New professionals share their advice, strategies for earning the RPR

The Registered Professional Reporter (RPR) is NCRA’s foundational certification, which tests the essential knowledge and skills for an entry-level reporter. Members of NCRA’s New Professionals Committee who have earned their RPR within the last few years shared why they earned this certification, their strategies for preparing for and passing the exam, and which certification is next on their list.

The value of the RPR

Depending on the state or job, a reporter may need to earn the RPR. For example, Melissa Case, RPR, was aiming for an officialship in Ohio, which required the RPR. Danielle Griffin, RPR, needed to earn it (along with a written test) to practice as a freelancer in Arizona.

Even in states that have a requirement such as a certified shorthand reporter (CSR), earning the RPR has its benefits. For example, some states will accept the RPR in lieu of the CSR. “The RPR requirements are almost identical to my state requirements. It was an easier and quicker process to go through for certification since my state accepts the RPR in order to practice as a reporter,” said Michael Hensley, RPR, a freelancer in Illinois.

Rachel Barkmue, RPR, an official in California, used the RPR to help her prepare for her state’s CSR. “I took the RPR Written Knowledge Test in conjunction with my state’s CSR written exam, so the materials were similar, and I took them both around the same time,” she said.

However, earning the RPR means more than simply fulfilling a set of requirements. Some reporters are looking for a professional or personal boost. “I knew it would open up a lot more doors for me,” said Case. Barkume earned the RPR for “more marketability and my personal goal of getting as many extra letters after my name as possible. I always want to keep striving for something new.”

Mikey McMorran, RPR, a freelancer in California, had earned most of the segments of the RPR as a student but got tripped up on the testimony leg. “Really when it comes down to it, the biggest reason I decided to go after my RPR was for my own reputation among my peers as well as my own reaffirmation that I belong in this profession,” he said. “As someone who has attended many court reporting functions over the years, I don’t think I’ve ever attended one in which the question did not come up from someone, ‘Do you have your RPR?’ Honestly, it was a little bit embarrassing to have to say every time, ‘Oh, I have all of the legs except for one.’”

Finding the right resources

Most of the members of the New Professionals Committee practiced for the RPR on their own using a variety of strategies. Several members used their school’s environment or resources to earn their certification. “I obtained my RPR as part of my schooling program. Once I finished speeds, then I set my sights on the RPR with all of my time and energy resources,” said Hensley.

“Take the RPR while in school or freshly out of school if possible. There is no replacement for that test mentality that you get daily in school. Once you’re working every day, you lose the test mode and it’s very difficult to get back in that mindset while also handling a working calendar,” said Barkume. “I was still in school/less than a year out of school when I took all my legs (I passed one at a time over three testing dates), so I still had the dictation recordings from school, etc. to help me practice at home.”

Griffin used dictation from the Magnum Steno Club — run by Mark Kislingbury, RDR, CRR, a broadcast captioner in Texas — and EV360. “Between EV360 and Magnum Steno Club, the dictation I was practicing was much harder than the actual test, which worked to my advantage when test nerves kicked in,” said Griffin. She explained her strategy of practicing above the normal speed. “For some reason, testing for the RPR made me nervous. I had to make sure I was above the required speeds so that when the test started and my nerves kicked in, I had an extra bit of speed reserved to account for that.” She practiced 30 to 40 percent above her target speed. “The purpose is to envision yourself as if you were sitting in a speed competition, as a competitor, and writing as if you had expert precision,” she said. “If you take that dictation back down to 225 or a new take at 180, 200, or 225, while applying that same mentality, you will achieve your speed faster than you think.”

Several members of the committee found valuable resources through NCRA. Hensley used recordings of previous RPR Exams, saying the real thing felt “like just another day of practice instead of an actual test.” Case used the RPR Study Guide to aid her in preparation. She commented: “the Written Knowledge Test was much harder than I expected.”

While most new professionals practiced solo, a couple mentioned having a community to lean on. “In Arizona, we have an extremely supportive court reporting community. There are many veteran reporters that are able and willing to volunteer their time to help and mentor students,” said Griffin. “I was able to work with Doreen Sutton, RPR, and Kim Portik, RMR, CRR, CRC, CLVS, to help with the RPR Prep classes.” She added: “That was also a great way to meet other students, practice together, and share suggestions.”

McMorran agrees on the value of a strong court-reporting network. “If you surround yourself with the reporters who do the bare minimum in this profession and talk about how certification is so unnecessary or how hard the test is, then it becomes so much harder to get into the right mindset to pass as opposed to being surrounded by people who can reassure you that you can do it because they did it,” he said.

Mastering online skills testing

Some of the new professionals did their RPR entirely online while others had taken legs of the Skills Test prior to the switch from brick-and-mortar testing. Overall, online testing won out as more convenient, although it took some adjustment.

“I took the RPR the last time it was offered at a brick-and-mortar site. The second time I took it, it was offered online. I have stories about the first few attempts trying to log on to take tests for the RPR. I soon found out that I was using a netbook. Once I switched to a laptop computer and not a netbook, I passed my last two tests,” said Griffin.

McMorran also had a learning curve with the technology. “When I first took the online style, I really did not do a great job of practicing with the webcam and didn’t even bother to schedule the proctored practice that we have the ability to do. Big mistake on my part,” he said. “My first attempt using the online method, I had some webcam issues that left me flustered right before the exam. I ended up not passing that attempt and knew it was on me for lack of preparation. I rescheduled another attempt at the exam for a week later so that I could properly prepare from a technology standpoint and ended up passing that following week.”

Both Griffin and McMorran found online testing to be more convenient than being at a brick-and-mortar site. “Online testing is such a great tool to be able to have at our fingertips. As a student, you are no longer having to wait twice a year to test. What a relief!” said Griffin.

McMorran said that even though he was initially intimidated about the concept of online testing, “once I actually put the time in to read everything over and prepare for the use of the webcam, not only did I find the technology side to not be intimidating at all, but it is so much easier than dragging a printer to a testing location.”

What’s the next step?

The new professionals are mixed on whether their next certification goal is the RMR or the CRR.

Griffin is leaning toward the RMR, saying: “I am excited to continue learning and also refining my writing.” Hensley agreed, adding: “I want to have a good grasp on speed so that I can next move into offering realtime.”

Realtime is a big pull. “We have to do realtime at the courthouse,” said Case for why she wants to earn the CRR.

“I’ve taken a handful of realtime job over the last year, but I don’t think there’s anything that would give me more confidence heading into each and every realtime job than seeing those initials after my name,” said McMorran.

“I want the CRR because I will receive a salary increase at my court for realtime certification, and it will make me more marketable in the future for other goals I want to achieve. I’d also like to work towards my CRC for the same reasons,” said Barkume. “Realtime is the most important part of reporting, in my opinion. It is what will save our jobs.”

Announcing the winners of the JCR Awards

The JCR Awards were created as a way to highlight the innovative and forward-thinking practices of NCRA members and to recognize how court reporters, captioners, and legal videographers are leading the profession. These individuals and organizations are being recognized as being the best-in-class for the noted categories.


Individual member of the year

Community outreach; Leadership, team-building, mentoring; Promoting the profession

Doreen Sutton, RPR
Scottsdale, Ariz.

Service in a non-legal setting:

Deanna P. Baker, RMR
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Use of technology:

Jen Krueger, RMR, CRI, CPE
Parma, Ohio

Use of technology – school:

Jay Vettickal, CRI
College of Court Reporting
Hobart, Ind.

Leadership, teambuilding, and networking:

Robin Nodland, RDR
Portland, Ore.

Karen Ruud, CRI
Madison, Wis.

Community outreach:

Aimee Goldberg
Minneapolis, Minn.

Court Reporting & Captioning Week initiatives (2016):

A new category for the JCR awards recognizes contributions made in conjunction with the NCRA’s 2016 Court Reporting & Captioning Week, which was held Feb. 14-20. The JCR Awards acknowledge actions taken from Nov. 1, 2015, through Oct. 31, 2016. This new category elicited several nominations, creating a three-way tie.

Cuyahoga Community College Captioning and Court Reporting Program
Parma, Ohio

Los Angeles County Court Reporters Association
Los Angeles, Calif.

Erminia Uviedo, RDR, CRR
San Antonio, Texas

The sweet path to the top of the captioner cake

Captioner cakeBy Anissa R. Nierenberger

Broadcast and CART captioners comprise only 4.3 percent of NCRA’s membership. That’s a pretty tiny sliver! So why should you consider crossing over into these realtime career options? Because the growth rate for these careers will outpace the growth for court reporters past 2018. Benefits of these jobs include getting to live wherever you’d like because these jobs can be done remotely as long as you have access to reliable Internet. Transcript pages will no longer hang over your head like a dreadful gray cloud. A consistent work schedule that you’ll know up to a month ahead of time will reduce the stress of last-minute changes. And commute time?

Let’s see, how long does it take you to walk into your home office? Most important of all, many court reporters who have walked away from the courtroom or a deposition find that the change to captioning makes them feel that they have contributed to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community. The rewards of opening doors to a world that wouldn’t exist without translation is incomprehensible until you get to experience it yourself.

The question is: How does one get from point A to point B? It’s like following a recipe — we follow the steps in the proper order. We use the right ingredients. Let’s get cookin’!
1. Edit for your dictionary
2. Create a solid realtime foundation
3. Enter prefixes, suffixes, word pieces
4. Build up the dictionary
5. Learn broadcast and CART captioning styles

Editing for your dictionary is a trick I was taught almost 25 years ago by captioner Janet Cassidy Burr, RDR, CRR, CRC, CPE. She would look over my shoulder as I edited my television practice files. When I would select a three-syllable word to define, she’d say, “Ah, ah, ah, no! Define every stroke first by itself.” I will admit that it took me weeks to catch on to this, but I’m forever thankful for her strictness. As an example, if I wrote <PHABG>/<TKAEUPL>/<KWRA>, instead of defining this as macadamia, I would define mac, then dame, then ya, just as words. Then I can define it all together as macadamia. Just editing in this way will improve your realtime. Try defining every single untranslate all by itself. In as little as two weeks, you’ll see what I mean.

A strong realtime theory is the foundation of a successful CART or broadcast captioner. If you’ve been struggling on your own to clean up realtime, you are not alone. How can you teach yourself something that you do not know? How does a figure skater become an Olympian? Certainly not on his or her own; very often, that person has a coach. Creating a strong foundation involves resolving word boundary issues and updating dictionary entries to reflect these changes. Do we have conflicts? Let’s create consistency, tackle them, and resolve them.

How are we going to commit these changes to memory? We’ll use FPP55 — focused phone practice, five things for five minutes. On Monday, choose five briefs you want to learn or five words that require a theory change, and dictate them into your phone. Create silly sentences using your five words. No one will hear them but you. Practice for five minutes one to three times per day and voilà; by Friday, they’ll be resolved. I was given six months to completely transform my theory into realtime. Focused practice is how I did it. It works. Once we’ve strengthened our realtime skills, we move on to the next layer in our captioning cake.

Entering prefixes, suffixes, and word pieces will help you to write the entire cake. Court reporters write part of the cake, but realtime captioners write the entire cake — every delicious piece. We need the ability to create words on the fly, and these three elements allow us to accomplish this task. There are approximately 450 prefixes and suffixes that you can enter into your dictionary. If a word piece is not a prefix or a suffix, we simply define it as a word. Yes, it is okay to do this. Examples of word pieces are pire, nom, journ, gam, drome, and dem.

Dictionary building is getting us closer to the top of our captioner cake. Every word you have ever learned in your entire life should be able to translate in your CAT software — and then some. We know the words baklava, ambrosia, gingerbread, true, brittle, and grasshopper, but are they in our stenographic dictionaries? Not only do we need to enter these words into our dictionaries, but it’s a good idea to enter words to prepare for every possibility of how we may write them. Enter slop shots, brief forms, splitting syllables differently, etc. Cover your bases.

In the January 1998 issue of the Journal of Court Reporting, Patty White and Kevin Daniel, RDR, CRR, CRC, supplied a list of vocabulary needed for “Developing your stenocaptioning skills.” This article is what helped inspire me to truly round out my dictionary. I took this very seriously and started copious amounts of research so that my dictionary and I could do the best job we could. A captioner with a well-developed dictionary is a confi dent captioner. Notice I did not say “cocky” captioner. There’s always room for improvement, and prep is never history for anyone until we put the writer away once and for all.

CART and captioning style is very different from court reporting. First, while we are not required to write verbatim, we try our best. We have a license to edit when and where necessary for speed and content. Second, captioning is most always displayed in all capitals, and ending punctuation starts a new line. Broadcast captioning descriptors use brackets, and CART descriptors use parentheses. We learn the style and we practice — a lot. We’re writing very different vocabulary than we’re used to, so repetition is key. To start introducing new vocabulary into your writing, log on to and choose a TED Talk. Hint: Write from the verbatim transcript first to enter the vocabulary into your dictionary, then write the live talk. Speed comes first, then accuracy, then we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty total accuracy ratio, which needs to be at least 98.5 percent to be broadcast ready. Captioning is needed for all sports, local and national newscasts, financial calls, legislature sessions, talk shows, religious programming, educational and business CART, to name a few. The list goes on and on.

If you follow the steps and are diligent in your efforts, the cake will be delicious. The icing on the top is you can live wherever you would like, ditch the transcripts, have a consistent schedule, and forego the work commute. Best of all, at the end of the day, you’ll have a warm, gooey feeling that you indeed helped someone. After all, you’re an A+ captioner. Oh, how sweet it is.

Anissa R. Nierenberger, RPR, CRR, CRC, CRI, is a 24-year captioner and is the creator of Dictionary Jumpstart, a realtime dictionary-building software. She has published Simple Syllables and A Jump Back in Time. Anissa is an instructor for EduCAPTION and provides online one-on-one realtime training, CART training, and Caption Masters broadcast captioning training. She can be reached at or through her website

Celebrating entrepreneurs

“It took a lot of hard work and determination to get through school and to build my skills as a practicing reporter. I’m a reporter business owner, so my approach in working with clients, reporters, and staff is generally directed by the reporter in me,” says Jan Schmitt, RPR, owner of the Schmitt Reporting & Video in Vancouver, Wash.

To mark Women’s Entrepreneur Day, an international day celebrated with a worldwide social media campaign on Nov. 30, the JCR reached out to several of NCRA’s firm owner-reporters — both male and female — to get their take on what entrepreneurship means to them.

While the people identified themselves foremost as reporters, they had many traits that transfer over to being an entrepreneur. “When I tell people what I do, I always explain the reporting part. Telling them I am business owner comes later in the conversation when I explain that I don’t work in a courthouse but for myself,” says Cassy Kerr, RPR, CRR, CRC, a freelancer and the owner of Russell Court Reporting, Inc., in Tulsa, Okla. “And I never even thought of myself as an entrepreneur until about a year ago when a friend introduced me as one.”

But reporters shouldn’t fear the term entrepreneur. Small businesses contribute to the global economy and make up about half of all U.S. jobs.

Attributes of the entrepreneurial court reporter

Only nine months into her career, Katherine Schilling, RPR, a freelancer in Richmond, Va., explains entrepreneurship this way: “In my mind, an entrepreneur is someone who offers a one-of-a-kind service that furthers their industry as a whole. This, too, is something that I feel comes with time and experience. These are the real-timers, the multiple hook up-ers, the three-scopist team-ers, the daily copy turn around-ers! At present, I’m focusing purely on advancing my own skills, but once I’m at a point where I’m offering something revolutionary to the court reporting industry, maybe then I can start considering such a prestigious title as entrepreneur.”

Entrepreneurship matches many of the attributes that reporters already have — at least according to the Small Business Administration, which lists persuasiveness, risk-taking, independence, creativity, and being supported by others as important traits for entrepreneurs.

“You are very much a salesperson as a reporter, and that is the start of being an entrepreneur,” says Donna Linton, RMR, a freelancer based in Ashburn, Va. “You start at the beginning of the day selling yourself by being on time and prepared for the case, having your exhibit stickers and equipment ready to go. What is hard for a lot of reporters is to know you have the skill at the end of the day to sell your product by asking, ‘Do you need a rough draft’ or ‘Would you like to expedite this?’”

But there are many more traits that reporters and firm owners list as important in addition to those mentioned — with organization and planning topping most people’s lists. “The most important in my view are focus, persistence, determination and patience, planning, and dealing with many types of individuals, as well as being accountable,” says Grant Morrison, CRI, a freelance reporter in San Antonio, Texas.

“I’m big on planning ahead, especially for trials,” says Linton. ”Working with other reporters to get as much information ahead of time from clients helps us be consistent and produce the best product we can under pressure.”

“I believe the most important attributes of being an entrepreneur in the field of court reporting start with integrity and a commitment to the legal process,” says Kathy Reumann, RDR, a freelancer based in Rock Island, Ill.

“Punctuality is extremely important. It shows respect and readiness to tackle the job at hand,” says Lisa B. Johnston, RMR, CRR, CRC, a CART captioner based in Melbourne, Fla. “Being able to keep calm in a situation that may not be going as planned and focusing on how to solve the problem and move on.”

“Entrepreneurs are the trailblazers of any industry, so they need all the following attributes to make their business a success: self-motivation, discipline, time management, and a passion to keep learning and improving,” said Schilling. “Court reporters have these traits in spades. Due to the nature of the court reporting field, we are often the only ones driving ourselves to do our best, through school and even decades into the working world. The job is also a very solitary one, especially for freelancers, so we have only ourselves to rely on in order to stay focused on the job and stay organized when those high page counts and expedites start rolling in.”

“A reporter skill that translates to an entrepreneurial skill is perseverance,” says Kerr. “No matter how difficult a deposition may be with the terminology or people speaking at once, I don’t give up, and I follow that same thinking with running a business.”

Advice for entrepreneurs

Many stressed the importance of being a reporter first. “You have to know how things are going out there in the field working an actual job so you can understand what the reporters are dealing with and what the clients are really expecting from their reporters as well as the judges,” says Linton.

Finding good support is essential to supporting the entrepreneur, whether it’s additional reporters to build your business or hiring a scopist or proofreader to keep up on your deadlines. Linton notes that these investments are about knowing that time is money — and saving time is key.

“The ability to attract and keep good reporters and staff is key. Endless determination, good vision and leadership — ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’ (Proverbs 29:18) — knowing your strengths and, more important, knowing your weakness and being willing to seek help in those areas. Some creativity and an ability to sell go a long way,” says Schmitt.

Linton advises finding a reliable and fantastic scopist and proofreader: “Do not be afraid to use one and find a favorite or two.”

“Know your CAT software to save you time so you can take more work to make more money,” Linton also suggest. ”For an agency, it means knowing skilled reporters who are reliable and keeping them happy. It saves the agency time finding coverage and means fewer headaches when producing their work for your clients.”

“Having the right people working for me,” says Kerr. “Those include everyone from my scopist and proofreader to my CPA. Delegating responsibilities to the people I can count on to get the job done and done correctly so I can focus on reporting and other aspects of running a business is so essential. I tried doing everything by myself, and it made life very difficult.

Organization is also important, mentioned by almost everyone. “Being organized in your scheduling is important,” says Johnston. “Personally, I have three calendars with all of my work appointments and jobs: one paper calendar, one smartphone calendar, one whiteboard calendar in my office. Reporter work days are anything but routine, so if you’ve committed to something, keep the commitment. Your reputation is of utmost importance.”

“Other important attributes are being wise with your finances and having confidence in your ultimate success,” says Kerr.

“Higher education and certification in your field shows dedication to your career,” says Johnston. [Ed. Note: NCRA offers education specific to firm owners at is Firm Owners Executive Conference, being held at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, Tucson, Ariz., Feb. 12-14, 2017.]

“Luckily for court reporters, there are always plenty of industry conventions to attend in order to expand our knowledge and improve our skills for the job,” says Schilling. “By continuing our education, we improve our product and can deliver top-notch work that will wow our clients and push the court reporting profession to new heights!”

A well-rounded life

By Aimée Suhie

Tom Crites is a present-day Johnny Appleseed who has planted 2,000 plumeria trees in and around Savannah, Ga., hoping to establish the glorious flowers in the town he loves. So it’s hard to imagine him jetting across the world during his 49-year career, away from home sometimes 300 nights a year. The retired court reporter and firm owner laughs that he has reported in the back of a pickup in the jungles of Panama, under an oil tanker in drydock in Curaçao, on a train from one side of Holland to the other, on the flight deck of aircraft carriers, on airboats in the Everglades, and on the roadside from Delhi to Agra of a horrific bus accident with students on their way to see the Taj Mahal.

“I was blessed with an awesome career,” he says simply. But he does not miss the planes and hotels one bit. He forgets the world when he tends the 1,000 plumerias that surround his 1892 house, one of the most photographed homes in Savannah.

But the accomplishment he is perhaps most proud of is the family he “adopted” in Thailand in the depths of poverty whose members are now not only self-sufficient but true entrepreneurs. “After 15 years of hard work by this family, they now take care of themselves and are waiting to take care of me,” he says only half-jokingly. He says he may very well give up his precious house and gardens and move to Thailand one day.

The Texas native learned about court reporting the way NCRA’s leaders hope all young people do – when a court reporting legend put on a program at his high school. ”When Thyra D. Ellis (‘a true pioneer for all shorthand reporters nationwide’ according to the website of the school she founded) said, ‘Be a court reporter and make up to $10,000 a year,’ I was sold,” Tom relates. He started two months later at her school, the Stenotype Institute of Jacksonville Beach, Fla., and studied for four years. He was reporting, however, after two years and made $1,300 his first day. “That was huge,” he remembers, “in that I lived on $200 a month while going to school.”

His career took him to San Francisco and finally in 1972 to Savannah where he formed Tom Crites & Associates International. He met the right maritime attorneys on a ship fire case covering depositions in Savannah, New Orleans, and New York and was soon traveling all over the world. “Many months of my career I would travel 50,000 miles in a month,” he says. He has worked in hundreds of cities in more than 50 countries, focusing on maritime and mass-disaster litigation, following ships and crew members. At his website,, under the case history section are the tales of two of his most famous environmental disaster cases, the 1978 Amoco Cadiz oil spill off the coast of France, and the 2002 Prestige oil spill off the coast of Spain, “which was four times the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster,” he explains. “As a matter of fact, after hundreds of depositions were taken in the Exxon Valdez case, I was asked to provide realtime at the deposition of Captain Hazelwood (the American sailor who captained the Exxon Valdez during its 1989 spill). I asked Sue Terry, RPR, CRR, [NCRA’s Vice President] to cover for me, and for days she performed her magic.”

But Tom’s most enriching experience was his association with a Thai family in the village of Sala in the province of Surin. He met a young man at a restaurant at the hotel where he usually stayed who spoke English very well, and he became Tom’s friend, driver, and interpreter. “After three years he invited me to meet his family,” Tom remembers. “It was shocking to me to see the way they lived. They were the poorest of the poor. The mother was doing her best to provide for her children and grandchildren. She worked 12 to14 hours a day tending to the rice of others for $75 a month. They had no running water, and they all were in rags.”

Tom well remembers his upbringing in a housing project in Texas where people donated food to his family, and he didn’t have a new shirt until he was six years old. So Tom got to work. He promptly had two wells dug and then got the family refrigerators, fans, beds, and linens. He rounded up all 19 family members and headed to a department store 50 miles from Sala. “I had each one get a grocery cart, and we loaded up on clothes, shoes, toiletries, towels and lots of food. I then got them a car and a truck.” Next he helped them to buy parcels of land. “On my 60th birthday, we began the planting of 60 acres of rubber trees,” he says and, instead of patting himself on the back, says only “I have been blessed to have the Lai-Ngam family in my life.”

The family now has more than 100 acres of farm land and a rubber tree plantation. All are on computers and receiving a good education. Tom even put the kids to use in his business. “I had an office set up in Bangkok, and these smart children scanned all my exhibits, transferred my steno, etc., to the United States, so I never had to hurry back home,” he recounts, “often going off to work from Bangkok to Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, and to many cities in India.”

In addition to his 43 trips to Thailand, Tom worked often with different governments, and he says many waivers were made so that he could report in venues that most reporters could not. At the same time, however, for seven years he was on the board and executive committee of the Savannah College of Art & Design, with campuses in Savannah; Atlanta; Lacoste, France; and Hong Kong. The College dedicated the performing arts center named in his honor, Crites Hall, in 2000, which houses the 150-seat Mondanaro Theater, set design and scene shop, dance studio, classrooms, and a costume studio, where 92 classes are taught each week. He also received the Pepe Award from the college that year for his work. “I often traveled to New York, London, Paris, and Lacoste on the business of the college,” Tom remembers. “And on the local scene, I entertained and dined with many visiting movie stars and fashion designers who came to visit the school, including Debbie Reynolds and Diane von Furstenberg.” Tom adds, “The college has more than 10,000 students and 1,100 employees on our four campuses. It will always be a big part of my life.”

Even though he is now retired, his firm continues on, a “small agency that handles big work,” Tom says. They have a reporter based in Germany covering most of their work in Europe and have had reporters and videographers simultaneously covering assignments on four continents. But on any given day, you’ll find Tom working in his gardens or helping a new graduate paint his house in the 100-degree heat of an August day. “It wears me out, and some days I feel I’m as old as this house,” he says in his smooth Southern drawl. “But I try to keep myself busy. I still work very hard, and I believe in hard labor. Now I grow tropical flowers, prepare meals and entertain. I have always had a colorful life, and everyone says I should write a book. But after 700,000 pages of transcripts, my writing days are over!”

Tips for success

Tom says “The last 15 years of my reporting career, I always took an assistant with me to handle everything, and that is why I lasted so long.”

He passed the Certificate of Profiency five decades ago and is certified in Georgia but let his California license lapse. “I would urge all court reporters to never let any license lapse. Concentrate on getting your certifications from NCRA; find a niche in the legal field and concentrate on that; attend as many attorney functions as you can searching for the right people with the right cases. And invest your money wisely in real estate and art, and hold on to it for a long time. All will appreciate. When you have a huge case or year, donate pieces of art, and your tax savings can be great.”

Tom says you can also pray. “My momma prayed for me and the business all the time,” he remembers. “But when things got busy, my reporters would say, ‘Tell your mother to cool it on the prayers because we’re just swamped.’ She’s gone now, so I have to do it on my own.”

Aimée Suhie, RPR, is a freelance reporter from New Fairfield, Conn., and a regular contributor to the JCR. She can be reached at




Practice: It’s a necessity, not an option

By Dr. Marnelle Alexis Stephens

Growing up in a family of musicians, I was filled with a passion for music at a young age. I started taking piano and theory lessons when I was eight with the hopes of being just like my dad, who is a gifted guitarist and pianist. That didn’t happen. I would love to say that I was being hailed as the next musical prodigy, but it was clear that I was not going to be joining the New York Philharmonic any time soon.

Fast forward 20 years (perhaps a smidgen more), and I am learning to play those ivory keys again with gusto. What sparked this renewed passion? Court reporting.

Since joining MacCormac College five years ago, I have had the privilege of being drawn into this wonderful world. As the first college in the nation to offer a degree in court reporting, MacCormac is blessed to have a remarkably talented faculty and staff who are teaching and mentoring the next generation of stenographic court reporters and captioners.

When I ask industry professionals to explain the mental process of court reporting, they often liken it to learning another language and training to be a concert pianist at the same time. So it is unsurprising that many successful students have musical backgrounds as well as an aptitude for learning languages. I am truly humbled when my associates share their individual journeys from student to certified reporter. It takes utter immersion and the dedication of a star athlete to reach the necessary levels of peak performance. Just as practice is the foundation for athletic success, likewise it is the case for success in court reporting.

Students who have traditionally done well at MacCormac are those that eat, sleep, and breathe steno. They understand that if they are to finish court reporting school in a timely manner, cramming will not cut it. This is a hard concept to sell to some students. For this reason, as educators, we ought to observe, listen, and welcome their thoughts. They provide opportunities for all of us to learn and grow, and we can both mentor and learn from one another.

According to one of MacCormac’s court reporting student Brianna Uhlman, it is important to have discipline when it comes to practicing on the steno machine: “I dedicate two to three hours outside of class to practice. If I begin to get sloppy because I’m tired, taking a break gives some relief.” Uhlman suggested that the practice time factor is personal to every individual. She also shared a useful tip: Sometimes when it becomes difficult to keep going, she finds that rewarding herself for practicing helps.

Practice is a necessity, not an option. It is clear that most program influencers understand this, as demonstrated by their top findings noted in survey outcomes. The National Court Reporters Association Instructional Best Practices Survey Executive Summary, published on March 20, 2015, stresses that practice and speedbuilding are essential components of a court reporting education and have a strong bearing on graduation rates.

A state speed champion, national speed medalist, and past president of NCRA, Melanie Humphrey-Sonntag suggests that a maximum of four hours of practice time a day should prove beneficial for students. She advises students to be consistent and dedicated, stating that “the more you practice to cement your theory principles and muscle memory, the quicker you’ll progress and the more accurate a professional you’ll be.”

On top of this, NCRA suggests that in order to see positive student outcomes, program instructors need to ensure that students have access to continuous support for speedbuilding and actively intervene if they suspect outside practice hours are not being observed.

I suspect that program educators’ deeper concern is getting faculty to rethink the entirety of curriculum development and teaching in the midst of the long-standing debate about the length and frequency of practice.

If you’ve participated in recent discussions about court reporting curriculum development, inevitably you have witnessed the deliberations. Many seasoned court reporters argue that it’s essential for students to “practice, practice, and practice some more.” On the contrary, recent reporters share Brianna Uhlman’s sentiment in stating, “It’s not necessarily the amount of practice time that makes a difference, but the quality of your practice time that counts.”

While there are many schools of thought concerning the methods and how much time reporters should spend practicing, what is abundantly clear is daily, disciplined practice sessions leads to student success.

Leaders should think critically about how to deliver the structure that provides the greatest opportunity for achievement and the best outcomes for students.

I firmly believe that the purpose of systematically thinking about practice is not to establish a one-size-fits-all model for practice but simply to determine situationally what works to help students to achieve at their individual level. In my perfect world, learning, rather than practice or seat time, will be the core measure of progress, and students will be able to demonstrate in dynamic environments what they’ve learned from outset through to proficiency.

What’s more, I’m in accord with Humphrey-Sonntag’s assertion: “Practice does not end when you graduate. Most professional reporters, captioners, and CART providers continue to hone their skills through regular practice and continuing education regimen throughout their careers.” I assert that practice beyond school should be viewed not as a static, one-time experience but as a life-long journey of building one’s knowledge and skills.

As I reflect on my life-long journey toward piano mastery, I realize the importance and necessity to practice regularly. It was during my tenure at MacCormac College that I decided to try again. Witnessing the hard work and dedication of court reporting students gave me the inspiration I needed to take practicing seriously. At times, when I’m dragging to get to my instrument, I often think about the time and effort court reporting students are putting into practice and that gets me motivated. I have found my music again. I have court reporting to thank for that.

Dr. Marnelle Alexis Stephens (known affectionately as ‘Grace’) is chancellor and former president of MacCormac College. She specializes in higher education administration, ministry leadership, strategic planning, and turn-around management. Stephens can be reached at


Five steps to build a million-dollar court reporting business

By Cassandra Caldarella

Some reporters go their entire lives without earning a million dollars, so it sounds crazy that some court reporters might be able to achieve this milestone in a few short years. But it is possible. Plenty of court reporters have achieved this goal, and you can too!

Pay attention to the following tips and use them to help ramp up your revenue growth:

  1. Find a growing market

five-ways_1One of the simplest ways to build a million-dollar court reporting business in such a short period of time is to find a growing trend and ride it to the top. Take me for example. As a former official for Los Angeles Superior Court, I saw the privatization of the reporters in civil courtrooms and getting laid off from the County as an opportunity. I went from a salaried position making $97,000 a year with the county to making more than $200,000/year. I took my lemons and made a whole bunch of lemonade. Certainly, part of my success comes from turning out a great product and service, but it also comes from timing. When I was laid off in July 2012, a $75+ million-dollar market for civil reporters in L.A. opened up and more than 12,000 attorneys in the Los Angeles market were scampering for coverage of their motions and trials. Along with many colleagues, I experienced a 125 percent annual revenue growth that first year and ever since. Finding a growing market of your own like this can put you on the fast track to massive revenue growth.

  1. Think monetization from the start

It seems strange to think about monetization objectively, but some court reporters operate without any obvious monetization strategies. Twitter is one example of this phenomenon, but countless other companies out there are building up their free user bases, hoping that inspiration – and, consequently, financial stability – will strike along the way.

five-ways_2Most profitable companies operate from one of two models: either they sell a lot of inexpensive products to a lot of people or they sell a few big-ticket items to a more limited buyer list. Neither model is easier or inherently better than the other. What’s more important than choosing is having a defined plan for monetization. Knowing what the plan is to make money from the start will prevent wasted time spent hoping that something profitable will come together.

For court reporters, we have some limitations: what we can charge may be limited; we can’t give away our services for free; and we can’t participate in gift giving more than a certain amount each year. To work as a pro tem in court, most of the page rates are set by the Court Reporters Board in California. One of the free user bases court reporters can set up for themselves is a vast network of referrals. So when an attorney calls requesting your services, and you are already booked, you can tell him that you have a friend who just became available. And the same goes with agencies who call you for work.  It can be a mutually beneficial situation. Or, if you prefer, you can offer to cover the job for the attorney, find a reporter that you network with, and take a cut. Do whatever works best in your situation.

  1. Be the best

five-ways_3There are plenty of mediocre court reporters out there, but the odds are good that these reporters aren’t making a quarter of a million dollars a year. If you want to hit these big potential revenues, you’ve got to bring something to the table that wows customers and generates buzz within your marketplace.

How can you tell if you’ve got a “best in breed” service? Look to your current customers. If you aren’t getting repeat business from attorneys and agencies and getting rave reviews or positive comments sent to your inbox, chances are your clients aren’t as ecstatic about your service as they need to be to hit your target sales. Asking your existing customers what you can do to make your service better and then put their recommendations into place. They’ll appreciate your efforts and will go on to refer further jobs to you in the future.

Improve your skill level. Focus on getting your realtime certification and then offering realtime on every job. Get as many certifications as possible. Be a member of your national and state associations. Join the state bar associations and trial lawyers associations.

Beyond our skill level is making an emotional connection with your clients. We reporters have very little time to communicate with attorneys while we’re working. The entrances and exits are sometimes all the time we have with them. Make it count. Make eye contact. Smile. You’ll be surprised what an impact a simple smile can have.


  1. Hire all-stars

Hitting the $200,000 in revenue per year is no small feat. You aren’t going to achieve this goal alone and you certainly aren’t going to get there with a team of underperformers. Yes, hiring less expensive scopists and proofreaders (or none at all) will be cheaper and easier, but you’ll pay for this convenience when your end-of-the-year sales numbers come up short.

five-ways_4Instead, you need to hire all-stars, and the fastest way to do this is to ask around for referrals. The really good ones will be busy and will turn you down at first. You need to use your referrals to let them know that you know someone they work with and can be trusted. Get them on board with incentives such as higher than usual rates. This will not only get them in the door, it will ensure that you have them on your team when that daily trial starts tomorrow. They will make you a priority. And treat them like gold by remembering their birthdays, sending holidays cards, gifts, and bonuses, and just by having open and direct communication with them. If you have the time to “interview” scopists and proofreaders by starting them out with small jobs to test the waters, and you find one that has potential, this could be your opportunity to turn them into exactly what you need and want by gentle coaching and instruction and slowly giving them more and more to do for you. The training you put into them will be rewarded with loyalty. You need to be absolutely certain that you can go after those all-day, realtime, same-day expedite jobs because you can rely on your team to be there when you need them. You need to be able to get those jobs day after day after day without missing a deadline. One missed deadline could be the end of a relationship with an agency or an attorney. When every penny counts towards reaching your million-dollar goals, you’ll find your team of subcontractors to be worth their weight in gold.

  1. five-ways_5Consume data

Finally, if you want to shoot for the revenue moon, you need to be absolutely militant about gathering data and acting on it. If you want to make $250,000 a year, then do the math. There are 2,080 working hours per year, which is $120.17/hour. There are 12 months per year, which would be $20,833 per month. And there are about 20 working days each month, which would be $1,041.66 per day, 240 days per year. As the ebb and flow of reporting goes, so go our predictable numbers, so we must constantly take measure of where we are.

I keep an Excel spreadsheet with my running monthly totals of jobs invoiced and money received ,and I put that on a side-by-side comparison of the last year’s numbers. I always know where I stand each month. If my job cancels today and I’ve only made the $300 per diem appearance fee, and I know I still have to get to my $1,041.66 goal for the day, then I text message all my agencies to let them know I’m available. I try to double- and triple-book myself, so I’ve got 3-6 motions in one day or a trial with dailies and realtime. I don’t stop until I’ve hit my goal. But then there are days where I get 5 copies and realtime and roughs, and it makes up for those days where everything falls apart. But I never stop trying to hit my daily goal. Always check your statistics to see how your day impacted your revenue. Add up your per diems and make a note of how many pages and calculate how much you earned at the end of each job. It may not be too late to pick up another one before you head home. Check your phone frequently for text messages and emails from agencies. Keep track of your key performance indicators (KPI’s) and push your metrics even higher every day. Keep a score card for yourself. Always keep your numbers in mind and know where you measure up each day.

I’m constantly picking up new agencies and making cold calls to agencies I hear other reporters talking about. I send them a resume and list of references, but I tell them what I want. I send my rate sheet, work preferences, geographical areas, and tell them about my experience. I try them out. I always invoice agencies and don’t rely on their worksheet. I know down to the penny what I earned on each job. I always negotiate rates with new and old agencies, with each job. I know what the going rates are by constantly doing market research, talking to other reporters, networking. You have a veritable gold mine of information just hanging out in the various Facebook groups, so put it to good use.

Growing your freelance court reporting business to million dollar revenues isn’t easy, but it is possible. Stick to the tips above – even if you don’t hit this particular goal, you’ll earn the strongest sales results possible for your unique business.

Cassandra Caldarella is a freelancer and agency owner from Santa Ana, Calif. She can be reached at

Complete coverage of the 2016 NCRA Convention & Expo

Members were excited to be at the NCRA 2016 Convention & Expo in Chicago, Ill.

Members were excited to be at the 2016 NCRA Convention & Expo in Chicago, Ill.

Explore coverage of the 2016 NCRA Convention & Expo, held Aug. 4-7 in Chicago, with the stories below.

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Excerpt from “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Brash Blonde”


“‘How long has the subject been dead?’ This is the question most commonly asked in the field of forensic pathology.” The speaker paused to survey the lecture hall before moving to his next slide. A collective gasp rose at the sight of a human skull partially obscured by profuse vegetation.


I sat forward, my attention rapt. The girl beside me muttered “Gross!” and went back to Candy Crush on her phone.

I tried not to roll my eyes at her. Well, I sorta tried. The guest speaker was only Dr. Bennett Osterman, one of the best in the field. His curriculum vitae was probably longer than any book Miss Candy Crush had ever read. I silently wondered how she’d even gotten into Stanford. Probably the offspring of alumni with deep pockets.

“It’s sometimes difficult to say,” Dr. Osterman went on. “As you can see in this example, postmortem vegetative growth has continued, precipitating the broken orbital bone fragments you see on this slide, which could easily mislead investigators into incorrect assumptions regarding cause of death. The appearance may mimic the results of battery, for example.”

“Oh yuck,” the girl said.

This time I didn’t even try to hide my irritation, giving her a pointed look.

“This is where the inspection of root systems can be valuable,” he added.

“I knew I should’ve dropped this class,” the girl muttered.

“Shh,” I whispered. “I want to—” My phone buzzed with an incoming text message. I glanced at the screen.

Guess who’s late for work?

I checked the time readout and pulled in a sharp breath. I didn’t have to guess. I’d lost track of time again. Moving fast, I gathered up my things, slipped past the girl who was paying no attention — to Dr. Osterman or anyone else — and left the room, disappointed that I had to go just when it was getting interesting. It wasn’t every day that I had access to one of the most brilliant minds in the forensic sciences.

Unlike Candy Crush, I unfortunately was neither the child of an alumni nor anyone with deep pockets. Or even shallow ones. The words “college fund” hadn’t exactly been in my mom’s vocabulary as I was growing up, her concerns usually ranging more toward “food on table” and “roof over head.” Not that I was complaining. My hardworking single mom had done the best she could. But it just meant that instead of four years of sorority rushing and mid-term cramming, I had to resort to “non-credited” class auditing — translation: crashing them — and working at the campus bookstore coffee bar. I glanced once more at my phone. A job I should have been at ten minutes ago.

I pedaled my bike furiously across the campus, my blonde hair whipping at my cheeks as I wished I’d had the chance to ask Dr. Osterman some of the questions I’d jotted down. I’d been looking forward to his presentation for weeks, and it annoyed me to have to cut it short for something as mundane as coffee. Not that it mattered all that much in the bigger picture. I had no papers to write or tests to take, because I wasn’t technically a student. While that meant I could sit in on my choice of classes and avoid the evil specter of GPAs and final exams, it also meant I’d never have the holy grail of a degree either, which did put a slight crimp in my job prospects. Working as a barista wasn’t my first career choice, but it paid the bills for now. Barely.

I locked up my bike and hurried into the bookstore and up the stairs to the second floor loft coffee bar, which was bustling as usual. I took a moment to look over the sprawling bookstore below, the shelves sprouting from a garden of gleaming hardwood, the students busily picking through Stanford hats and shirts and other logo’d gear. Then I stashed my bag and quickly tied an apron over my average five-five-onmy- tiptoes and 120-to-125-pounds-give-or-take-a-holiday-meal frame.

I was wiping down one of the tables when Pamela Lockwood tapped me on the shoulder. Pam was round and soft with pink cheeks and fine brown hair, and she’d worked at the coffee bar for the past two semesters.

“Hey, Marty.”

While my given name was Martha Hudson, everyone had called me Marty for as long as I could remember.

“Hey,” I answered back.

“I hope my text didn’t interrupt something important.”

I shook my head. “Thanks for sending it. I’d lost track of time.”

Pam grinned. “What was it this time? Astrophysics? Linear algebra?”

“Forensic anthropology.”

“Oh yuck.”

Yeah, I’d heard that a lot lately.

“Dr. Bennett Osterman was speaking,” I said. “He was showing this slide of a skull with —”

“Again,” Pam interrupted, “yuck.”

I sighed. No one appreciated the finer things in life anymore.

“Why don’t you just break down and register already?” Pam asked. “If you’re going to listen to this stuff, you might as well earn something for it.”

“What, and give up all this?” I asked, my hands sweeping to include the sandwich wrapper and discarded paper cups at the next table.

Pam grinned. “You know, you could work here and attend classes. Some of us do.”

I shook my head. Attending would mean (a) somehow getting accepted and (b) somehow paying tuition. High school was a good handful of years behind me, and I hadn’t had the most stellar grades then. While I’d aced classes like biology and physics, things like PE and dissecting Shakespeare’s early works to the point even he’d have no idea what we were talking about had bored me to tears. As a result, my grades had been all over the place, resulting in a GPA that was less than impressive. And then there was the whole tuition thing. Which, if I had it, I wouldn’t be picking up dirty cups for a living.

No, slipping (hopefully) unnoticed into the lectures of my choice worked much better all the way around.

“I don’t know how you can listen to that forensics stuff anyway,” Pam said. “It’d give me nightmares for sure.”

I shrugged. “It’s interesting.”

I’ll tell you what’s interesting.” Pam pointed. “See the blond guy down there with the Cardinal T-shirt on? He’s interesting.”

I looked and thought, Not so much. He was the typical California dude, with curly blond hair, surfer tan, and unnaturally white teeth. You couldn’t walk across campus without running into a dozen just like him. He wasn’t half as interesting as Dr. Bennett Osterman.

“Maybe he’ll come up for coffee or something.” Pam wiggled her shoulders around and patted her hair. “How do I look? Am I frizzy?”

I smiled at her. “You look fine.”

“I’m going to go floss,” Pam said. “You never know if he’ll come up, and I don’t want cinnamon bun in my teeth if he does. By the way, we need more cinnamon buns.”

She rushed off, scrubbing at her front teeth with a finger.

I went back behind the counter. The line of customers had momentarily thinned to just a few people, but the lull wouldn’t last. Book buying and tchotchke shopping seemed to be thirsty work. In just a few minutes, the coffee bar could be swarming with co-eds in need of a caffeine or sugar fix. Pamela’s Mr. Interesting might even show up. Hopefully she wouldn’t be off tending to dental hygiene when he did.

Still thinking about Dr. Osterman’s presentation, I filled orders and handed them over, wiped down the counter, and restocked the napkin dispensers and the bakery case. The scent of cinnamon and chocolate tantalized me, and my fingers had just closed on a coffee cake muffin when someone asked, “Got any crullers left?”

I dropped the muffin and raised my head too fast, cracking the back of my skull on the lip of the display case. Grimacing, I looked up to see my best friend, Irene Adler, frowning at me.

“Were you just going to take that muffin?” she asked.

I rubbed my head. “No. I was rearranging it.”

“Sure,” Irene said. “From the case into your face. I thought you were on a diet.”

“I thought you were at a meeting with some Silicon Valley babies.” I pulled a cruller from the case, plunked it onto a plate, and shoved it across the counter. I could have shoved a half dozen crullers across the counter, and Irene could have scarfed all of them and had no repercussions except powdered sugar on her fingers. Her size two frame never dared gain an inch. I loved her anyway.

Irene made a face. “Got canceled. One of them woke up with a runny nose.” She shook her head, her diamond earrings sparkling in the light. “Kids.”

I refrained from pointing out that Irene herself was only twenty-seven. A gorgeous and very accomplished twenty-seven. Irene was something of a computer prodigy and had parlayed that genius into a degree from MIT at the age of fourteen and then into millions of dollars when she’d sold her own start-up on the day she’d turned twenty-one. Of course like any good computer prodigy, she also had a checkered past, which included hacking into a government mainframe at the ripe old age of twelve, but as she’d pointed out, kids would be kids. And now “kids” were coming to her looking for venture capital to fund their own start-ups.

I’d first met Irene a few years ago when she’d come to give a lecture about social media’s impact in political and economic culture. I’d peppered her with questions afterward, and between my enthusiasm for hilarious political Twitter fails and her enthusiasm for pastries, we’d bonded right away and been fast friends ever since.

“Know what would go with this cruller?” Irene asked, shifting her designer handbag higher on her shoulder. “A decaf mocha latte.”

Pam and her ultra-clean teeth came back while I was blending the latte. “Has he come up here yet?”

I looked up. “Who?”

“Mr. Right,” Pam said. “You know, the guy downstairs? The blond?”

“You’re not talking about a muscle-y guy in a Stanford Cardinal T-shirt, are you?” Irene asked her.

Pam’s eyes got wide. “You saw him too?” Her face fell, and I could practically read her mind. If Irene had seen him, and he’d seen Irene, it was all over for Pam. Irene had green eyes and auburn hair, and I was pretty sure the Mattel people had modeled Barbie’s body after hers.

Irene nodded. “He left with a redhead. I think they’re a couple. Your Mr. Right was even carrying her backpack.”

Pam fell against the counter, her shoulders slumping. “Just my luck.”

“There’ll be another Mr. Right,” I assured her. It wasn’t an empty promise. There’d been about eighty Mr. Rights since Pam had started working there. And that was the first week.

“I hope so,” Pam said. “I’m not getting any younger.”

I snorted. “You’re twenty.”

Pam nodded. “That’s what I said.” She went off to take a refill to a customer.

Irene grinned at me. “Is that how we sounded at twenty?”

“I sincerely hope not,” I said. I handed over the decaf mocha latte. “But it wouldn’t surprise me one bit.”

* * *

The rest of the afternoon managed to slip past with no more Mr. Rights for Pam and no more head injuries for me. At eight o’clock, I left the bookstore, reclaimed my bike from the rack, and headed home. Which wasn’t exactly the high point of my day, since home at the moment was not much more than a rathole of an apartment with antique plumbing and a few antique neighbors who seemed to sit with one cataract pressed to their peepholes to catalog my comings and goings. The space was small, and the rent was high. Welcome to California. But that wasn’t completely problematic since I hadn’t paid it in a couple of months anyway. What could I say? Tips had been sparse lately. I blamed the cost of education rising almost as fast as tax rates. But consequently, rent payments had become a line item on my long-term to-do list, like dusting the ceiling fan. Sooner or later, the dust would build up and fall off the fan blades under its own weight. That was my working hypothesis anyway.

I hopped off the bike and wheeled it up the front walk into the tiny, gloomy lobby with its chipped vinyl tile floor, dirty white walls, and inadequate forty-watt lighting. A quick check of my mailbox revealed nothing but some sales circulars and a credit card bill. I tucked both into my bag and kept moving up the stairs to my second-floor apartment. The smell of cabbage, faint in the lobby, grew stronger and more noxious with each step. Wrinkling my nose, I stabbed my key at the lock, when I felt the presence of someone behind me.

I spun around to find 2B leering at me from his doorway. 2B’s real name was Ed Something-or-Other. His last name was 20 letters long with no vowels. I’d never been able to pronounce it, and he’d lived across the hall for nearly a year. In that whole time, I’d never seen him wear anything but torn jeans and T-shirts featuring wash-worn photos of different classic rock bands or album covers, from back when there were classic rock bands and album covers. His face was long and thin with a scrubby patch of whiskers on the point of his chin and a Jack Nicholson arch to his eyebrows that only added to the devilish leer.

Suddenly the cabbage smell made sense.

“Hey, Marty.” He leaned against the doorway, arms crossed over the Led Zeppelin album cover imprinted on his shirt, head cocked sideways to look me over. “It’s about time you got home. Your phone’s been ringing for the past couple of hours.”

“It has?” A frisson of anxiety shivered through me. Maybe my mother had had an accident of some kind out in her condo in Phoenix. No, that couldn’t be it. She’d have called my cell phone. And I’d seen Irene not too long ago. That was pretty much it as far as people willing to put in a couple of hours’ effort to reach me.

“Probably telemarketers,” I said, mostly to convince myself. I made a mental note to text Mom just in case. “They have a knack for calling at dinnertime.”

2B nodded. “That’s what I used to do, when I was one.”

No surprise there.

He stepped into the hall, pulling his door shut behind him. “I’m jonesing for a Big Mac. Buy you one?”

I couldn’t imagine how. As far as I knew, 2B didn’t have a job. I suppressed a shudder. “No, thanks. How can you have an appetite with that smell?”

“Smell?” A flicker of confusion crossed his face and cleared. “Oh, you must be talking about the boiled cabbage. Mr. Bitterman’s trying out a new recipe.”

I should’ve known. Isaac Bitterman was an 83-year-old widower who’d been forced to discover cooking after his wife died, only he’d gone immediately to the dark side of the culinary arts. His sense of smell seemed as blunted as his eyesight; his experiment with Limburger cheese and broccoli had lingered in the hallway for a week. Unluckily for me, he lived on the other side of a very thin wall, and there were times that the stench of his food was so thick in my apartment that I could practically do a taste test for him.

2B shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful of crumpled bills. All ones, as far as I could see. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d produced a roll of pennies. “So what do you think, Marty?” he asked. “Big Mac?”

I shook my head. “Sorry, I ate at work.”

“Your loss. I’m a great dinner date.” He scratched his armpit, providing evidence to the contrary. “One of these days, you’re gonna let me buy you a burger.”

I couldn’t possibly live enough days for that. I shoved my bike into the apartment ahead of me. “Sure. Bon appétit.”

“Bone appetite to you, too,” he told me. “I’ll catch you later, Marty.” He lifted a casual hand over his shoulder in a wave as he disappeared down the stairs.

Blowing out a breath, just to avoid inhaling more boiled cabbage stench, I followed my bike inside and hung it on the hook beside the door before locking both dead bolts and heading for the kitchen to scrounge up something for dinner. Despite what I’d told 2B, all I’d eaten at work was a coffee cake muffin, and my stomach was growling.

I stood in front of the open fridge, surveying a few bottles of beer, half a loaf of white bread, a two-day-old carton of sweet and sour chicken, and a Tupperware container of leftover takeout linguini. The pasta wasn’t a Big Mac, but it would have to do. Hopefully the scent of marinara sauce could overtake the secondhand cabbage. I dumped the linguini onto a plate and shoved it into the microwave.

The phone rang while the timer was counting down.

“Martha Hudson, please.” A male voice, deep and confident. Nice. But telemarketers could have nice voices too. That didn’t mean I wanted to talk to one.

“Who’s calling?” I glanced at the microwave. When had I ordered that linguini? Maybe I should have gone with the Chinese food. There was still time. I opened the fridge.

“My name is Andrew Bonamassa,” he said. “I’m an attorney with the firm of Bonamassa and Hadley. Is this Miss Hudson?”

I closed the fridge. The rent. It had to be about the rent. My landlord had finally gotten fed up with chasing me down for his money. It was bound to happen. Now there would probably be interest and court costs and lawyers’ fees to pay too. How was I going to manage that?

Briefly, I considered fibbing, but I wasn’t very good at it. It was probably best just to get it over with. “I’m Martha Hudson,” I said with a sigh. “And I’m very sorry, but things have been kind of tight for a while, and I know that’s no excuse, but I really didn’t intend to do it. It just sort of happened, and, well, now it’s gotten out of control, I’ll admit it, but I guess I can go on a payment plan of some sort, right?”

A few seconds of silence. Then: “Could you tell me your mother’s maiden name, Miss Hudson?”

“Oh, for pete’s sake.” I rolled my eyes. “I already told you I’ll go on a payment plan. There’s no reason to drag my mother into this.”

More silence. Then, tentatively: “How about the names of your siblings?”

I stared at the phone. What was with this guy and his intrusive personal questions? Was this how bill collectors worked? Weren’t there laws about this sort of thing? Other than Always call during the dinner hour, that was?

“I’m an only child,” I snapped. “Sorry. You can’t extract any money there either.”

Still more silence. Then, cautiously: “Maybe you can verify your address?”

He had to be kidding me. As if the landlord wouldn’t have already given him that information.

“Humor me,” he said when I didn’t reply. “I have to make sure that I’m actually speaking to Martha Hudson.”

“I told you I’m Martha Hudson,” I said. “Why would anyone else accept the responsibility of paying my back rent?”

“Excuse me?”

I blinked. “That’s why you’re calling, right? About the rent?”

“This isn’t about any rent, Miss Hudson. This is about the beneficiary of the living trust and Last Will and Testament of your great-aunt, Kate Quigley. I represent her estate.”

“Wait.” I gripped the phone tighter. “I have a great-aunt Kate?”

“Not anymore,” he said. “She’s dead. I’m sorry to say.”

I had a great-aunt Kate? I tried to remember meeting her, or seeing pictures of her, or even hearing my mother mention her. I couldn’t. How could I not know about her? While my mom and I had been close, she’d been about all the family I’d ever known. Dad had taken off before I was even born, and Mom had been an only child herself, her parents having passed away when she was in college. As a kid I’d actually fantasized about long-lost relatives finding us and turning our sliced turkey breast for two into a true Thanksgiving family feast like I’d seen in commercials on TV. Only in my fantasies the relatives had been alive and welcoming, not recently deceased.

“Are you sure?” I asked. The microwave dinged. I ignored it. “I mean, are you sure I’m her…”

“I’m sure,” he said. “According to her, you were her nephew’s daughter.”

Her nephew. My father. Another family member I’d never known.

“And,” he continued, “you’re her sole beneficiary, Miss Hudson.”

I fell back against the counter, stunned. “Her sole…”

“Beneficiary,” he agreed. “Kate never married or had children, and so her entire estate has been left to you. Including, of course, her home in San Francisco.”

Of course.


Her home? I’d inherited a house? People like me didn’t inherit houses. We inherited Corelle dishes, table lamps with seashells in their base, and Aunt Stella’s costume jewelry collection.

I let out a shaky exhale. “Are you sure about this?”

“I’m sure,” he said again. “I drafted the paperwork for Kate myself, Miss Hudson. I’ll provide you with copies, of course.”

I’d inherited a house in San Francisco. The thought made me weak. I did a slow, exacting appraisal of my apartment, even though that was something best done quickly, with the eyes closed, to minimize the cringeworthiness. I could hardly believe that finally I’d be able to move out of this place. I’d dreamed of the day I could move out of this place and away from the ragged carpet, the dingy walls, the hit-or-miss hot water. Away from Mr. Bitterman and his culinary science experiments. Especially away from 2B.

My new home was probably some fantastic place nestled into Lombard Street or along the Embarcadero. Maybe I’d have a next-door neighbor who owned a suit and tie and bought his wine in something other than boxes.

Immediately on the heels of my excitement came a sharp regret that I’d never met my great-aunt Kate, had never even known about her. I wondered what she’d been like. Had she looked like me? Did I have her smile? How could I have not known she’d been living just a few miles away this whole time? I suddenly wanted to know everything I could about Kate Quigley. Because somehow Kate had known about me and had left me her house and everything in it.

Including tax and utility bills. Could I afford a house in San Francisco? Could I take care of it the way Kate had taken care of it?

“In case you’d like to take a look at your house,” Andrew Bonamassa was saying, “the address is 221 Baker Street. Kate had it put in a trust a few years back, so there’s no need to wait out probate on the property. You can pick up the key at my office at your convenience. I’m sure you’re eager to see the place.”

Eager was hardly the word. I arranged to meet Mr. Bonamassa at his office the next morning, accepted his somber condolences, and disconnected, still numb with disbelief and pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to count on sleep to get me through the long hours separating me from my new life.

As soon as I’d reheated my dinner and sat down at the table, someone knocked on my door. Probably 2B still hoping to buy himself a romantic evening with a couple of Big Macs and some fries. He was delusional, but it didn’t matter. I was a homeowner now, and pretty soon I wouldn’t have to see 2B ever again.

But it wasn’t 2B at the door. It was Mr. Bitterman, clutching a Tupperware container in both gnarled hands. Mr. Bitterman was considered quite a catch among the widowed ladies in the building. His six hairs were always combed, he had two distinct eyebrows, and his clothes were always clean, even if they were usually mismatched. Plus rumor had it his railroad pension would allow him to live comfortably to the age of 112, a quality more prized by husband hunters than a GQ-worthy wardrobe.

He gave me a gummy smile, and his dentures shifted a little in his mouth. “Evening, Martha Hudson.”

Mr. Bitterman never called me Martha or Marty. Always Martha Hudson. Maybe because he wanted to double-check that he was talking to the right person. I eyed the Tupperware container with deep suspicion. “Hello, Mr. Bitterman. What have you got there?”

“I tried out a new recipe today, and I made a little extra.” He held it out to me. “Thought I’d do the neighborly thing and share.”

I took it before he dropped it all over my carpet and it ate through to the floorboards. I didn’t stand a chance of seeing my security deposit returned as it was. Not that it was my fault the paint was peeling off the walls on its own accord.

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said. He could have done the neighborly thing and dumped it down the disposal. The smells leaking out from beneath that lid would straighten my hair faster than a flatiron.

“I need an objective opinion,” he said. “You can be my tester.”

I sure hoped he was talking about aftershave, because I had no intention of tasting whatever was swimming inside that Tupperware.

“Besides,” he added, “an old man doesn’t like to eat alone.”

It occurred to me that that was what old women were for, but I didn’t have the heart to say so. The truth was, I liked Mr. Bitterman, and I really didn’t mind having dinner with him. As long as it wasn’this dinner.

“I understand,” I said. “I’ve got some sweet and sour pork in the fridge. Come on in.”

I’d given it my best and gentlest shot, but Mr. Bitterman and his mystery dish would not be separated. He followed me into the kitchen and settled in at my table with a grunt of exertion. “You might want to give that a turn in the microwave,” he said. “It tends to congeal as it cools.”

Nothing unappetizing about that. I held my breath, spooned the contents of the Tupperware container into a bowl, and shoved it into the microwave. It didn’t look like it was congealing. It looked like it was breathing.

I slammed the door shut and turned the microwave to Incinerate.

“You know,” I told him, “I appreciate the gesture, but you could have had dinner with Mrs. Frist in 2E. I think she’s got her eye on you.”

“She’s got her eye on everyone,” he said. “She sits and stares out the peephole all day long. Her only exercise is when she changes eyes.” He grimaced. “And Mrs. Frist doesn’t know good food when she tastes it. You might want to give that a stir.”

I was afraid to give it a stir. If I opened the microwave, it might jump out and attack me.

“I know the signs,” he said. “They’re looking for new husbands, all of them. They bring me enough casseroles and Bundt cakes to open a restaurant.”

Casserole and Bundt cake didn’t sound so bad to me. I cast a baleful glance at the microwave. He was sitting on real food, and I got stuck with that.

He shook his head. “None of them will let me cook dinner. Won’t let me near the stove. They insist on feeding me.”

Guess he couldn’t take a hint.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “And you’re right. I’m candy for the ladies.”

Yeah. That was what I’d been thinking.

“But I got plans,” he added. “I’m writing a cookbook. It’s going to be huge. I’m calling it theBitterman Diet Plan. What do you think?”

Something popped inside the microwave, and he made a better-check-that gesture that I deliberately ignored. I wasn’t opening that door. The smell would get out.

“If you want to help people lose weight,” I said, “I think you’ve got a winner.” He seemed pleased. He moved his dentures around until they got out of the way and smiled at me. It was a lovely Hallmark moment.

Until our dinner whistled, sizzled, and exploded in the microwave. Mr. Bitterman shrieked like a little girl and ducked his head.

I rushed to open the door, but I was too late. For the dinner and the microwave. It looked like a scene from Ghostbusters in there. There was no saving it. Even if I managed to scrape the remnants of Cabbage Surprise off the walls, I doubted I could purge that smell.

But I’d rather smell it than taste it.

My steno Cinderella story

By Sarah Maksim

When I was a student just starting to learn my theory, I was given a writer that I’m sure most of you have written on at some point or another. It was dark green with an old pull-out metal tray. The tripod was made out of steel, and the whole thing weighed a ton. Part of me thought this was just some hazing prank that I had to go through to get the nicer writers, but, no, this was what I and the rest of my classmates were stuck with. While I was progressing through my theory classes, I fell in love with court reporting and developed a love/hate relationship with my writer, which I nicknamed The Avocado. (For the sake of this story, I wish I would have nicknamed it the Pumpkin.)

While everyone was upgrading to the newest and best models, I was still inking my ribbon and reading from paper and dreaming of the day when I could write on those magical paperless models. I would tell my boyfriend how much I dreamed for the newest and greatest electric, paperless student writer and how sick I was of typing up my paper notes on a computer. I was so beyond the archaic methods of the past and yearned for the efficiency of the future.

A few years went by, and I found myself plodding away in my first speed building class. I came home from a productive day at school to find an envelope on my bed. I didn’t order anything so, as you can imagine, I was surprised to see my name written on the package. Dan, my boyfriend, told me to open it. Inside, I found the student version of the CAT software I wanted inside! I squealed with excitement, but in my head I was thinking, “He is a computer programmer. Didn’t he know that I use a manual writer?” Still, he was being so sweet! I was so thankful and overjoyed. I promised him that I would start learning all the bells and whistles right away so when I was able to afford an electronic writer, I could start using it with ease. He looked at me with confusion, as though he didn’t even think about my writer, then acted confused and upset that he made such a rookie mistake.

I’ve got to tell you that when I’m well into my golden years, I think I will be able to remember those next few minutes with perfect clarity. He then went into the closet and pulled out a much larger box. My eyes widened, my heart was racing, and I had to sit on our bed due to shock. He let go of the package, and it plopped in front of me on the bed. He then handed me a pair of scissors. “Open it,” he told me.

As I examined and opened the box, I started seeing familiar logos on the package and leaflets promoting the company’s newest professional writer at the time. I just thought they were advertising their newest and best to the lowly indigent student, but then I was able to see it. I was receiving the full-blown professional writer! I screamed as loud as a teenager in a boy band stadium! As a tech nerd, I secretly had my heart set on this particular model when I graduated school, but now I was holding it in my hands — bright, shiny, and new! I felt like I was given the keys to a Formula One car and was told to go racing.

To top it all off, Dan then explained that he called my school to know which theory I was using so that he was able to pick the correct key pad setup for my writer. After I got everything working the way I wanted it to, I was passing tests and flying through the next few speed levels faster than I ever thought I could!

I never thought in a million years that I would have a fairy-tale moment like this. I got to experience the joy of seeing my pumpkin (in this case, The Avocado) turn into a sleek, brilliant steno chariot, all thanks to my fairy boyfriend!

It gives me great pleasure to inform you that seven years later, I have graduated court reporting school, passed my tests, got my California state license, and celebrated my second wedding anniversary with Dan. I feel comfortable saying that he and I are both living happily ever after!


Sarah Maksim (Stenoariety) of Santa Clara, Calif., is a freelance reporter and participating member of NCRA. She can be reached at