Verbit Published Kentuckiana Proceeding Audio Online Without Anyone’s Permission

It came to my attention some time ago that Verbit was using a real proceeding’s audio to test its potential transcribers. After entering one’s information, one will get to a screen that encourages him or her to download all the files and put together a transcript from the information and audio given.

Legal professionals = transcribers.

I’ve already made it pretty clear I don’t like digital reporting as a modality. It can threaten access to justice and is the corner-cutting modality of my industry. I don’t like Verbit either. As I see it, consumers and investors are being misled constantly by the company. I do love digital reporters, but mostly because I see them as being taken advantage of. As I see it, we can bring them into the mainstream stenographic court reporting industry and train them to stenotype just like us. I’m very pro-people, and that’s why one of my biggest criticisms of US Legal Support was that it was using all of its power to mislead people into believing the stenographer shortage was impossible to solve while doing nothing to recruit stenographers.

But this just takes my criticism of digital reporting and Verbit to a whole new level. Anyone with access to the link from anywhere in the world can just pop on and download a bunch of files from somebody’s case. These files have been accessible since July 2021 that I personally know of, and these files were still accessible as of September 15, 2021.

Each of the green buttons is a file that you can click and download.

The whole thing leaves me in a pretty tough position. I want to prove this is happening so that court reporters can warn the legal community. But just dumping the evidence onto the internet a second time will violate the parties’ privacy more than it has already been violated. With heavy redaction, though, we can go through the various files and get a good idea of it. Let’s start with the cover page. Just remember, the redactions were put there by me. In the actual files there are no redactions.

This was surprising to me, because usually family court stuff is usually private in my jurisdiction of New York. It’s not something the entire world is able to get its hands on.

There’s a file labeled TAG, which appears to be the digital reporter or video operator’s annotations. If I am correct about that, this is a window into just how useless the annotations are for a transcriber.

Redactions are mine. The full file has names and information I just don’t think should be published on this blog.

There’s a file containing a notice of deposition. To limit the time spent redacting, I’ll offer up the first page only.

Remember, I was only able to get my hands on this because of Verbit’s recklessness with it.

The “must read” file comes next. Since that’s created entirely by Verbit, it’s downloadable here.

Then there’s a Verbit guidelines page, which seems harmless enough. But it hilariously refers to a “USLS” manual. The file is literally named “redone for USLS,” which to me seems to be fairly good circumstantial evidence that Verbit has a connection to US Legal Support. Not only is US Legal potentially defrauding consumers by making bad claims about the stenographer shortage, they might be working with a company so ignorant of good court reporting practice that it posted a proceeding online.

For the sake of completeness, I went looking for a USLS Manual and I found a 2017 version. Interestingly enough, it reads very much like an employee manual and has very specific formats for jobs. Remember, common law employees are all about who has direction and control of the work. I would say that if US Legal is or was using a 150-something page manual to “train” its “freelancers,” those people are actually common law employees and US Legal probably should have been paying employment taxes for them. What a shame it would be if I uploaded that manual and someone let the IRS know there was potentially a failure to withhold those taxes.

Back to Verbit’s files, they offer a template, which is more or less a transcription of the audio file they’re asking transcribers to transcribe. It is the single greatest indictment against digital reporting I have ever seen. The reporter’s name, Hang Nguyen, is misspelled as Han. The term “court reporter” is spelled “core reporter.” There’s a missing apostrophe. There’s a zero in the word “point.” She asks them to state their appearance and how they’re attending, but somehow it’s transcribed as “state your up here.” There are so many errors that quite frankly I hope my reporting colleagues do not let this go and that they take the time to send this to their bar associations. I am quite sure there are stenographic reporters that make mistakes. I personally make mistakes. But this falls well within the territory of “way too many mistakes to be normalized and accepted by our justice system.”

I bet you Hang Nguyen could be trained to be a damn good stenographer and would do far better than whoever transcribed this.
Remember, companies don’t typically tell their digital reporters we’re an option, let alone that we are the market preference.

There’s a Kentuckiana reporter worksheet that’s published by Verbit. It’s a pretty standard worksheet, so I will not bother to publish it here.

We get to the audio file, and it’s a 22-minute file. Given that this proceeding is a family court matter between two individuals, it’s not appropriate for me to republish, but again, it was available on the internet for months and being used to screen or train Verbit transcribers. It’s real testimony about a family court matter.

This image shows the file time on the right.

I set out to investigate whether permission had been granted to Verbit to publish these proceedings on the internet. In full disclosure, court reporters have shared audio in our field, but it’s usually a snippet of a word or sentence for clarification purposes and not large chunks of testimony with information that can identify parties. Now, I don’t really like Kentuckiana because of their pro-digital stance, but when I reached out, Michael McDonner seemed very reasonable and made it very clear, permission was not given to distribute this audio.

I had the link and I gave it to him in the hopes he could do something about this.

But what about the attorneys? Maybe John Schmidt said it was okay.

John Schmidt did not say it was okay. And I gave him the files and link from my investigation.

But perhaps Amber Cook had given permission?

“the public should have had no access to the depositions.”

I reached out to Hang Nguyen on LinkedIn but I got no response as of writing. I also reached out to Leor Eliashiv from Verbit. Predictably, there was no response. But at the very least, Kentuckiana made a commitment to demand the audio be taken off the internet after I told them where to find it.

I asked Kentuckiana to consider using stenographic transcribers. I pointed out that we spend a lot of time training our newbies not to make the kinds of mistakes that have been made here.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Kentucky, I’m clueless. I have a pretty good relationship with Lisa Migliore from Migliore & Associates. Just to be sure, I asked whether what Verbit was doing was good court reporting practice in that state, and she answered that it was not, citing the Kentucky Court Reporters Association Code of Professional Responsibility.

“…I find it very concerning that one cannot obtain this from our local courthouse–yet it is easily accessible by any number of people located across the world with nothing more than an email address and/or a real or fictitious name.”

For so long our institutions and businesses have been trying to find a way to say we are the superior product. Maybe the answer is to just show consumers what they’re really signing up for if they entrust the future of the legal record to companies like Verbit, tons of errors and potential breaches of privacy. We have to direct people to the many resources to learn stenographic court reporting, such as NCRA A to Z, Project Steno, and Open Steno. We have to get serious about educating consumers. Please consider a donation to Protect Your Record Project today. They have been pioneers and powerhouses in consumer awareness, and it is largely thanks to them that this article will reach thousands.

Addendum:

Within 24 hours after the posting of this blog the files were taken off of the internet.

This is where it used to be.

What Is Realtime Voice Writing and Why Is It Better Than Digital Reporting?

In our field there are three main modalities for taking the record or captioning. There is stenography, voice writing, and digital recording. Stenography is using a chorded stenotype and computer dictionary to instantaneously take down and transcribe the spoken word. Digital recording is all about letting a microphone pick up the audio and having somebody transcribe it after the fact. Sometimes digital recording proponents insist that they can run the audio through automatic speech recognition (ASR) systems to “assist the transcriber.” I’ve been pretty open about my feelings there.

Transcribers and digital reporters can do better switching to steno.

There are also nonprofits representing each modality. NCRA is all-in for steno. NVRA admits stenographers, but in my mind is really more for voice writers, and rightfully so. AAERT is pro-recording. ATSP is pro-transcriber to the extent it has any court reporting industry presence. There are others like Global Alliance or STTI that claim to be for all three modalities, but I’ve always gotten a “jack of all trades, master of none” vibe from those types of associations.

From information available to me, I believe that NCRA is by far the largest organization and in the best position to handle the court reporter shortage, but NVRA does provide an incredibly important role in certifying voice writers. One common problem in the early years of voice writing, which some New York attorneys still hold against them, was that occasionally they could be heard through the mask. Even now, when there is a lot of sibilance, one can infrequently hear a voice writer through the mask. Modern certification requires that the voice writer is able to perform without being heard, and a two-strike policy is employed in which the first time a writer is heard during a test they are tapped on the shoulder. The second time they are heard, they are disqualified. Voice writing tests, like ours, give the voice writer one shot at getting their “voice notes” correct. They are not allowed to repeat or review the test audio. This kind of testing is important and represents the quality standards this industry needs. NVRA confirmed its testing policy in an 8/11/21 e-mail to me.

No audibility within two feet.

Most reporters know that voice writing is, at its core, speaking into a Stenomask or other voice mask and allowing automatic speech recognition to assist in the transcription of what’s said. In some settings, a voice writer may use an open mic. Some stenographic reporters may be surprised to learn that realtime voice writing is superior to digital reporting and general ASR use. In general ASR use, the microphone takes input from everyone and the computer system gives its best guess based on the training data it has. In a study from last year, it was shown that that technology’s accuracy could drop as low as 25% dependent on who is speaking. Realtime voice writing, by comparison, is a trained operator, the voice writer, often speaking into a closed microphone, and utilizing ASR that has been trained to that writer’s voice. In the best of circumstances, that ASR can reliably put out highly accurate transcriptions of the voice writer’s voice — as high as 98%. Many realtime voice writers utilize Dragon by Nuance connected to their preferred CAT software. I guesstimate that Nuance has the best ASR tech, and there’s no coincidence that despite all the other ASR vendors out there, Nuance is the one Microsoft wanted to buy. This lead in technology comes from the system being trained to understand the specific user or voice writer.

One important distinction is the difference between realtime voice writers and voice writers that speak into the mask and have someone else transcribe and do the work. This is very similar to the divide in stenographic reporting where some scopists report having to fill in huge chunks of information missed by the court reporter. A realtime voice writer, like a realtime stenographer, does not have to provide realtime services, but they do maintain the equipment and capability to do so.

The knowledge and preparedness of the voice writer is integral to the integrity of the record produced. Think of all the glitches and anomalies in stenographic CAT software. Think about how reporters create macros and dictionary workarounds every day to deal with them. As an easy example, my software does not like certain punctuation marks to be together. Early in my career, I worked out that placing a backslash between the two marks and then deleting it would override the software’s programming to delete punctuation. Similarly, voice writers have to deal with the complexities of the ASR system, the CAT software, and how they interact in order to overcome word boundary and formatting issues.

The understanding and maintenance of a voice writer’s equipment is also paramount. How the computer “hears” a writer’s voice in one microphone can be vastly different than another microphone. Different masks can be given different training configurations to enhance the ASR transcription. Voice writers are speaking into a mask, and where saliva or liquid gets into the mask it can alter what the computer hears. The competent voice writer monitors their realtime and keeps redundant equipment in case of an equipment failure, including extra masks and multiple audio backups of their “voice notes.” As someone who keeps two stenotypes in case one decides to die mid-trial, I admire the voice writers that take the time to ensure the show goes on in the event of computer problems.

Like us, there are many briefs or triggers voice writers use. The key difference is that they must speak the “steno.” The same way we must come up with a stroke for designating a speaker, they must come up with a voice command. The same way that stenographers must differentiate the word “period” from the punctuation symbol of a period, voice writers historically had to create differentiations. For example, in years gone by, they might have had to say “peerk” for the symbol and “period” for the word. Modern ASR systems are sometimes able to differentiate the word versus the mark without any special command or input from the voice writer! Again, the experience and ability to predict how the software will interpret what is said is an important skill for the realtime voice writer.

The obvious question arises as to why this blog tends to be silent on voice writing. There’s no overt hostility there and deep admiration for the people at the top of the voice writing modality of record taking. Simply put, I truly believe that stenographic reporting is better and will open more doors for students. That’s colored by my own experiences. As of today, voice writers are not allowed to work in my court and be in my civil service title. We can argue about whether they should be allowed, but the simple fact is that New York courts today tend to utilize stenographic reporting or digital recording. It’s easy to see that the qualified voice writer is a far better choice than the digital recording, but I couldn’t say to a student “get into voice writing! You’ll have the same opportunities as I do!”

I also have to present a warning to voice writers and stenographers. I have seen many of us fall into the mindset of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” We are much closer to each other than either modality is to digital reporting for the simple reason that we like our jobs. Digital reporting proponents have made little effort to hide that their ultimate goal is to offshore the jobs to Manila, Kenya, India, or wherever they can. Digital reporting proponents want to pay stenographers and voice writers less than half of what they’re worth. Digital reporting proponents don’t even respect their own digital reporters, which is why I’ve suggested those people join the stenographic legion.

There is a tumultuous history between stenographic court reporters and voice writers. I’ve been told by multiple NCRA members that when an effort was made to include voice writers about two decades ago, there was heavy backlash and even some harassment that occurred against those that were pro-integration. That was the climate of yesterday. While it seems unlikely that there will be formal alliance, inclusion, or cooperation, the separation we see today is not the same violent rejection of voice writers from the early 2000s. The civility of NCRA’s 2021 business meeting showed that court reporters are ready to disagree without belligerence and keep our industry moving forward. This is more akin to why the North American Olive Oil Association probably doesn’t partner much with the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3s. Olive oil and fish oil are both fine oils, but every second and cent spent advocating for one could be spent advocating for the other. It doesn’t make much sense to divide the time and resources. That’s where we are today. What the future holds for tomorrow, I can only imagine.

A big thank you to everyone that made this article possible, up to and including the NVRA. One source of my information was the esteemed Tori Pittman. Trained in both stenography and voice writing, Tori gave me a full demonstration of voice writing and agreed to speak at length about voice writing. See the full interview below!

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.

MGR Interviewed on the Treatment of Reporters

This month I had a chance to sit down with Marc Russo of MGR Reporting. Marc’s a working reporter and business owner. We got to hit a lot of topics in this video, including Marc’s history in the field, how reporter skill relates to reporter treatment, and how scheduling ahead can help reporting firms fill their clients’ needs.

Using Marc’s words, it’s about treating reporters like people instead of numbers.

Don’t take my word for it, check out the interview here!

How We Discuss Errors and Automatic Speech Recognition

As a stenographic court reporter, I have been amazed by the strides in technology. Around 2016, I, like many of you, saw the first claims that speech recognition was as good as human ears. Automation seemed inevitable, and a few of my most beloved colleagues believed there was not a future for our amazing students. In 2019, the Testifying While Black study was published in the Language Journal, and while the study and its pilot studies showed that court reporters were twice as good at understanding the AAVE dialect as your average person, even though we have no training whatsoever in that dialect, the news media focused on the fact that we certify at 95 percent and yet only had 80 percent accuracy in the study. Some of the people involved with that study, namely Taylor Jones and Christopher Hall, introduced Culture Point, just one provider that could help make that 80 percent so much higher. In 2020, a study from Stanford showed that automatic speech recognition had a word error rate of 19 percent for “white” speakers, 35 percent for “black” speakers, and “worse” for speakers with a high dialect density. How much worse?

The .75 on the left means 75 percent. DDM is the dialect density. Even with fairly low dialect density, we’re looking at over 50 percent word error rate.

75 percent word error rate in a study done three or four years after the first claim that automatic speech recognition had 94 percent accuracy. But in all my research and all that has been written on this topic, I have not seen the following point addressed:

What Is An Error?

NCRA, many years ago, set out guidelines for what constituted an error. Word error guidelines take up about a page. Grammatical error guidelines take up about a page. What this means is that when you sit down for a steno test, you’re not being graded on your word error rate (WER), you’re being graded on your total errors. We have decades of failed certification tests where a period or comma meant a reporter wasn’t ready for the working world yet. Even where speech recognition is amazing on that WER, I’ve almost never seen appreciable grammar, punctuation, Q&A, or anything that we do to make the transcript readable. It’s so bad that advocates for the deaf, like Meryl Evans, refer to automatic speech recognition as “autocraptions.”

Unless the bench, bar, and captioning consumers want word soup to be the standard, the difference in how we describe errors needs to be injected into the discussion. Unless we want to go from a world where one reporter, perhaps paired with a scopist, completes the transcript and is accountable for it, to a world where up to eight transcribers are needed to transcribe a daily, we need to continue to push this as a consumer protection issue. Even where regulations are lacking, this is a serious and systemic issue that could shred access to justice. We have to hit every medium possible and let people know the record — in fact, every record in this country — could be in danger. The data coming out is clear. Anyone selling recording and/or automatic transcription says 90-something percent accuracy. Any time it’s actually studied? Maybe 80 percent accuracy, maybe 25; maybe they hire a real expert transcriber, or maybe they outsource all their transcription to Kenya or Manila. Perception matters; court administrators are making industry-changing decisions based on the lies or ignorance of private sector vendors.

The point is recording equipment sellers are taking a field which has been refined by stenographic court reporters to be a fairly painless process where there are clear guidelines for what happens when something goes wrong, adding lots of extra parts to it, and calling it new. We’ve been comparing our 95 percent total accuracy to their “94 percent” word error rate. In 2016, perhaps there were questions that needed answering. This is April 2021, there’s no contest, and proponents of digital recording and automatic transcription have a moral obligation to look at the facts as they are today and not what they’d like them to be.

If you are a reporter that wants more information or ideas on how to talk about these issues with clients, check out the NCRA Strong Resource Library, and Protect Your Record Project. Even reporters that have never engaged in any kind of public speaking can pick up valuable tips on how to educate the public about why stenographic reporting is necessary. Lawyers, litigants, and everyday people do not have time to go seeking this information; together, we can bring it to them.

You Need 2FA Now

Telling grown professionals what to do and how to conduct themselves online is generally not in my business plan. But I know that some of us are not 100 percent caught up with techy stuff, and I feel obligated to write this one.

2FA is a creative shortening of “two-factor authentication.” You may also hear it referred to as multi-factor authentication. No matter who you are, you’ve probably heard these words. Maybe you looked into it and you know exactly what I’m talking about. Maybe it looked too complicated and you said “not for me, thanks.” Whatever the case, I can show you in one image why you need two-factor authentication.

I can assure you, I was not attempting to log into Twitch from India.
Also, XChrisUnknownX was a really creative moniker for a 12 year old.

We’re in a hacker’s world now. Hackers will get your passwords. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. As a matter of fact, Google now has this handy feature to show you how compromised your passwords are. Want to guess how many times hackers have gotten their hands on my password?

Excuse me! StenoIsK00L is not a weak password!

In its early days, even this blog got hacked into! 2FA prevents that every day. 2FA, at its core, means you sign in with your password, and then the service you’re logging into sends you a numeric password via text message or it sends a numeric code to an authenticator app on your phone. This numeric code changes every minute or so, so somebody who wants to log into your stuff without your permission needs to get your username, password, and be tapped into your phone OR have physical possession of your phone. It doesn’t matter if they’re trying to hack in from India, China, Beirut, or next door, they’re not getting in without very substantial access to your personal life.

PRO TIP WHERE APPLICABLE: Put 2FA for your e-mail, link that to your phone, then use 2FA and link everything else to your e-mail. The result? Every time someone tries to hack you, you get an e-mail about it.

There is one major exception to this, and the most common way that you will be hacked using 2FA: You. Hackers and scammers may send you a site by e-mail that looks legitimate. If you go to log in, they will record your login details, and they will record the numeric code that’s sent from your authenticator if you give it to them. Always double check that you’re logging into the correct site, because if you don’t, you’re going to end up giving away valuable information to people that don’t deserve to have it. So, for example, let’s say you get an e-mail saying it’s from Chase Bank. They’re going to close your account unless you act now. Don’t click anything in that e-mail. Go to your browser and type in the Chase website that you know and love. Scammers and hackers design stuff to make you feel rushed and fearful because that’s when you’re least likely to think about a minor decision like logging into a site. Any time you’re feeling rushed or fearful, take some extra time to think before you act.

That’s really it. I have countless old accounts and usernames that I opened as a kid, before the age of 2FA, and they’ve all pretty much been taken over by bots and spammers. Given the importance of our work and the transcripts we produce, we can’t afford to let our clients down and let the bad guys seize information. 2FA for most services is free. Google Authenticator is free. “Free” is a great price for peace of mind, so check if the services you use have 2FA today.

GGU Presentation & Why You Matter

I may not be on the west coast, but I know some fantastic west coast reporters.

I was invited by Ana Fatima Costa to participate in Golden Gate University’s Court Reporter Tips Every Lawyer Needs To Make The BEST Record. Ana has dedicated a great deal of time to presentations, coaching students, running internship programs. As reporters, we sometimes struggle to make connections with the bench and/or bar. Ana’s great at making those connections and definitely one of the people you want to talk to if you’re interested in bridging the gap between reporters and the bar.

We spent an hour introducing young attorneys and some reporters to core concepts such as speaking one at a time, requiring a stenographic reporter, and how providing case-specific information can assist a reporter in producing their record. Luckily for me, nearly all the heavy lifting was done by the three other panelists and experts in our field, Ana Fatima Costa, Phyllis Craver Lykken, and Leesa Durrant. Ana whipped up great presentation slides and held the whole presentation down. Phyllis talked to them a little bit about realtime conceptually. Leesa drove it all home with a realtime demonstration. It was a fantastic thing for me to be a part of, and I’m grateful I was invited to be a part of it. I’m also grateful to Professor Rachel Brockl and her team, who worked with Ana to make the event a reality. For anyone who’s curious, at some point it should be up on GGU’s Youtube.

My real takeaway is that there is so much potential for our little field to make a big impact on how we are viewed not only by the public, but also by courts, judges, and lawyers. There are thousands of reporters, which means any reporter taking just a few hours of their time per year to make a speech or presentation has incredible cumulative value. The people that we work with every day are the people who wrote to us after this presentation and said “this information really helped me understand how to help court reporters do their job.” Imagine four professionals getting to sit on camera and talk about what we know and love. You can probably imagine yourself doing it, and I hope that writing about this inspires folks to stand up and say “I can do that!” We need you. I need you so that I can stop doing presentations and go back to blogging about your presentations. And if you’re not ready, that’s okay too. But I say seek us out. Seek out any of the court reporters that put out content regularly. We want to help. We want others to meet their potential and develop skills beyond our wonderful skill of reporting.

Addendum:

The presentation may now be viewed here. The first five minutes went unrecorded due to a technical glitch.

How To Spot More Better Marketing

Count out how many times in your life you’ve seen a product in advertising that was similar to something you already do, have, or want. Did the advertiser tell you it would do more stuff? Did the advertiser tell you it was better at doing stuff than its competitors? Did the advertiser try to make you feel good and confident about a purchase in this product? February of last year, I touched on the magic of marketing. Today, we explore marketing that takes aim at us, how to identify it, and how to tell our students not to be swayed by it.

The genesis of this post is actually a marketing blitz by Transcription Outsourcing, LLC. Their ad boldly starts off “Tired of waiting for your court reporter?” They claim their prices are “up to” 50 percent less expensive than a court reporter. Guaranteed accuracy, 3 to 5 day turnaround. Among their many claims are reporters won’t format your documents, send back errors, have overseas teams that are hard to contact, take weeks. For most of us in the business, this is laughable, but we have to take ourselves out of our skin and hop into the skin of a potential client or a stenography student that has zero experience in sitting at a stenotype or desk transcribing legal proceedings. As far as identifying and helping students identify “more better marketing” I’d propose watching out for four red flags:

  1. It’s cheaper than you.
  2. It’s faster than you.
  3. You still have a job.
  4. It promises.

One, if it’s cheaper, why isn’t everybody using it? For this, you can look into your own life experience. Why don’t you buy cheaper food or a less expensive product? Usually doing something cheaper means sacrificing quality or training somewhere in the process. Two, if it’s faster, again, why isn’t everybody on it? Are there problems scaling the product, does the service provider not deliver, or are the costs of being faster too high? Three, you still have a job? Look, Company XYZ says they’re cheaper, faster, better, more better, amazing, and yet the clients are still using stenographic court reporters. This is not to say these types of services could not, through their marketing, supplant reporters. But flag three is all about acknowledging that at least some what they’re selling is hype and hope to customers. Four, it promises. That’s probably the biggest red flag you can get in this type of marketing. We saw it with Theranos, Project Natal, Solar Roadways, Waterseer, Hyperloop. People love to sell things whether they’re possible or not. They promise their solution is the solution. Theranos was going to test extraordinarily small amounts of blood and administer treatments through patches. It had a $9 billion valuation. Didn’t exist. Project Natal and Milo were going to revolutionize gaming. There were videos advertising it! Didn’t exist. Solar Roadways was going to solve America’s energy crisis by throwing out everything we know about efficient solar power generation. It raised millions of dollars. Didn’t work. Waterseer was going to solve the world’s water crisis and forgot to mention that dehumidifiers have the same basic function. The Hyperloop routinely ignores that a single break in the loop or tunnel could implode the entire thing and kill everyone in it. Promises are part of human interaction, but buying into them without reservation is dangerous and expensive. If it promises but doesn’t deliver, take note.

That’s identification in a nutshell. And at this point many are probably saying, “Chris, you’re just picking on these guys because they’re taking a swipe at court reporting. You don’t actually have anything that shows their promises aren’t the real deal!” This is where experience as a court reporter comes in. Take a look, again, at the things they said about court reporters.

  1. They won’t format your documents. Well, in some jurisdictions, we have a prescribed transcript format. Even here in New York City, where there’s virtually no such mandate for freelancers, I know many freelancers who do or have worked for agencies that work with the New York City Law Department or MTA, and both like transcripts formatted a certain way by contract. Bottom line is if you can’t find a court reporter that’ll format your document, it’s either not proper in your jurisdiction or there’s some other stenographic court reporting company that will do it.
  2. They send you back errors. I consider myself an extremely average reporter. I’m so average it took me ten years to finish off my RPR. In that ten years, I can recall exactly once that an error so egregious made its way in that it needed to be corrected and was serious. Humans make errors. News articles make errors every day. I’ve hired a lawyer that made an error. Guess what happens? It gets corrected. The world keeps turning. But, these people guarantee accuracy. I’m sure that means if a client find an error, they get the whole transcription for free, right? Right?! It promises, but there’s nothing really backing that promise. Students, ask your mentor how many mistakes they’ve made in their career. Ask them how many were serious. Mistakes are a non-issue in the context of a larger career if you learn from them.
  3. Their overseas teams are hard to contact. With the majority of court reporting firms I know and have worked with being US-based or having US-based management, I find this an odd claim. Even Israel-based Verbit, to the extent you can consider them court reporters, never came off as particularly hard to contact. Even the smallest firms I’ve ever worked with have a dialing service that makes sure the customer can get in touch with someone or leave questions or comments for the owner.
  4. They aren’t secure. I’ve found the word security to be kind of a red herring in our business. What kind of security are we talking about? SSL Certificates? Haven’t seen a reporting firm without them. Secure repositories? If you spend about sixty seconds Googling reporting firms, you’ll find security. It’s a comfort word at this point.
  5. They take weeks. Six-hour service is available. Interesting. I wonder if Transcription Outsourcing provides six-hour service on eight-hour depositions like many of my colleagues do with their dailies and their immediates. For those not in the business, for a reasonable cost, a properly trained and skilled stenographic reporter can work with their team or scopist to deliver a transcript immediately at the conclusion of a deposition. I am sure that once time travel is developed, court reporters will be the pioneers in producing transcripts before proceedings actually occur, too.

The point is to look at the millions and millions of dollars that have went into ideas that had little chance of succeeding. Look how long it takes to verify that these ideas are scams or false hope. How many people do you think are fact checking transcription and court reporting companies? Even this idea that the service is cheaper is knocked right out of reality by their own rates. Between $1.50 and $5.00 per minute. When I was in the business of freelance court reporting and transcribed audio, I charged somewhere in the realm of $100 an hour, which is about $1.67 a minute. If you take their best rate, by their own advertising, they’re at best 10 percent cheaper. They had no problem making that 10 into a 50 in their advertising. Looking at some of their other rates, you can save yourself 30 percent by switching to steno. If any of this “better, cheaper” stuff was true, why would reporters use scopists? Sorry scopists. We can just send our work into Transcription Outsourcing, LLC, take our 30 percent, and let them do all the work. Doesn’t happen. They don’t care about burning an entire bridge of potential customers because there’s no savings to be had there. They want what our clients are paying today in their pockets, and they’re hoping lawyers fall for it.

The bottom line is we’re going to be seeing more and more puffery and opinion enter our field masquerading as fact. We will be inundated with it. It’s much easier to make up falsehoods or questionable claims than it is to fact check those same claims. So when you see, for example, Protect Your Record Project fighting to raise awareness about our services, it’s a win. When you see state associations fighting to raise awareness about our services, it’s a win. When you see professionals donating their time to help encourage students and mentoring new reporters, it’s a win. When you see Open Steno, NCRA, and Project Steno advertising this field and ways to get in, it’s a win. Our strength is that there are thousands of us in the field practicing today, and so one minute from each of us amounts to a lot more time and effort than companies can spend on making up BS. Keep taking advantage of that and working together to educate. Keep hitting up social media platforms and making sure people aren’t misled about who we are and what we do. The last ten years have built an impressive online community of reporters. The next ten will be a test of getting that community’s knowledge out to clients and potential stenographers.

August Asterisks 2020 (Jobs)

One thing I’ve learned in this business is never be too predictable, and that’s why I completely skipped July. Before we get to actual jobs posts that have popped up in the last two months, we’ll get down to something for our freelance friends. and people looking to make a difference in this field. NYSCRA is promoting no fewer than three online sessions that should have a little something for everybody. First, on August 16, there will be a session with Jason Wisdom on freelance success. On August 24, Jessie Gorry and Joshua Edwards are presenting Zoom for Freelance Reporters and will be talking, as I understand it, about best practices and hardware stuff you can do to make your life easier. Finally, for those of you seeking to build some skills and confidence in making a difference, Project Steno will be hosting courses on clean writing, developing a high school program, and conducting a training course. Even more for people looking to make a difference, you should see NYSCRA President Joshua Edwards’s message in the Summer 2020 Transcript. Without further delay, in steno, if we want to change something, we hit the asterisk, right? So change the job up with August Asterisks.

Onto the jobs. First, a very special posting. Eric Allen, President of ASSCR, was kind enough to post this excerpt from what I believe to be the Chief last month. In my very first post about finding a job in New York City, I talked a little bit about Workers Compensation and how they no longer seemed to be hiring even though the application was up. So to see these very recent, current postings for Verbatim Reporter 1 in New York State is very comforting. It should be a clear message to every jobseeker and our employers that what we do has a lot of value. We will rise to the challenge of filling these positions, but we need the shotcallers to keep the demand for court reporting steady so that people are not scrambling in and out of jobs. Every former Verbatim Reporter 1 that I have ever spoken to has told me that it was an amazing job that they really liked. If you’re a reporter looking for change, this just might be your sign. Also, if any legislation comes up regarding that position, as it had in the past, I urge every reporter to support it, because you are supporting the stability and sustainability of your field. Thank you, Eric Allen, for bringing this job post to everyone’s attention.

For the first time in a while, there do not seem to be any grand jury reporter jobs open in New York City. I’m actually happy to say that because it shows that we can absolutely fill vacancies. We can beat the reporter shortage. Please, take my advice seriously when I say if you want a grand jury job with New York City, check the district attorney sites of every borough every single month, including the SNP, and check DCAS. It is very easy to miss these postings. If you need the links, they’re under the grand jury section of Get A Real Job.

The statewide provisional posting for court reporter is still up. This should surprise no one. We need stenographic court reporters. If you’re waiting for the civil service exam to come out so that you can get a permanent position, make sure you’re checking the exams page every month. You don’t want to miss out on a test that, by law, can only be held every 1 to 4 years. If you’re interested but want more information, why not reach out to Michael DeVito? His contact information is at the bottom of the posting, and it just might help you make your decision.

For the reporters out there looking for a spot in the federal judiciary, there’s plenty for you. We are looking at open spots in New York, Tennessee, Massachusetts, Illinois, Arkansas, and California. The federal judiciary jobs page remains a great resource for finding these job postings, and every reporter out there should take the time share it and familiarize themselves with it.

For those looking for a little more, NCRA’s got a jobs page too. As of today there are 87 results to flip through. Alternatively, if you’re looking to put down the machine for a little while but stay employed “in the field,” you could apply to become an NCRA Content Specialist. I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with NCRA staff before, and it’s always been really positive. I can only hope whoever fills that spot is just as positive, dedicated, and wonderful as the rest of the team. I have a lot of faith in Dave Wenhold and the current Board of Directors. There’s good leadership. There’s good staff. There are good committee volunteers. There are great general members. There’s a real chance for stenographic reporting to prove its adaptability, superiority, and technological advancement despite all the world has gone through in the last six months. Humans have known for a long, long time that when there’s a chance of something happening, it can happen. There’s even a latin phrase for it, a posse ad esse, which translates roughly to “from possibility to actuality.” So let’s take that chance, hold onto it, and make sure that our markets know stenographic reporting is here and ready to do the job.

Silence is Deafening

There was a great deal of mirth when we started this blog in the summer of 2017. Perhaps we suffered from pain or fear, but we knew that there was a need to begin preserving and sharing knowledge. We did not expect an audience. We were told, perhaps rightly, that there was no reason for readers to find us credible. There were no delusions of grandiosity. There was only a single belief and overriding directive: It was the right thing to do. We had inspiration and experience in the field. We saw the many questions our contemporaries had. We could begin to document these questions, issues, and answers or simply continue the impossible game of answering each one individually on Facebook.

Imagine ourselves in a plain white room with no windows or doors. There is only a voice every 12 hours that tells us the time. It is now 6 a.m., says the voice. We do not know if it is really 6 a.m. Nor do we know if the last time was really 6 p.m. We do know that the time in between, we are left to our thoughts, as dark or optimistic as they may be.

We saw this in the interactions across the field. One often only gets to talk about the field when one is brave enough to put their face on a question or statement. Is the time 6 a.m.? Groups dedicated to answering questions could also devolve into mocking questions and creating an environment that even the most zealous stenographers did not wish to take part in. Of course it is not 6 a.m., mocks the voice, never bothering to say what we really want to know.

Without input, our newbies and students may stumble blindly into the same pitfalls we did. Without guiding voices, they may lose the ability to tell the time. We have grown in readership not because the things we say are particularly profound, but because we say them. We do not back down from hard truths. We try to give credit when it is due. We are always open to changing our minds when a situation warrants it. We inform whenever we can, and do not assume everyone knows what we know. We feel the field would benefit from these principles, and so we share them freely, hoping to see more discussion and camaraderie grow in New York and across the country for stenographers.

We encourage more voices to join us in guiding those who need guidance. One need not any special qualification to lead. One need only disregard the voice that tells them not to speak out. Continue blogging, talking, encouraging, and answering questions. Our greatest achievement will not be the hours spent dictating the time, but the day we have built a foundation of knowledge so strong that our learners can escape the room and teach others to see the morning.