Student Report: The shock of the real world

“You all right in there?” hollered the attorney as he knocked on the bathroom door.

I could not answer him as I continued to vomit, an already embarrassing situation made worse by the fact that the law office was an old wooden house located in midtown Houston. In these types of structures, loud noises reverberate with ferocity across every room. No sounds are hidden in this longstanding house, especially the ones my unforeseen sickness was producing. When I finally regained the strength and stillness to answer the attorney, I faintly answered, “Yes, sir. I just need a few minutes. I’m sorry.”

Hundreds of panicked thoughts raced through my mind. Do I call the court reporting firm that assigned me to this job and let them know what is going on? Will the attorneys automatically send me home for this? Did I mess up the record when, minutes ago, I asked everyone in the room to please excuse me? The uneasiness of my stomach was exacerbated by the fear and uncertainty starting to run through me.

After I carefully paced myself back to the conference room and said that we could resume the proceedings, the attorney asked me if the court reporting agency that sent me should dispatch another court reporter. I politely denied the idea and insisted that I was fine to continue. Six hours later, we concluded with the final witness for the day. I packed up and slowly limped to the car carrying my steno machine and laptop. My equipment seemed to weigh a thousand pounds more than usual after a long day of recording testimony for more than eight hours, with no shortage of the attorney and deponent angrily talking over each other at what seemed to be more than 300 words per minute.

This was my very first job ever as a licensed court reporter.

My mind began to reel at how my very first assignment actually unfolded. I did not have any answers or points of reference for a day like this. My court reporting school or instructors never mentioned days like this. I had no idea if I handled the day’s unusual events correctly or not. I experienced a lot of emotions as I sat quietly in my car that evening, but mostly I felt simply unprepared — unprepared for dealing with belligerent witnesses who refuse to slow down their speaking as they direct livid orations at the questioning attorney; unprepared for the pain and stiffness shooting through my arms after the first three hours of writing to intensely brisk back-and-forth testimony; unprepared for dealing with an unexpected sickness while simultaneously trying to make the best possible impression on my first freelance assignment.

I just felt lost.

Thankfully, there would be more jobs. There would be better depositions. There would be kind attorneys and compliant witnesses who converse with a friendly calm. There would be days where I am complimented for my professionalism and sharp appearance. Thankfully, those days would slowly become average for my life as a court reporter. But I also experienced my fair share of court reporting “horror stories,” as CSRs love to share with each other when they convene. It is interesting to listen to court reporters regale others with their more embarrassing, frustrating, and bizarre jobs. Sometimes these stories are told to entertain; sometimes they are told to educate; other times they are told for what seems like the sake of experiencing a therapeutic catharsis — or even a confession.

But many times, you will hear the same final thought with these old court reporting war stories: “I was not prepared for that.”

As I took some days to alleviate the shell shock of my very first job, I began to realize that my training for being a court reporter and the real-life application of being a court reporter turned out to be two completely different things. Yes, my court reporting procedures class in school was invaluable in its practicality and relevance; yes, the interning I did with working reporters was an eye-opening educational experience; yes, my instructors did warn us of strange jobs that we may take as reporters. But there is still so much to absorb and figure out when you first embark on jobs as a bright-eyed certified reporter. For instance:

• What do you do when the attorney who hired you wants to go off the record, but opposing counsel demands that you stay on?

• What do you do when an admitted exhibit is a firearm or bag of narcotics?

• What do you do when an expert witness’s accent is incredibly heavy, to the point where you only understand every other word they are saying?

• What do you do about paying taxes as you begin to make money as a licensed court reporter?

Of course, there is a consensus for a “right answer” for all of these example situations. But would a student who is about to take their certification exam know what to do in these instances? Would a court reporter who has been working for only six months in the field know what to do in these scenarios?

I spoke to several court reporters about their own shocks of transitioning from a student of stenography to working in the profession full-time. Much like the surprise of my first day of proceedings having wild dictation speeds, many veteran court reporters recall their own dismay of trying to keep up as neophytes. A working professional confessed to me, “I wasn’t prepared to make the transition from five-minute takes to real-world conversation at 300 wpm for 20- to 60-second bursts, followed by a pause, and then an answer at 180 words a minute — rinse and repeat for hours on end.” A court reporter from Delaware communicates this same idea with sobering brevity when she said, “Depositions don’t happen in five-minute takes.”

Some reporters began their career with questions of how to handle everything that happens outside of the deposition proceedings. “I could write, and I could punctuate. I even expected the arguing attorneys,” a realtime reporter from California told me. “What I had no clue about was the administrative side of reporting: Worksheets, billing, calendaring, taxes, shipping, tracking receipts, and expenses. I was totally unprepared.”

I have had the pleasure of mentoring new court reporters, most of whom I know through the school I attended and developed friendships with. I cannot count the number of times I have guided new reporters on where to order exhibit stickers, how to keep track of their mileage for each deposition, or how to swear in an interpreter. Each time I give out these useful tidbits of information to burgeoning reporters, it affirms the harsh reality that new court reporters need a lot more attention and help than they are normally getting — whether through their school or not — to ensure that they are doing the best they can for the clients they serve.

My older brother became a certified shorthand reporter years after I did, and I remember every day answering a seemingly endless number of questions regarding the tiny, important details of working as a court reporter and how jobs actually happen on a day-to-day basis. There were times when the answers I gave him almost stunned him. Even with his four-plus years of intense training as a stenographer, he was still learning things about the industry that befuddled him. I could almost see the battle taking place in his mind between his expectations of responsibilities as a court reporter and the reality of them.

What’s more interesting to learn about many reporters is how long it actually took for them to feel remotely competent at their job — or not. A seasoned Washington, D.C., court reporter candidly told me, “After five years, I was amazed that every day was worse than school, and I was writing like the wind constantly. I was exhausted, discouraged, and ready to quit.” Meanwhile, another reporter said to me, “The real coldwater shock was how long it took me to get comfortable with the job — probably five years.” Just between these two court reporters, after more than 1,800 days on the job, one is barely coping with their assignments while the other is just realizing that they finally feel confident with the day-to-day workload.

What is it like, then, for court reporters who have only been doing it for a week?

The undeniable current of truth underneath all of the confusion, pain, and astonishment of transitioning from a stenography student to a professional is that they are desperate for information, for guidance, for a helping hand. Some court reporters reveal that they may not still be doing what they are doing if it were not for those that helped them along the way. One reporter emphasized to me that her mentors — two veterans who gave her a steady stream of kindness and help — were the deciding factor in keeping her in the business. “If it weren’t for these two gentlemen, I don’t know if I would have stayed in reporting.”

Today’s digital age allows for all sorts of people with commonalities to come together and help each other, especially court reporters and court reporting students or the newly certified. The exchange of information going from wise working reporters to those who just became licensed is encouraging and sometimes moving. You can see the relief when a newbie reporter thanks everyone so much for their feedback and help after posting their current questions and frustrations. I gladly participate in the daily encouragement and guidance of students and new reporters. Telling a new reporter where to place a comma in a witness’s answer can be more than a brief lesson in grammar; it can be a reassurance that they are not alone.

In my mind’s eye, I sometimes look back on the young man who unintentionally threw up in the attorney’s guest restroom on his very first job. I would have gotten on the phone with him that night and asked him how his first day went. I would have encouraged him to laugh about it, convince him that it will make a great story for other new reporters in the future. Then I would have shown him how to handle things like that in the future if the occasion should arise.

Someone trying to pass their court reporting certification exam once wrote me after I offered them advice and said, “You are a blessing to the court reporting community.” While that is a very kind thing to say, it made me realize that is actually exactly what we are: a community. Communities thrive by being self-sustaining and self-healing, by letting the stronger portions support weaker portions, by having its inhabitants serve one other whenever they can. Everyone can contribute something in their own unique way, even if it is just a little.

There is no doubt: Offering your unique help to those who need it in our precious community goes a long, long way.