Court reporting as a second career

The JCR reached out to several members of NCRA who made the decision to switch careers and enter the court reporting, captioning, or legal video professions and asked them to share what they did before, how they decided to make the change, when they knew they made the right choice, and insights they would share with others considering making a change.

Abby Cook
Pittsburgh, Pa.

Abby Cook

Abby Cook

CURRENT CAREER: Student at the Community College of Allegheny County; Plans to work as a freelance reporter
upon graduation in July 2017
PREVIOUS CAREER: Master’s level mobile mental health therapist for about 18 months

After I finished my degree, I was trying to get enough client contact hours to sit for the exam and earn my professional license as a mental health therapist. I was doing anything and everything for the company I worked for, even sitting as a secretary. But they would not fill my client schedule, so I left. I interviewed at another company for a similar position, and they informed me they needed someone with their professional license, which I was working toward, but in order to sit for the exam, you had to complete direct client contact hours. I knew I needed to do something that wasn’t dependent on what others thought I could do or doing something that others had to help me fill my schedule.

My cousin is a court reporter and currently reports on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. I contacted her to get more information because I knew she was making a good living, and I knew she enjoyed what she was doing. I am one of three girls, and my cousin tried to talk all three of us into going into court reporting after high school. It was always sort of in the back of my mind, but I never really knew much about court reporting as a career. But once I realized I wasn’t finding my way as a therapist, I decided to look into court reporting further.

I do think some skills from my previous work transfer. I continue with the need to listen to people, I continue to provide a service for people, I continue to be mobile with that service, and I continue to hear stories about people
(some more awful than others, but I feel my previous experience has prepared me for such things and to not be shocked).

I think I am most excited to be entering a field that is highly valued, highly in demand and highly respected. I look forward to having a full schedule because of a proven, black-and-white skill that I possess. I would say to look at all the options, talk to some people in the field (both new to the field and seasoned professionals), and learn as much as you can. I continued to work in my first career when I started school for the career change and, if it didn’t work out, I would’ve stayed with that job and pushed harder for my chance and what I wanted. It never hurts to try something new and make yourself more marketable.

After the first few weeks in school, I knew that making this change was going to be a good, positive, life-changing choice. I was picking up on this new (steno) language, and all the working court reporters that came to speak to
us about the field only had great things to tell us. Students ahead of me were getting their speeds and passed on advice. There is so much encouragement and happiness and excitement in this field. I can’t wait to get out there and
start working!

Carolyn Kerr, RPR
Buffalo, N.Y.

Carolyn Kerr, RPR

Carolyn Kerr, RPR

CURRENT CAREER: Working as an official court reporter for the state of New York Unified Court System, family
court in Niagara County
PREVIOUS CAREER: Worked in radio and television

I’ve actually had two careers before court reporting. I have my B.A. from the University at Buffalo in communications. Because of my love for music, I became involved with the campus radio station and was soon the program director. I also interned at a local radio station and, while still attending college, was hired full time as a disc jockey and promotions director at that radio station. The radio and music industry is very volatile, and I discovered that while I loved music and the fun of working at a radio station, I wasn’t enjoying the people I worked with very much. Many of my coworkers had drug and/or alcohol problems, had multiple marriages, were not particularly well educated, but they had huge egos. I was 23 years old and decided I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life surrounded by people I didn’t respect. But being in radio did give me a very important skill that I believe carries over to court reporting. That
skill is the ability to perform.

I lucked out and got kind of a weird job next, one that combined my skill in performing with the stability of a real job. I was hired as a traffic reporter, working for the local public transit agency. The bus drivers on the road would call
in the traffic delays they saw, and I would compile traffic reports and provide them to most Buffalo area radio stations and one TV station during morning and afternoon drive times. In return, the public transit system got advertising
on these stations. On some of the stations I would broadcast live; on others I would just provide the information to their on-air personnel, who would read it. I also appeared on the local ABC-TV network affiliate during their morning
show. For three hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, I was typing up and churning out constant traffic updates to 12 to 15 media outlets. I could always type fast, but this experience really improved that skill. Again, another transferable skill to court reporting.

Eventually marriage and children came along, and I didn’t want to work the split shift this job required, so I bid on another job in the transit agency and became the supervisor of the customer service department. Essentially I ran a
call center and resolved customer complaints. You can imagine the types and amount of complaints a public bus and rail company receives! What I learned from that job is that I do not like supervising anyone and that I missed the performance component of my other jobs. I was a really good typist and enjoyed typing, but I knew there wasn’t much money in it.

While I was at a family party, I was complaining to my sister-in-law about my job as a customer service manager, and she suggested court reporting. It was one of those duh moments, as my sister-in-law was not only a court reporter but also owned a freelance agency. From there everything just fell into place, almost as if it were meant to be. The local school was not too far from my house, not too expensive, and worked with my schedule, and oh, by the way, they were having an open house the following week. I enrolled on the spot, and a little over two years later I began working for my sister-in-law’s company.

At its heart, court reporting is a performance job. The skills from my broadcasting career definitely have translated to court reporting. And while we do interact with judges, clerks, lawyers, the public, and other reporters, court reporters are essentially solo workers. It’s us and the machine, and then it’s us and the transcript. I found from working in customer service that I really like working independently, and court reporting fulfills that preference.

What most excites me about court reporting is my certainty that I am performing an essential but unique service. Keeping the record is one of the main principles of our legal system. The written word allows ideas and facts to be conveyed and shared through generations. In 2015 we marked the 700th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the document upon which our nation and many other democratic nations are defined as a nation of laws, not of man. Someone wrote that down. Scribes were the early court reporters. Without them, where would our understanding of history be? I am very proud to be a part of this institution. I also love that court reporting is both a physical and mental job. While our fingers are flying over the keyboards with a profound dexterity, our minds are working in dual tracks. One track is hearing and committing the spoken word to writing, the other is devising a way to create a shortcut or inserting punctuation. That makes our job feel like a craft or skilled trade to me, which I love and value.

The advice I would give to someone considering a court reporting career is to, first of all, do an honest assessment of what’s going on in your life. Court reporting school is difficult. In our class of 30, only two of us graduated, and I am the only one still working. I believe you must have almost no distractions to get through school. No small babies. No ongoing divorces. No financial problems. Secondly, I believe that you must be ambitious and committed. Once you start working, take the difficult job. It will make you a better reporter. Take the certification exams. Those letters after your name will make you feel so good. And finally, you must view court reporting as a profession, not just a job.
Professions require ongoing development, investment, and education. For a job, you just show up. If you view yourself as a professional, I believe you will have a more realistic understanding of what it takes to get through school and to succeed once you’re working. The point at which I knew I made the right decision for a career in court reporting was the first time I looked down at that old borrowed manual machine and hit that initial key. I knew immediately. It just felt right. It was me. Having said that, it wouldn’t have been the right choice for me at the age of 20 or 25. I needed that experience of working in radio and television, and I needed to learn I hated being a manager.

Angeli English
D’Iberville, Miss.

Angeli English

Angeli English

CURRENT CAREER: Freelance reporter
PREVIOUS CAREER: Secretarial

I am a freelance reporter, but I cover various courts sometimes if they need me and if I don’t already have a freelance job. I’m on the coast and I’ll drive up to two hours for a good job.

I had a secretarial background originally. I went to a vocational school and learned typing, shorthand, etc., in the mid-1980s. Then I just worked part time at various jobs while raising four boys. I always worked a secretarial job
full-time till I started having kids in 1990. After that, I took a few years off and had three more kids in two years (twins in there) and then worked part-time till 2010 when I decided to pursue court reporting.

When two were in college, I decided to consider a second career. My boys were getting older; I had more time, and I wanted a good paying job that offered flexibility. I had never been exposed to court reporting. When I was considering a second career, I did some online research.

I would say my secretarial background and good command of grammar, etc., helped in my career as a court reporter. Just know it takes self-discipline and constant practice and self-confidence.

I never know when I walk out the door what story I’m going to hear that day. It’s like being a fl y on the wall and getting a peek into someone’s life.

I never doubted court reporting would be my second career. I remember being on my first job and thinking, yes, I did it, and pinching myself!

Kerry Irizarry, RPR
Jacksonville, Fla.

Kerri Irizzary, RPR

Kerri Irizzary, RPR

CURRENT CAREER: Freelance reporter
PREVIOUS CAREER: AT&T customer service representative, 11 years

Our office was closed, and everyone was laid off. As part of our compensation, we were offered money to go back to school and/or start a new business. I had seen court reporting commercials on television and thought it looked interesting. And after my experience with corporate America, I decided I wanted to go out and get a skill that was valuable and that would give me flexibility.

I had no idea what court reporting was about. I was always fascinated with closed captioning and when I learned that captioners were court reporters, I was hooked.

Working customer service required we use a computer all day. I became very adept at typing and operating computer software, which is beneficial to our profession. I also got experience interacting with people and resolving problems. These skills come in handy when interacting with attorneys and judges.

I love to read back. Our profession is stressful and comes with a lot of responsibility, but I love it when I can help an attorney out with a question or answer they repeated. Audio recordings can’t do that. I would also like to move into captioning or providing CART services. Ours is one of the few professions that we can provide a service for those with a disability.

I love court reporting, but it was a very hard road to travel to become proficient. Court reporters have to be very dedicated and meticulous in their work. They need attention to detail, flexibility, and good interpersonal skills.
Someone who has these qualities would probably be a great court reporter.

I didn’t realize I had a thyroid condition, and my work was suffering. I believe it had been going on so long that it had prevented me from graduating from court reporting school sooner. I had trouble focusing, which is crucial in our job. It really had me doubting my decision to pursue this as my second career. Thankfully, I found a doctor that straightened me out. Now I absolutely love my job and have no doubt this was the right decision for me.

Dave Leyland, CLVS
Kansas City, Mo.

Dave Leyland, CLVS

Dave Leyland, CLVS

CURRENT CAREER: Legal videographer
PREVIOUS CAREERS: Director of a nonprofit and state child welfare administrator

I had formerly worked as a director of a nonprofit for more than 19 years, and before that I was a child welfare administrator in the state of Missouri. I am currently owner of Kansas City Legal Videography.

Soon after leaving my nonprofit job, I began working with a certified court reporter company as their manager of production. I became very interested in legal videography when scheduling and interacting with video specialists. I always had a fondness for the legal profession, videography, and technology, and I realized that I could pursue all of these as a video specialist. I soon started researching how to pursue this interest and one of the first things on my list was to become certified as a legal video specialist through NCRA.

I’ve always believed that you gain so much value by associating with people in your trade. Professionals of all kinds must also keep up to date with the latest technology and equipment to be used on the job. I successfully passed the written test and went on to also pass the production test in Chicago at last year’s NCRA Convention & Expo.

I’ve had a lot of opportunities to use the skills that were first taught to me at the three-day training in Reston, Va. I’m constantly learning new techniques and upgrading my skills as I gain experience as a legal video specialist. Every job that you have comes with its challenges. I still have so much to learn because I always want to deliver the very best product to the client.

I can’t say how much I enjoy this profession and the great interactions I have with other litigation professionals, especially the court reporters who are the hardest working people in the room.

Reporting in Nigeria

A street scene in Lagos: A narrow paved street with a line of cars (sometimes single file, sometimes double file), cars parked or waiting to move on either side of the street, pedestrians crowded mostly on the left side. Near the background, a cluster of colorful umbrellas. In the back, white nondescript buildings. At the top in the foreground and background are electrical wires.By Jason Meadors

It was departure day for Nigeria, a three-week work trip I went on a few months ago. That day started out with a typical trip to the airport — not really stressed, but I was thinking: “What if something goes wrong?” This is part and parcel of the whole international work experience, at least for me. What if I forgot something? What if I didn’t pack the right cord for a piece of equipment? Or forgot a piece of equipment? Do I have all the right gear for the power differences? And oh, yes, I checked to make sure I have my passport for the 251st time.

Regarding the travel there: For some of these gigs, the client or paying party treats you like an integral part of the team. Sometimes not so much. For this Nigeria trip, they did, springing for business first class, which was particularly welcome on the Boeing 787 from my connecting flight in Houston to Lagos, Nigeria.

Business first class on that plane is sure comfortable. I had a glass of wine with dinner (that they kept offering to refill). I had my own television, and not the little one on the seat back in front of me, but a good-sized one in my little nook, with TV shows and movies on demand and all that stuff. And I didn’t have to jam my bag under the seat in front of me or in the overhead. I have shelves and cubbyholes for all my stuff.

And then, ah, the whole “resting while flying” thing. The little reclining icon on the controls by the seat shows a bed option. I didn’t believe it can lie down flat, but it really did, and I achieved a reclined sleeping position that, given the circumstances, is not terrible. Having flown coach about 99 percent of my traveling time, I can unequivocally state that sleeping in coach ranks somewhere between pretty terrible and downright awful.

International assignments are a sporadic thing for me. For some of my colleagues, it’s their bread and butter. I do envy those who fly constantly and have the miles to upgrade from economy when that’s all the client will buy. It makes all the difference to arrive reasonably comfortable and reasonably rested.

I was hoping to see some cool African landscape as we flew over the coast, but that was not to be. Clouds covered everything. The clouds broke up as we came closer, and it was odd not to see roads, grids of towns, or any sign of civilization. It’s sort of like flying over western Alaska, except this looks flat the whole way.

View is through the windshield of a car as if sitting in the passenger seat. A line of street vendors walk along the car holding various wares for sale. They are looking ahead.The airport at Lagos wasn’t anarchy — merely low-level chaos. After disembarking, the team I traveled with and I found ourselves in a fairly dark tunnel, finally making our way up to the immigration stations, where we were given the forms to fill out. We crouched around in the middle of the line, trying to do so. Once the forms were completed, we were ignored for a while by the immigration officers.

That was the start of the fun. Outside the airport, we had a chase truck complete with armed guards with our luggage in it and a bus to hold the lawyers and reporters. Then the bus ride started. It was interesting.

The main roads were paved, and all the side roads were dirt. Lagos is not a pretty town. What was most striking to me was there was lots of trash and lots of frenzied, aggressive driving. Pedestrians do not have the right of way. Street vendors walk down the active lanes between lines of cars that are stalled in traffic or moving slowly. The vendors push their various wares, sometimes carrying them on the tops of their heads.

The trip across town to the compound took about an hour and a half. I’d estimate our average progress at about 45 hpm (honks per minute). Most of the time, lane lines were a forgotten memory. There were a lot of roadside marketplaces with tented stalls, teeming with people.

The national car of Nigeria seems to be the VW bus. There are tons of them around, and not all in good shape, looking as tired as an 80-year-old factory worker, packed with goods and people. Lots of them were painted yellow, which seemed odd, until we figured that they were unmarked cabs. Well, unmarked but for the paint job. A number of times, the VWs cruising down the road featured the sliding door open, with one or two people hanging out to enjoy the breeze.

Our bus driver was fearless and stellar in his abilities. Maybe he can’t do what I can for a living, but I couldn’t do what he does either. The road experience made me wonder why more cars aren’t scraped and striped on the sides, or why more pedestrians’ bodies aren’t scattered about. Maybe they’re just all used to it and compensate appropriately, or maybe this was a good day.

We got to the compound, an island of cushiness in a sea of chaos. It was like an attractive Southern California subdivision, if the subdivision had a concrete-lined moat, guard towers, emergency assembly points scattered around the area, and a security briefing that told us what to do in case of gunfire. (Don’t check it out, and try to keep at least two walls between yourself and the gunfire.) The house to which I, another reporter, and one of the attorneys were assigned was done very nicely indeed. The depositions that I reported for those three weeks were in the same house. Shortest commute ever.

Sure, that’s all nice. But I hear you saying, “This is the JCR I’m reading, right? What about the reporting?”

The first day was simply nerve-wracking for me. Not because of the attorneys or witnesses (not yet, anyway), but because my realtime gear was acting up. I had done a dry run before I left home, I had done a dry run the day before the first job, and then when I had everything ready on the important day, the gear just wouldn’t cooperate. I went down my hardware and software checklists, A, B, C, D, [expletive deleted], and it’s still was not connecting. By then, everyone had shown up. I set up my backup system and got it going, but now the deposition is starting with the scent of frustration – and it was emanating from me.

The witnesses that I had were villagers from an area up the coast. Although I knew that English is the official language of Nigeria, I knew I couldn’t relax. Many of the villagers spoke their tribal language, and we needed an interpreter for that. Some of the witnesses could speak pidgin English, and so we had an interpreter for that. Some of the witnesses spoke English, but a heavily accented form that would have had me scratching my head, if my hands were not already busy. The interpreters had accents, too.

The second day of the job was better than the first. The equipment all decided to get in line and step in time and stayed that way for the rest of the assignment. I didn’t do anything differently. It just worked, even through the eight or so little blackouts that we had. And that was pretty much how the rest of the job went over the course of three weeks. Well, sometimes we went late, the accents were a constant struggle, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the attorney I worked with, he was focused, energetic, and didn’t need the breaks that we so cherish in order to recharge.

Through the witnesses, I learned a little about life in Nigeria. The deponents were from fishing villages. One was married, but not really, because he hadn’t paid the bride price. Another had kids — four boys and one girl. He was dismissive of the daughter and didn’t know how old she was. The towns’ heads was called king and referred to as Highness. And one village went to war against another, complete with gunfire and invasion and refugees. Toilets in one place were perched over the river, which carried away the waste (to another village downriver, presumably).

Fried whole fish covered with sliced cucumbers, sliced onions, and french fries with a side of ketchup. Next to the food is a set of plasticware. The plate is covered in aluminum foil.After some hard days of work, there was a consensus among the legal beagles — well, most of us — to get out and see what was outside of the compound. In Nigeria, going out to see the sights took some coordination, at least for our cautious hosts.

We staged with our new Nigerian friends who work for the corporation running the compound. We sallied forth in two SUVs, mercifully driven by Nigerians, with a chase car (black pickup), marked POLICE, complete with overhead lights. It was apparently vitally important that we stay together, because in the madcap, mad-dash Lagos traffic, whenever we’d get separated by other cars, there’d be a “WHOOP WHOOP” behind us — the siren of the chase car — and we’d rejoin.

At the roundabouts — oh, my. I’ve been taught that the cars in the roundabout have the right of way, and the cars joining traffic wait for an opening. Ha! Think more of a game of “chicken” with a generous seasoning of Demolition Derby. We were helped in our case by the chase car, lights flashing, jamming into the flow and running interference for us as adeptly as any All-Pro offensive lineman on an NFL team.

We got to the beach, a favored hangout of one of our hosts. The place was energetic in getting the plastic chairs and tables set up for us. The proprietors came around with a big dead fish on a platter. I was about to say, “No thanks,” when our host ordered five of them. Well, okay.

We walked out on the jetty, did some photo-taking at the far end, came back, and the fish started showing up. It was spicy and delicious. Well, at least it was merely spicy for our hosts and me. Another reporter on the team, Stephanie Leslie of Regal Reporting out of Orange County, Calif., announced that her mouth was on fire and took some good-natured ribbing from our Nigerian friends. The sweet potato fries that accompanied them were quite tasty. Later, we also chowed down on some beef prepared by a beachside barbecuer, coated with a spicy rub, more flavor than heat, also quite good.

The beach. Relative to my American sensibilities, it was a mixture of nice sand and a trash pit. The structures are a combination of reasonably functional, combined with ramshackle, dilapidated, and crumbling. Or crumbled.

The folks were all good-natured. I’m not gregarious, not in the United States, not in Nigeria, not much anywhere, but others in our group had no problems making new friends. That feeling of safety may have been enhanced by the guys from the chase car in their police uniforms carrying firearms.

Really, from that quiet afternoon, it’s hard to get across the variety we experienced: the entertaining kid rapper in the St. Louis Cardinals shirt, the onslaught of vendors coming to our table (I got some trinkets for my granddaughters), the sights along the roadside.

As the days wore on, the biggest reporting challenge turned out to be the accent. I tried to prep, I really did. One of the major town names is Port Harcourt. It pretty well comes out porked, but it sounds like a porked where I felt I was lucky to have made out that much of the word, until they say they flew from there, and I thought, “Oh, that can’t be right,” and of course I tried to figure it out while they kept moving along in their soliloquy.

Or another main town, Yenagoa. I looked at the word list and read Yen-a-go-a. I heard the attorneys say, Yen-a-go-a, and I thought, “Yeah. I got this.” Then I heard the witnesses talking about going to Engwa and selling fish in Engwa, and I struggled along with that and the rest of the vocabulary, and finally I started hearing a little Yeh at the start and I realized that Engwa is actually Yenagoa.

So much for the prep.

The attorneys had been interviewing local witnesses and personalities for weeks, or months, or maybe years, and their ears were tuned. Mine were not. But even the attorneys could get taken aback. One memorable exchange:

A. This is our seashore. Where —
Q. This is your —
A. — where we come at. Yes.
Q. Is your sister, did you say?
A. Seashore.
Q. Seesaw?
A. Seaside, yes.
Q. Seaside.
A. Yeah.

When you can’t tell seashore from sister from seesaw from seaside, you’re in for one great treat.

Rough drafts went out as soon as possible, which meant before the start of business the next day and preferably before the evening is done. Yup, all 300 pages, or whatever the count is, working through that accent.

Okay, I’m really not complaining. It was a good, interesting gig, and I feel privileged to have been on it.

We pretty much took depositions every workday, and since it was Nigeria, that included the Fourth of July. The worst depositions, the most dreaded, were when the witness would come in with attorneys’ assurances that no interpreter was needed that day. Because they were generally wrong.

A young woman and an older man are facing the camera with their arms congenially around each other's shoulders as if friends. The woman is holding a steno machine on a tripod.

Stephanie Leslie and the author, smiling as they leave the compound.

My first day’s job (after the realtime issue) was the baptism in fire, well over 300 pages saturated with my mental “Huh?” I heard a word, I spent a second trying to figure it out, I finally did based on the content, and by then, the speaker is 15 words further along in the speech, 10 of which I’m going through the same tortured analysis.

The other reporting stuff was pretty mundane, as these things go: realtime to counsel, rough drafts to counsel, relatively quick turnaround. However, as the days go on, mundane translates to burdensome. We kept taking depos every day and found the work piling up, swamped with returns from the scopists who couldn’t understand the witnesses any better than we could and returns from the proofers who were baffled as well. All the while, we’re keeping exhibits together, doing any techno-troubleshooting, and trying to find something to eat and a few hours to sleep. The equation of roughs, realtime, and transcript production started generating a sum value of fatigue.

The three-reporter team, with three different CAT systems, was great and fired on all cylinders. The attorneys were easy to get along with. Three of them were Brits, leading to interesting discussions on the state of things on the island across the pond.

And the witnesses, hard as they are to take down, were nevertheless fascinating. This experience certainly gave me a different perspective on life. Let me say, when I listened to the witnesses talking about going out to the swamp or river to do their personal business, when they were literally eating what they killed or pulled out of the dirt, when they told of drinking water pulled out of the ground, and the concept of phones, refrigerators, and televisions were laughable, I saw my life differently. I listened, with a mixture of fascination and sadness, to witness after witness coming in from their first plane ride, in a big city for the first time, from their hardscrabble existence.

So, you might want to ask, was it worth it?

It was good to get home after three weeks of constant heavily overtime days, but this experience was hugely informative and rewarding.

But, yeah, I’d go back.

 

Jason Meadors, FAPR, RPR, CRR, CRC, is a freelance reporter in Fort Collins, Colorado. He also writes fiction and currently has five titles on Amazon.

The aspiring realtime warrior

By Michelle Kirkpatrick

Let’s start right off with a controversial topic. I’ve heard it said there’s a breakdown of abilities and skill levels within court reporters: The top 10 percent of reporters are exceptionally skilled, able to write virtually any sort of realtime or fast-speaking real-life material thrown at them; the next 50 to 60 percent are your “average” reporter; and the “bottom” 30 to 40 percent of reporters perhaps virtually always struggling with a skill level that would throw them out of a chance to participate in that realtime realm completely, ever, in their lifetime.

Whether you’re inclined to believe that or not, the reality is, if you lined all of us reporters up and were able to judge with divine powers who should be placed ahead of whom, there is going to be an inevitable top and bottom.

Does that really matter? I assert that it absolutely does not. As reporters, we all have the ability to write. If you are a practicing court reporter, I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt that you’ve made it far enough to be able to make an adequate record and that you’ve got some skills. Some in our profession would argue that there are some people who are not certified or not skilled enough to be called a reporter. But I am not writing this to debate the fine semantics of inadequacies that could make or break someone not being “qualified” to really be doing this job at all.

So if we can agree to set that aside, then let’s face it: A great many laypeople in this world don’t have what it takes, for whatever reason, to do what we do. We’ve made it past that threshold to write the spoken word in such a manner so as to be able to attempt to capture a verbatim record in our normal daily work. I would hope that most reporters at least consider themselves an average reporter! If you consider yourself a struggling reporter, maybe even a little less than average, however, then maybe you need to pay even more attention to my next few thoughts.

Does the title of this article — “The aspiring realtime warrior” — barely even strike you as being relevant to your life? Do you feel it takes a special something that you don’t have in order to be “one of those” who can write realtime and write it well enough for others to see?

If you are nodding in the affirmative, then I will agree with you, it does take something you don’t currently have. What you lack is drive. What you lack is the determination to be better. It may be that family life or health issues or financial difficulties or other circumstances in your life prevent you from acting right now to improve your skills to the point I’m talking about. But if you are thinking you are not one of those special people who can ever do this, I maintain that is not true! You do need to be extremely motivated. You do need to be very determined. You have to be willing to persevere. You have to want it — like the overweight person who has a difficult time breathing when walking from the living room to the kitchen but wants to someday run a marathon. I could give many examples in life where people who do not seemingly have the advantage wind up on top. You, too, can end up on top! You, too, can be that realtime warrior, the person who fits your own definition of what that means to you.

Merriam Webster’s online definition of warrior is “a person who fights in battles and is known for having courage and skill.” Under “Examples of warriors,” it has this thought: “a program of tough training and discipline that turns untried civilians into warriors.”

The webpage also has some interesting answers further down to their question, “What made you want to look up warrior?”

  • “Developing a warrior weight loss empowerment program.”
  • “My son graduating from college wrote a paper of being raised by a single mom and called me a warrior so was curious of the exact definition.”
  • “Preparing a message for Sunday. Topic: being an overcomer, therefore, a warrior.”
  • “I heard the word Warrior, some people are spiritual soldiers then there are those that are called to be warriors who are known for their courage and skill.”

Blood, sweat, and tears. Goal-setting. Visualization. Words of affirmation. Becoming a sponge to soak up as much realtime career information as you can find in seminars, Internet articles, message boards, and court reporting realtime and theory books. More goal-setting. More visualization and words of affirmation. Surrounding yourself with those who have attained what you’re looking to attain. Asking questions. Believing. All of these things are what makes a warrior, and all of these things are something you can do.

The average reporter — the “untried civilian” — through a “program of tough training and discipline,” armed merely with their own sheer determination to improve, learn, and aspire to be that realtime warrior will be average no more.

Less than half a decade ago, I was a 24/7 single mother, an RPR, and still on Premier Power, writing on the Baron TX I had purchased brand-new in 1986, then upgrading to a refurbished Stentura 8000. Over the years of my career, I had worked for a couple of freelance agencies writing your typical deposition content; had done my own solo thing for ten years, averaging maybe a thousand pages a month or less; and since have taken a salaried district court official position. I really had been busy for more than 15 years being that warrior mom to three little boys! And while I was certainly proud of the reporter that I was, I was definitely not, by anyone’s definition, in the top 10 percent of reporters in the nation, nor was I necessarily an “exceptional” reporter in any identifiable way. Until I became determined. Until I became relentlessly focused. Until I had a vision that I would not let go of. Less than three years later, with updated realtime software and new steno machine, I became armed with five additional NCRA certifications, one federal realtime certification, and qualified in an NCRA Realtime Contest. Am I average? I think it’s safe to say, maybe by anyone’s definition, not so much anymore.

What I can say with definite certainty, however, at least by my own definition — if no one else’s – I am a realtime warrior. And I can say with certainty that if you want it, then without a doubt, you too can be a realtime warrior.

“Man cannot aspire if he looked down; if he rise, he must look up.” —  Samuel Smiles

Michelle Kirkpatrick, RDR, CRR, CBC, CCP, is a freelance reporter working in Denver, Colo. She can be reached at michelle@kirkpatrick.net.

This article was written to promote the use of realtime among court reporters. More information from court reporters about succeeding as a realtime reporter is available through NCRA.org/realtime.

 

 

 

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 ted.com 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 Anissa@LearnToCaption.com or through her website LearnToCaption.com.

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, www.critesintl.com, 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 suhieaimee@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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 malexis@maccormac.edu.

 

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 cassarella11@hotmail.com.