I’ve personally seen a couple of videos like it. The presenter starts “ready for another side hustle? This one’s for you if you are broke and lazy.” She proceeds to mention that you can transcribe audio and video into text with these websites.
The video continues to make transcription seem simple by stating that you’re not actually doing any work. She mentions how you can go to an automatic speech recognition (ASR) site called SpeechNotes, speak the words, and have them transcribed. But the science we have so far points to ASR being better for whites than black speakers as well as the AAVE dialect. That’s a lot of unserved jobseekers. What she’s describing is essentially voice writing, but without a “stenomask” or Nuance’s software trained to your voice. She closes by saying, in part, that there’s “no reason” a person can’t make $2,000 to $3,000 a month.
There’s a lot to be said about this. First, it embodies and emboldens our argument about quality. Do lawyers want the accuracy of the record to become a side hustle? It also points to what a scam digital court reporting / recording really is, because even if companies are able to successfully train enough digital reporters / recorders to take the work, it’s clear that there’s a transcriber shortage.
Probably from the terrible pay! $0.30 to $1.10 per audio minute according to the video. That’s $18 to $66 per hour. That doesn’t account for any time it takes to submit a job or edit voice transcription mistakes, which could be 20% or more of a transcription. That doesn’t include any proofreading time. With average transcription times ranging anywhere between an hour and six hours, depending on the methodology of transcription, we could be talking about $9 to $33 an hour. Less if we actually divide by six, $3 to $11 an hour. That $2,000 a month could require between 666 hours and 60 hours. At that kind of pay, transcribers would probably be better off trying to argue that they are misclassified employees — at least it would guarantee the ones in America minimum wage, which the independent contractor title does not. At that kind of pay, it means digital court reporting / recording won’t have enough transcribers to cover all the work it wants to take from stenography.
Transcription companies utilize influencers to bring in business. It’s not hard to imagine transcribers also being lured in under this model. Transcription fixture Rev is open about their influencer program to bring in business, which I respect.
There are people in the field speaking out against mistreatment, but progress is slow. Stenographers can take note that the cracks are forming in the narrative of the larger corporate players though. Is this the future? Yes? Then why are we paying people like it’s 1990? Is this equal to stenography? Yes? Why don’t you pay them like stenographers? No? Why are you selling it? What’s the turnover like with these people we pay peanuts to? High? Why are you wasting all that time and energy retraining people? Do you profit from it? Low turnover? Then where are all these people? We have to deal with a crushing reality: Most of the data that people would need to make good decisions is in private hands that profit from the data being unavailable.
Luckily we have our own influencers and their numbers are likely to grow once stenographic organizations and collectives start getting serious about reaching audiences. Can’t wait to see what the creative minds out there think up next.
TikTok user workathomewoman mentions in her video a 3 to 1 ratio being possible for an experienced transcriber.
There are two prevailing schools of thought when it comes to the gold standard of machine shorthand stenography in United States legal proceedings. There are those that truly believe in the standard. There are those that give it lip service, only ever talking about stenography when pressed or pressured. Of course, there’s a third school of thought in the people that can’t or won’t spend much time thinking about why we still use our chorded stenotype keyboard design over a century after its development. For the third schoolers, we use QWERTY layouts despite that design being over a hundred years old too. It’s easy to imagine why: 1. There’s a market for it. 2. No technology has come along that is more intuitive and better.
I recently had an experience where I had to pick something off of an audio recording painstakingly in transcription mode. It gave me a lot of insight into where stenography’s superiority comes from. It’s in the room control. Some people are always going to be able to speak faster than we can “write” or type. You throw a stenographer into a situation where they have no room control and the participants are speaking above the stenographer’s skill level, and what do you get? You basically get digital court reporting / recording. The stenographic notes are a useless game of fill in the blank.
For the last twelve years that I’ve been in the industry, companies have been pushing reporters to interrupt less. I get it. Just like anybody else, lawyers don’t like to be interrupted. The loudest complaints were probably from the ones that are most self-important. The companies likely sought to end complaints by telling stenographers to let the audio catch it. But every time we do that, we risk record degradation “Didn’t understand that when they said it, don’t understand it no matter how many times I replay it.” It also increases the amount of time we have to spend on the matter due to re-listening to testimony rather than having it clearly in our notes. Since many depositions go unread until there’s a motion to be filed or trial’s coming up, the number of complaints related to poor transcript quality will likely always be lower than the number of “your reporter interrupted me” complaints. This skews the world the non-reporter owned agency lives in. Make the customer happy and things will work out. Just hope they don’t need whatever was inaudible or unintelligible to make their case.
That’s a major problem for digital, and I am not the first one to write something like this thanks to Jean Whalen. You have audio monitors that may or may not know anything about legal transcription listening for issues that they anticipate the transcriber will have. By removing the ability of the person responsible for the transcript to interrupt, you increase the chance of serious errors. Throw away all my prior calculations. The answer is really that simple.
From a productivity standpoint, room control makes a big difference. I’ve timed myself no audio versus heavy audio use, and I personally can be an astounding 12x slower putting together a transcript when heavy audio use is involved. This is why collectives like Ana Fatima Costa’s Speak Up For The Record group are so vital. In some jurisdictions, there is no mandatory license. There is no legal standard. Our newbies and veterans alike are connected to best practices through the stories and experiences we share amongst ourselves and the encouragement we give each other to be better. Let that be my share: We will not be attracting anyone to this field if they’re peeling things off audio in the name of “our client doesn’t like to be interrupted.”
The Lip Service School
More mainstream legal news has been picking up on the fact that there’s an ongoing debate. I’d like to share some highlights from the article “Glitches Still Persist In Digital Court Reporting Tech” by Steven Lerner, Law360 Pulse.
“…90 hours of testimony digitally recorded in a trial in the Northern Mariana Islands in 2008 resulted in poor audio quality and transcripts that were deemed unreliable and inaccurate.” It’s worth mentioning, but since it was so many years ago, it’s a minor point.
Planet Depos told Law360 Pulse that the problem with a 285-page transcript in Maryland was not the technology, but rather the setting of a public hearing where they were unable to control audio quality, overlapping speakers, and random unidentified speakers scattered across a large room. This goes directly to my points about room control. If we are not serious about speaking up when the record is in danger, we are not serious about record accuracy. Customer education is going to be this decade’s biggest challenge.
Brian Jasper, an attorney at Thomas Law Offices PLLC told Law360 Pulse “the technology was a problem, and it interrupted the deposition. I don’t scrutinize the depositions for perfection, but as an attorney, I have much more confidence in a stenographer because they are taking it down in real time.” This speaks to my point on room control. We generally know when we’re not getting it.
The article talks about the Stanford study where voice recognition by Apple, Google, Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon was tested. Error rates for black men were over 40%. I’m happy that this is getting more attention, because the adoption of automatic speech recognition (ASR) into legal transcription can really hurt equality and quality in general.
Stenograph, through Anir Dutta, claimed the average wait times for customers is seven minutes. This conflicts with reports at the end of last year that wait times for some were over a half an hour. Anir Dutta is quoted as saying “if that means that that customer is going to go on Facebook and make it so that everybody thinks that our average hold times are tremendously high, I think it’s unfair and frankly malicious.”
Lisa Migliore Black is quoted. “After 25 or more years of always keeping my Stenograph support contract up to date so that I would have the most current software advances, I let my support contract expire in January of 2022 due to long hold times with technical support and their failure to resolve the problems I was experiencing over the course of several months.” “My perception as a customer is that Stenograph is pulling too many available resources to develop the ASR side of their business.” I have to say I’m with Lisa. after over a decade of using CaseCAT, I’m very slowly teaching myself Eclipse, because being married to Stenograph just comes off as risky to me. The company seems obsessed with being at the helm of an evolution in court reporting that may never actually happen.
Dutta stated 80% of the company’s investment is still in stenography and that it is a “false narrative” that going into digital court reporting is shifting its focus. He’s quoted saying “If Apple started making iPhones, does it mean that they make substandard laptops?” Again, this goes against what has been documented prior, a drop in customer service.
Asked about the Stanford study, Dutta stated “People can quote studies from three years ago….” “…technology moves a million miles every three months.” This is demonstrably false. There’s a patent from 2000 showing 90% automatic speech recognition (ASR) accuracy was thought to be possible. The 2020 Stanford study showed accuracy lower than 80%. Is there anyone on Earth that believes 90% to 80% over the course of two decades is technology moving a million miles every thee months? ASR has improved. But it largely depends on who’s speaking and how good the audio is. I also find it humorous that Dutta takes exception to a 2020 study being cited when the entire basis for digital court reporting infiltration is Jim Cudahy, Speech-to-Text Institute, and a 2013-2014 Court Reporting Industry Outlook. Odd that an entire industry should shift focus for something that was done almost a decade ago and never adjusted for but should pay no mind to current events because “tEcHnOloGy.”
It’s a very interesting time to be in court reporting because nobody knows what happens next. Do the shot callers realize they’re wasting a lot of money trying to create a market for digital court reporting and start investing in the training of stenographers that will make them consistent profits? Will there be a breakthrough technology that renders stenography obsolete? Will our shortage get worse? Will our adoption of remote technologies compensate for the uneven distribution of court reporters across the country?
The data we’ve got doesn’t point to replacement. Until there’s a magic box that does everything, humans will be required to control the room, and it never gets more efficient than someone turning the speech into text right then and there with 95% or more accuracy. I’ll speculate that technology like CoverCrow will become more polished, mainstream, and accepted in helping with stenographer shortage woes. Agencies say they’re having coverage issues, and from what I understand, CoverCrow aims to work collaboratively with companies rather than cutting them from the equation.
As it stands, stenographers have a huge say in what happens next. Why?
There’s a market for it. 2. No technology has come along that’s more intuitive and better.
I am happy about this. I am hopeful that it will be a change in direction for USL. I am wary of heaping on praise because companies in our field often do symbolic little gestures to appease us, only to turn around and continue to try to tread on the stenographic legion. It’s kind of like if someone smacked you every day for about half a year and then on day 181 apologized. Sorry doesn’t cut it. Continued recruitment and support of our existing profession is the only thing that will really mend US Legal’s image in the eyes of court reporters. The only court reporters I’ve met that disagree with me are friends of Rick Levy or among the precious few that USL treats well, and I’m not about to let the opinions of two people dictate the future of 30,000.
In many ways I feel vindicated. A few have balked about my methods or beliefs. But we have all collectively shown each other that we have the power to change things. If you follow me on social media, I said as much yesterday:
I remind every court reporter that while U.S. Legal, according to Owler, controls an estimated $100 million annually, court reporters control an estimated $1.7 billion. Over the course of my blogging and ads, you’ve all chipped in about $15,000 (guesstimate). About 0.0009% of stenographers’ annual revenue was able to meet the threshold for change. If you’d like the fight and my media work to continue, then I have to ask for donations at the Stenonymous.com home page.
My personal feelings are that we should turn our attention toward our treatment and end disparity in treatment. For example, if we look at USL’s cancellation policy, canceling a court reporter can be done at 5:00 p.m. the day before. Canceling an interpreter must be done 24 to 48 business hours ahead of time, which I’m going to take to mean 1 to 2 business days, since 24 business hours is a whopping 3 days.
Why does such disparity exist? Because we allow it to. Another example? Videographers, interpreters, and captioners all operate on a two-hour minimum. Court reporters are the only ones that have yet to figure out the value of their time and demand it. But it’s not long before people estimate how many pages they usually get in an hour multiplied by their page rate and realize that that is the true value of their time. Once stenographers know the true value of their time, they will start asking for it, and the shortage will take care of itself.
For anyone that hates math, as a young reporter that was being taken advantage of, I made about $3.25 per page and the layouts at that time gave me about 40 pages per hour. That’s $130 in 2011 money. That’s about $164 in December 2021 money. That would be $328 on a two-hour minimum. I was making $75 bust fees. This is simple economics. When we are busted on, we’re often scheduled at the exclusion of being elsewhere. We cannot have a functional field when people are being paid 22% of what they should be making, and this has arguably driven our shortage more than the games being played by USL and Veritext. Less money in our pockets means we cut expenses, like associations, and then our associations are in famine mode. A vicious cycle ensues and our death as a profession becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The only way out of that is to break the cycle and admit to ourselves that we have a problem with pricing. Our race to the bottom comes at a cost, the loss of integrity of the legal record. Are we willing to accept such a loss simply because corporate entities claim we are not worth more? And do not give me the false narrative that we would price ourselves out of the market. The rapacious behavior of multiple companies has not priced them out. It is a lie sold for one purpose: To keep the working reporter down.
A dozen years in the industry have given me the courage to stand up and say enough is enough. Demand more of the companies. Where they refuse to do better, compete with them. That is the way forward now that everyone knows that they can be beat.
Yesterday, many professional stenographers came together with hobbyist stenographers from the Open Steno Project. Open Steno proponents presented how they have brought the cost of trying and using steno from the thousands of dollars it used to cost down to about $100. One example of this is the Uni, which is now, according to members from the community, in mass production mode. Please get involved in the various Open Steno communities, but especially the Discord chat. For anyone that missed the meeting, you can watch it here. The entire event was put together over the course of one week by Dineen Squillante, and without her, the event would not have happened. Captioning was provided by Open Steno founder Mirabai Knight. Moderation was performed by Quaverly Rothenberg. Check out my timeline of events below:
After that lineup, the Open Steno Community members spoke and shared with us several important things.
28:30 Software Engineer (140 WPM) Sammi De Guzman gave us a great introduction. Sammi spoke about the financial barriers of getting into stenography and talked about how the Open Steno Project has eliminated or substantially reduced those barriers through cheaper hardware and free software (Plover). She also mentioned how this barrier reduction allows everyone to use stenography and not just those in court reporting and captioning. Sammi also mentioned the large ecosystem of plugins/tools available.
44:00 Peter Park from Stenokeyboards.com spoke next. Peter is currently a law student, and he designed the Uni keyboard mentioned at the top. Peter spoke about his background and how he got into stenography.
51:26 Crides, a keyboard designer, spoke about embedded steno and a custom-made steno engine that can run on keyboards, as well as its pros and cons.
54:10 Ted Morin, a software engineer and Lead Developer of Plover, was up next. Ted created Art of Chording, just one way for people to learn stenographic theory for free. Ted spoke about the challenges of people learning stenography on their own. Ted also talked about Steno Arcade!
1:00:15 Joshua Grams, hobby programmer and the creator of Steno Jig was our next speaker. The exercises create pseudo-sentences that keep users on their toes and vary what they hear.
1:03:34 Diana MacDonald (Di), creator of Typey Type, spoke about the history of tools that existed to learn when she started and her creation of Typey Type for accessibility.
1:28:13 Sammi gave us more information about decentralizing stenography and creating accessibility to more people in more places. The work of various creators was mentioned at 1:34:17, including SanSan by Sammi, Hachidori by Kaoffie, and Thai Steno by Parnikkapore.
1:41:16 Elizabeth Tremmel, an official court reporter in Ramsey County, Minnesota was the next presenter. She spoke about the Plover demographics survey. She spoke about schools and community, and how Plover helped her achieve working speed. One very important point made by Elizabeth was that NCRA’s testing policy is ambiguous.
I need to hijack the point Elizabeth made. Because of the nature of the Open Steno Community’s work, they need clarification on “special accommodations” and “stenographic writer” in NCRA testing. “Stenographic writer” is incredibly important because of the wide variety of writers that Open Steno has produced. Thanks to modern technology, people can swap out square keys for steno keys on an NKRO keyboard and perform stenography. When I took board training, I learned that associations don’t exclude vendors because that might cause antitrust complaints. If OSP has to crowdfund a lawyer to engage with NCRA to get these answers or represent people lost in the shuffle, it will be a dark day in the history of our profession. I have to ask my colleagues to help legitimize this community rather than illegally exclude it. I believe that’s where we are headed, but I must insist we be proactive: Let’s not be shy about pushing for a better, more-inclusive organization.
1:51:54 Matt “Sooty” Morgan spoke about his quest to teach himself stenography and how scarce stenographic writers are in Australia. Without Plover, Matt would not have made the professional milestones he’s made. He has hope for the future of shorthand in his country thanks to Open Steno. Knowing the
1:54:12, Stanley Sakai joined us from outer space. He talked about teaching himself stenography, the infancy of Plover, and how that evolved into work with coding an app for accessibility and captioning at Coachella with Isaiah Roberts. In Stanley’s words, any way someone can appreciate our craft is a beautiful thing.
2:07:30 Aerick came back and showed off the Discord chat, which professionals are encouraged to join.
After the conclusion of the Open Steno presentation, professional stenographers got a chance to speak.
2:13:16 Yvette Heinze spoke about Team Turtle and the importance of community. Main takeaway? Working together and surrounding ourselves with people that challenge us to learn and grow is vital to the profession’s survival.
2:19:21Rich Germosen spoke about the court reporting practice community that he runs and how they support each other and keep the drama and politics low.
2:22:18 Christopher Day got to speak about how there’s a tech buzzword going around, the democratization of technology. He pledged to use Stenonymous to boost the community. He also mentioned how dummy pages were put up to lure students away from stenography with lies published about NCRA projections.
2:26:28 Traci Mertens, a stenographer of 34 years in nearly every area of the field that works as an Official Legislative Reporter for the United States House of Representatives. We need voice writers, Plover people, and everybody on board was the core of Traci’s message.
2:30:33 Mirabai Knight was the official close to the meeting, noting how she was blown away by all of the contributions made and how she loves being able to use Plover for captioning, as she has for almost a decade.
2:32:10 Dan Glassman got to come in and explain his experiences and knowledge from the last four decades in the history of stenography. From there, the meeting floated to general discussion and Q&A.
In only one week, Open Steno pulled together this monumental presentation. That, by itself, makes it worthy of our support.
Notably, I failed to mention StenoMasters, a speech club open to everyone and run by my best friend, Joshua Edwards. For those that want to sharpen their skills in speaking, it’s worth the $146 first-year cost. StenoMasters is very much like Open Steno in its quest to be accessible and open. Most of the fee goes to Toastmasters, the umbrella organization over StenoMasters, and the rest goes to club expenses.
I also failed to mention Glen Warner’s Cheap & Sleazy blog. My blog, is the biggest blog in the industry commercially. Glen’s is arguably the best blog in the industry, and if you’ve never seen it, it’s time to take a look. His work inspired my work. I hope to inspire others the way he inspired me. His work in the Open Steno Community and promoting the Facebook page cannot go unnoticed.
I’m relocating! Fan mail and things of that nature can go to 2744 Hylan Blvd, Unit 502, Staten Island, New York 10306. This is also where blog donations by check can go for those of you that prefer not to use the Stenonymous.com homepage box.
Sometime next week I’ll do an article on how Stenograph attempted to bully the Texas Court Reporters Association. As most of you know, I am against their push into automatic speech recognition for many reasons. The science we have today says ASR is only 25 to 80% accurate, yet they’ve billed it as a potential 50% productivity boost. That’s not possible. Stenograph has also slipped something into its licensing agreement where court reporters have to get releases for people’s voices or data being collected or run through the program. It doesn’t take a lawyer to tell us this is wrong. This is remarkably different from the apparent ethos of Eclipse on this matter, where they’re certainly developing ASR for use in stenographic software, but as of yet not attempting to shunt liability onto stenographers, and not, as far as I can see, making bogus productivity boost claims.
If you have digital court reporter transcripts you’d like to share with Dr. Halcyon Lawrence, please send them to me at ChristopherDay227@gmail.com. Academics have now taken note of the opaque behavior of tech companies. In order for this to be further studied, and to protect the public, we must become serious about sharing our knowledge and experience with those, like Halycon, that seek truth and transparency. The freedom of speech afforded to us in the United States protects academic integrity, and academic integrity protects the scientific processes that make our society great. This social contract gives all of us a special power to influence the future and make the world a better place.
The Open Steno community formed years ago. It gave us Plover, a free stenographic translation software, as well as several other projects, such as the StenoMod. In the words of Mirabai Knight, Open Steno’s founder, “steno is going strong…” The community also gave us Steno Arcade, a computer game dedicated to stenography.
As more professionals join the Discord chatroom and community, and assist those teaching themselves, I expect the number of people entering our professional track from Open Steno and other self-paced initiatives to skyrocket. This use of non-traditional self-learners is exactly how computer programmers have addressed much larger shortage concerns. In our field this also means there’s a large pool of recruits unaccounted for by organizations like STTIand US Legal.
Readers that wish to donate to the Open Steno general fund and Mirabai Knight may do so here. Together, we will continue a nationwide recruitment surge, mentor and nourish our self-taught and traditional students and graduates, and pave the way to a future for stenographic court reporters.
So I stumbled across the CourtReporterEdu.org website. A pleasant website that is facially neutral. You look at it, and it doesn’t seem to be anything “bad.” It talks about stenographers and shorthand. It has a picture of a stenotype. Looks like the kind of marketing stenographers should be doing.
Then you, reader, head on over to a magical place, court reporting info by state.
And when the reader goes to look at their state, they’ll infallibly get a long list of schools that have “court reporter programs.”
From my review of the New York schools listed, none have a digital court reporter degree. The few that mention digital court reporting sell the digital court reporting as a “continuing education” program. In short, they’re selling continuing education for a degree track that does not exist. Some of these schools have zero mention of digital court reporting on their website. Some schools, like BMCC, you reach out to admissions, and they know nothing about the program.
So, of course, I ask Ed 2 Go what the deal is, because Mark Pugal from Ed 2 Go has been trying to sell me on Digital Court Reporting for like a month now.
And of course, I trust, but verify.
BMCC asked for my concerns, so I put them out there.
Now, just to explain, in part, why I think CourtReporterEDU and possibly Ed 2 Go is being dishonest: (1) In many of the schools listed, when one goes to independently verify the existence of the program, it doesn’t seem to exist. Attempting to verify the program with the schools that actually do seem to offer it leads to this roundabout “we don’t have that program, but actually we do” response. Maybe at the point colleges are selling programs with no future and are so insignificant the admissions department doesn’t know they exist, or they don’t exist, we’ve gone too far. (2) Even where the program exists, it is selling students a course in something that is not the industry standard and does not have as many opportunities. (3) Putting a stenotype on your homepage and then diverting people to digital court reporting via esyoh.com and Ed 2 Go is just dishonest. Even if we forgive everything else, the way this page is set up is to confuse people and lend legitimacy to digital court reporting that it does not deserve.
At the bottom of this page is a video walking people through that part. Now for a bit of speculation. We know from the WHOIS lookup that the registrant’s address was in Florida. The server the site is hosted on appears to be in California, but that’s likely irrelevant.
Luckily, one of the schools actually advertising the program gives us a peek into who might be promoting it. Wagner College lists Merritt Gilbert and Natalie Hartsfield.
Merritt Gilbert is apparently in Florida and connected to BlueLedge. BlueLedge, as some may remember from a prior post, are aggressively marketing digital as the answer to the stenographer shortage exaggerated and exacerbated by STTI, Veritext, and US Legal. The author of that article stating digital reporting is the answer to shortage? Benjamin Jaffe. Who is Benjamin Jaffe? BlueLedge.
Who is Merritt Gilbert? BlueLedge.
Who is Natalie Hartsfield? Digital, BlueLedge, Florida.
Now here’s where it gets really interesting. Remember when I wrote yesterday that US Legal has been on inactive status in New York since 2001? BlueLedge, according to Florida Department of State, has been dissolved since 2019.
And just for anyone who thinks “maybe there are two BlueLedge companies in Florida,” take a look at that mailing address, 101 E Kennedy Blvd. Guess what the address for BlueLedge is.
How is it legal for a dissolved company to misdirect the public, searching for stenographic reporter training, to Ed 2 Go and digital court reporting? It might not be, but it’s going to depend on us asking our various government agencies to look into this as a matter of false advertising and possibly operating illegally in the state. I reached out to my New York State Education Department as it pertained to this course being sold to New York consumers. Maybe this is something the members of each state association can tackle.
This situation blew my mind. We cannot stand for this. We have to fight and understand that we are playing against people that do not play by the rules or within the bounds of our self-imposed moral code. I have collected these images and ideas in a central place. Please use them to do good. I should note that at least one consumer was extremely confused and came onto our message boards asking about how to buy a stenotype for digital court reporting. We must act with compassion. Consumers are being lied to and we are the only people with the knowledge to explain it to them. They WILL stumble onto our message boards confused because they ARE being bombarded by lies.
After reaching out to ESYOH well after this article, they took action! The scheme is now less potent because of their valiant actions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s a file containing a notice of deposition. To limit the time spent redacting, I’ll offer up the first page only.
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.”
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.
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.
But what about the attorneys? Maybe John Schmidt said it was okay.
But perhaps Amber Cook had given permission?
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.
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.
Within 24 hours after the posting of this blog the files were taken off of the internet.
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.
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.
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!”
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!
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.
On the following page, there’s a forecast for operating expenses and industry revenue. That’s summed up in another pretty chart.
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.