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.
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.
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.