in 2010 and was offered $2.80 a page. Years later I learned that was almost the exact same rate given to reporters in the 1990s and far lower than the page rates that court reporters working in court got. Court reporting companies told me reporters were a dime a dozen and that law offices wouldn’t pay a penny more. Meanwhile, I was taking depositions where the attorneys were telling me how expensive our services were. On a deposition with a lot of copy sales, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was taking home 20 percent of the total invoice. That’s a lot of money to a company to market and print, bind, and mail a transcript that takes hours of reading, research, and transcription on my part.

Our entire profession is in a state of shock because we placed a great deal of trust in reporting firms to market our skills. This is similar to the trust you put in them to find you a qualified stenographic reporter. Yet we find ourselves compiling state databases, national databases, and nonprofit databases dedicated to helping you find stenographic reporters because some companies can’t be bothered to connect consumers with the service they want. They see the education culture that stenography has as a threat. They see it as an expense to do away with. What happens when you take a field with 60 nonprofits and dozens of schools dedicated to the welfare and training of court reporters and replace it with people that have no such support system? You get workers that are easier to intimidate and lowball in the long run. How do I know? It already happened when the Federation of Shorthand Reporters in New York collapsed. Worker pay stagnated while the invoices to attorneys skyrocketed; this is the same situation on a national scale.

What law offices need to know is that they alone decide what happens next in our industry. Ultimately, law offices set the demand. It’s you, the attorneys, office managers, paralegals, and secretaries. You can trust us to recruit enough to fill any shortage. You can trust us to adopt the latest technology. You can trust us to continue over a hundred years of tradition, value, and service by making sure your record is accurate and turned around quickly at the best cost. We have to trust you to demand a stenographic reporter every time so that steno schools can keep pumping out graduates and promising jobs. We have to trust you to look at claims that a stenographic reporter could not be provided with skepticism. We have to trust you to be smart consumers. We have to trust you to let your colleagues know what’s going on in our tiny industry. Don’t just do it so that I have a job in ten years. Do it for your clients. Do it for your consumers. I guarantee that if the demand for steno slips, you’re going to be looking at some crazy deposition bills and hearing some new excuse.

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PS. This article comes after a great satire (image here) was done on this topic by a reporter under the alias DigitalByHumans. In that satire, posted to Craigslist, the writer describes a world where a company does this same sort of thing to attorneys, deciding to use “digital” attorneys, and goes on to note that the company makes a lot of customer comfort moves to hide the fact that they aren’t using actual attorneys. While my post here tries to focus on getting straight to the facts I know and the conclusions I draw, I really think that it was something special and illustrates the frustration a lot of us have on this topic. There are states where we are very heavily regulated and the regulating bodies have, through inaction or inability to enforce the law, allowed people to come in and record as “digital court reporters” without any regulation, whereas a stenographic court reporter doing pretty much the same thing would be fined or reprimanded. It’s not the digital reporters’ fault, it’s the companies’ fault, but until consumers and consumer protection agencies stand up and say “no,” the situation will continue.