Expectation versus reality: A year of working in review

By Katherine Schilling

Recently, I hit my one-year mark as a working deposition reporter in the Richmond, Va., area. Over the course of that one year, there have been a lot of firsts (first doctor depo, first out-of-state job, first pro se, etc.,) a lot of triumphs, and a lot of “oops.”

I’ve thought about how my schooling prepared me for the job. Did it teach me the right things? Could I have learned things differently? My school and mentors taught me a great deal, but after a year out in the field, I’m going to share how some of the more memorable lessons I learned as a student were flat-out wrong, could have been improved on in places, or hit the nail right on the head.

Attorneys should be feared!”

For much of my schooling, I was taught that attorneys should be feared and revered. Now, I’m not against respecting people, but the way this claim was propagated made it sound like one slipup from me on a job would spell utter disaster. This had the unfortunate effect of making me feel like I had to keep my mouth shut during a deposition or, heaven forbid, cough. All this walking on eggshells for attorneys is simply unnecessary.

Sure, there will always be a few rotten apples in the bunch, but attorneys are largely just as eager to make a good record as you are. They might not always be as mindful as you’d like, but that’s nothing that a well-timed and tactful reminder can’t fix. They’re human, too, and like a good team player, they’re not out to try to make your job miserable. So let’s turn this phrase around and say that attorneys are on your side.

Don’t rely on your audio.”

Ah, the dreaded audio. While I was a student, the use of BAM (backup audio media) was either never discussed at all or demonized as something that should not be used on the job. I was convinced that the best reporters around, the ones who ran convention seminars or won speed contests, didn’t even own microphones. That all changed when I began working for my agency. When asked if I had all my professional equipment, I listed my writer and software. “What about your microphone?” they asked me. I was shocked by their candidness. They then proceeded to explain that a lot of reporters use BAM. It was an enlightening and, frankly, liberating moment.

I understand that to rely on your audio is a dangerous habit, but it is a far cry from having it as a backup (or a safety net, as I like to put it). Maybe what my instructors were actually trying to say was: “Don’t get in the habit of relying 100 percent on your audio because it will just create more work for yourself on the back end,” which is certainly true. Although you’ve made it through school with a solid set of skills to do the job, you are by no means going to be perfect when just starting out. You will need that BAM, so let’s stop treating it like a taboo.

You should start off slow.”

This was often said in reference to how agencies will be mindful of your fledgling abilities when you first start and that they will accommodate accordingly. In reality, this is not the case. And, to clarify, I don’t think it should be the case. Agencies need to fill jobs, and short of sending a newbie out on a realtime job, it’s all fair game. So I say, if you’re called upon for something you’re not comfortable with, rise to the challenge! It usually won’t be as difficult as you think, and with practically no frame of reference, who’s to say what’s a tough job or a tricky job? My first job was a doctor depo with attorneys attending by videoconference. My second was two corporate designees with tons of exhibits and even more attorneys on videoconference.

I am so happy that those were my first samples of the working world because they exposed me to a slew of circumstances that I was bound to come across eventually, so I was able to cross those “firsts” off my list pretty quickly. I’m a firm believer of the saying: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” So, why not embrace whatever is thrown your way? If you end up really in over your head, then, by all means, let someone know, but you’ll never know what you’re capable of handling if you don’t try. Your agency will love you for being a go-getter, and you’ll prove that you’re tougher than you give yourself credit for.

Find a mentor.”

I’d beef up this bit of advice by saying, “Find a mentor, befriend your mentor, and make your mentor sign a contract stating that he/she agrees to answer your 1,000,000 questions when you start working!” You will doubt every new thing that comes your way, and trust me, it’s all new when you’re first starting out. Save yourself the trouble of shouting your question into the Facebook void and getting 30 contradicting answers in return. Find a mentor who you respect and trust, ideally someone who works for your future agency, so that you can go to just one person and get that one right answer the first time.

In my situation, I had the immensely good fortune of joining an agency that has its own professional development specialist. This incredible woman fields any and all court reporter questions to make sure that the agency’s standards are carried out across the board. In just a few minutes, I can email her my question and get my answer right back. Find a mentor who can be your own professional development specialist, be upfront about what he or she can expect from you, and then don’t be afraid to ask away.

Know your software.”

CAT software is definitely key to making your job easier. It can save you hours of preparation and editing, and it can even help you improve your writing. As a student, I always loved my CAT class, but I recognize that software can be overwhelming considering how much there is to learn. After my one year of working, if I had to pinpoint the one aspect of the CAT software to master, it’s dictionaries: building a job dictionary, loading dictionaries, and bolstering your main dictionary. You should know how to do these things like the back of your hand by the time you take your first job.

While you’re a student, take the time to input proper names of establishments in your area: hospitals, high schools, shopping malls, universities. Take it a step further and go for as many local medical providers as you can. Why not add the 100 most common medications? The list goes on! These simple steps literally just take minutes to do and will save you hours of editing because these names will come up correctly the first time you take them down.

Prepare for your jobs.”

I’d been told this several times as a student, but it was only when I began working that I finally grasped what that entailed. I’m a very hands-on learner and needed to actually put it into practice in order to understand it. Job prepping is a simple yet vital process to make your life that much easier. For me, it consists of just a few steps:

  • Review the case caption and build your title pages so that they’re all filled out with the proper information before you even get to the job.

BONUS: First learn to read case captions. Understanding who represents the parties will help you prep your appearances pages correctly and give you a sense of what to expect.

  • Put in the proper names of all the participants, company names, locations, and anything else that you can glean from the caption or some good old-fashioned Googling. Got the name of a company? Throw it into Google and see where its local office is, what kind of work the company does, and so on.
  • Look up the attorneys online and see if you can get a picture from their biographies. This always makes a great first impression when you can proudly stick your hand out and greet them by name when they come into the room.
  • Before going on the record, try asking the noticing attorney for some idea of what the case will entail. A “sneak peek,” as I like to call it. Are words such as electrocution, carcinoma en situ, or even something as simple as right shoulder going to be coming up a lot? Now’s your time to slap together some briefs to save your fingers some fatigue.

Beware cancellitis.”

Cancellitis: A long stretch of time where jobs cancel at alarming frequency. Symptoms include discomfort, panic, and boredom.

Yes, it is real. Yes, it sucks. But, yes, it will also pass. This ties into the closely related “feast or famine” phrase that is thrown around when describing freelancing, and truer words were never spoken. Just when you think you’re so busy you can’t possibly take on another job, your entire next week will clear right out, like the attorneys are running for the hills. Cancellitis often strikes without warning, so keep this in mind when shaping your monthly budget.

But look on the bright side. During these dry spells, you’ll find yourself with more free time than you know what to do with. Now you have time to build your dictionary, practice speedbuilding, or attend a CAT webinar. Just kidding! Catch up with old friends or indulge in your personal hobbies. Remember, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

Attend conventions.”

Everything you hear about conventions being a worthwhile investment is true, period. Conventions are where you’ll find the brightest and most passionate reporters, all gathered in one convenient place for your learning pleasure. These events take on a new slant once you begin working, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn a lot while you’re still a student — and at a fraction of the cost with those student registration rates! Attending conventions will also jump start your networking by making those connections that will carry on through your budding career. Conventions are key at every stage of being a court reporter, so why not start early?

You’ll love your job!”

This is without a doubt one of the truest thing I was ever told. When graduates would come into the classroom to share their wisdom, they all invariably finished off their speeches with this statement, and they weren’t exaggerating. Maybe because it feels like a reward for all the hard work I put in during school, or maybe just because the job is that much fun and that satisfying, but now that I’m a working reporter, every day is like a dream. I’m always learning something new from the array of attorneys and deponents I meet. It’s easy to measure the progress of my skills through ever-increasing words per minute and translation rates. And the job itself feels like a game. How many lines can I get clean without a single error? No matter how far away the job is or how incoherent the witness, I can say with pride at the end of the day, “I love my job.” And I know that you’ll be saying the same thing, too.

So there you have it. I found that after I started working, some of what I was taught in school differed drastically from reality, some was a little off, and then some was completely spot-on. In the end, no school experience can possibly prepare you for everything you’ll discover when out in the real world, but hopefully you can apply some of these tips to your own steno journey.

Now to see what the second year holds!

Katherine Schilling, RPR, is a freelancer based in Richmond, Va. She can be reached at katherineschillingcr@gmail.com.