From my heart: It is a privilege to serve you!

JCR: Journal of Court Reporting, TheJCR.com, JCR WeeklyIn a Nov. 28 post on the Paradigm Reporting blog, Jan Ballman, FAPR, RPR, CMRS, reflects on how a trip with fellow firm owner Lisa DiMonte, RDR, CMRS, provided lessons on “overdelivering on high expectations.”

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Setting up a home office

Home office setup with a captains chair, desk, computer, etc.; the desk is in front of a wall of windows

© jnyemb

Many reporters and captioners are freelancers or small business owners, which often means working from home at least part of the time. There are many aspects to working from home, but first you need an actual place to work: a home office.

Picking the space

If you have the space, setting up a home office starts with picking the right room. “I have a third bedroom that is a dedicated office space,” said Angeli English, a freelancer in D’Iberville, Miss. “I picked the bedroom with French doors that open to a deck. Makes it very convenient to let our dog go in and out on the patio.”

Depending on the setup of your house, that space might mean a more nontraditional room, like a loft, where Sabrina Trevathan works. Trevathan, RDR, is a freelancer in Rawlins, Wyo.

If you’re in a smaller space and don’t have a whole room to dedicate, look for a good spot somewhere in your bedroom, living area, or other space. “I live in an apartment and the living/dining are one big room,” said Devora Hackner, a freelancer in Brooklyn, N.Y. “There’s a small alcove by the window that is the exact space designed for my desk.”

Legal videographer LaJuana Pruitt, CLVS, in Bradenton, Fla., found a unique opportunity for work space. “I have a side of a building that was a chiropractor’s office that was added to a home. I bought the home first, and when the chiropractor retired, his office became mine,” she explained. “Separate door, bathroom, parking, air conditioner, etc. This building is zoned professional. In 2007, I remodeled the entire building to be an office space. I took out the shower and added another bathroom where the shower was. I added French doors to the front room. The front room is big enough for a large conference table or video studio. I put in a butler’s pantry for a break area.”

After having the physical space picked out, the next step is making sure you have all the equipment, both for doing the job and for running the business.

First, furniture

Every professional interviewed for this article emphasized the need for a comfortable chair. “Invest in the best because you deserve it with how much you sit, and your body will thank you later in life,” said Donna Linton, RMR, a freelancer and captioner in Ashburn, Va. Of course, make sure you have a desk to go along with that chair, and think about what else you will need to store. You can have a simple space with shelves or turn it into your dream work space. “I had [my office] built out by Closest by Design specifically to my needs, i.e., how many computer stations, where the printer would be, cubbies for different size transcript binders, where the paper would be, and where my machine case would fit,” said Linton.

Having the right stuff

The essential equipment is obvious: steno machine, computer, printer. “I’ve transitioned to captioning in the last year, so I have a TV now so if I’m captioning a show that I have on my television, I can watch my captions,” said Tammy McGhee, RMR, a captioner in Bellville, Ohio. Beyond that, think about potential arrangements and additions. For example, Hackner has a “glass desk with a pullout drawer for an external keyboard and mouse” as well as “a docking station that I just hook my laptop up to, and then I work on a beautiful 29-in. monitor.”

Don’t be afraid to try a new configuration if the original setup isn’t working for you. “I ended up rearranging the space three times to get it right!” said English. It may take time to figure out the best way to organize the space. “I definitely learned how to work more efficiently and what supplies I needed to keep within reach,” said Trevathan. “I’ve got awesome storage space in my office; we planned it that way when we added this portion onto our house.”

Since Pruitt has more space, she’s organized the rooms as a more standard office and a production space. “One is my office with the standard equipment. I have a desk, credenza, bookshelves, chair, fax machine, scanner and printer as well as anything I can’t find a place for,” she said. “The other room houses the production room. It contains computers, a robotic printer, DVD recorders, mixers, cameras, tripods, bags, etc.”

Working from home means being able to run a business, so make sure you have all the necessary software and supplies. Consider having a word processing program like Microsoft Word (or the entire Microsoft Office suite) and accounting software like QuickBooks, and of course, make sure you have up-to-date CAT or captioning software with tech support. Think about cloud or digital storage along with physical storage. Pruitt also uses Wondershare and Adobe Premiere for video editing and has projectors, screens, and lighting.

Trevathan lives in a rural area, so she needs to make sure she has access to all the supplies she needs – it’s not easy to just run to the store. These include binding combs, transcript covers, index and exhibit tabs, copy and printer paper, a schedule book, address labels and different sizes of mailing envelopes, and extra toner. Linton has two whiteboard calendars, a speakerphone, and a fireproof safe to store exhibits. And don’t forget the basics like pens, paper clips, a stapler and staples, etc.

The tax element

If you work from home, you may be able to claim your home office on your taxes. “My CPA figured out a percentage of how many square feet my office is and writes off that same portion of my utilities,” said McGhee. Your accountant should have a formula to determine how much the write-off actually is, and don’t forget to ask about additional spaces like an adjoining bathroom, storage space in another part of the house, or any other area that’s designated as work space.

Make it yours

Since you’ll likely be spending lots of time in your home office, think about what would make it a comfortable space for you. “I’ve got my NCRA certificates and notary certificate framed and on the wall,” said Trevathan, along with her family’s schedules. “I wanted to be able to look out the window, so I had the desk location configured that way,” said Linton. “I wanted it sunny, so I painted it yellow.” English uses Longaberger boxes and “pretty stackable boxes with positive sayings on it” as storage, and she also recommends having “pictures of loved ones to remind you to be grateful.”

Pros and cons

The positive aspects of having a home office are pretty clear: “You can work when you need to,” said McGhee, and Pruitt said she “can cook, clean, launder, and have my animals under my feet.” Trevathan likes that she doesn’t “have to go out of the house to go to an office to do my editing and binding.” Linton added: “If I go to sell the home, anyone who doesn’t want an office can easily turn it back into a bedroom. They might even like to use it as a craft room or a homework space for the kids.”

However, having work nearby in a home office is both an advantage (can’t beat the commute) and a disadvantage. “Sometimes you feel like it’s hard to get away from work,” said McGhee. Trevathan echoed this: “I always feel like I need to be working and never leave work. I’ll run upstairs to the office to return a phone call and end up working on transcripts for an hour before I even realize it.” Perhaps English has figured out the trick, however, to maintaining boundaries. “You can walk out and leave the work behind,” she said. Having a dedicated space for work can mean literal help with compartmentalizing, so when you close the door, you leave the work at work.

Someone to trust: The value of peer mentorship

By Megan Rogers

Most of the discussion about mentoring revolves around students. Court reporters and captioners remember how difficult school was and recognize students’ need to have someone to go to for support and advice.

But what about after school? Reporting and captioning success in the real world require some measure of business skills. This becomes especially important if a reporter or captioner finds themselves operating as a one-person shop or running or owning a firm.

In 2016, Cassy Kerr, RPR, CRR, CRC, who owns StenoLogic in Tulsa, Okla., sent an email to the NCRA firm owners’ listserv asking for a firm-owner mentor. “I have been a reporter for 26 years and a firm owner for 13, and there are times when I need a sounding board, someone to go to with business questions, out of the social media arena,” Kerr said. “It’s hard being a firm owner, and it’s hard being a small-firm owner and a working reporter and trying to keep all the balls in the air at once.”

“I didn’t set out to be a firm owner,” explained Kerr in an interview with the JCR. “My passion lies with court reporting, but there are consequential duties that come with being a small-firm owner.” She further said: “All responsibilities fall on my shoulders, including calendaring the depositions, ordering supplies, invoicing transcripts, paying taxes, all the back office support that comes with running a business. I have outside help from my accountant, bookkeeper, scopists, proofreader, copying/scanning service, and the like; and they take away some of the pressure, but those responsibilities ultimately end with me.”

Kim Thayer, RPR, CRR, owner of Kim Thayer & Associates in Hanford, Calif., was one of the people who responded to Kerr’s message. Thayer agreed that a business mentor would be helpful. “As a reporter, you don’t realize the nuts and bolts that go into making a firm run,” she said. For example: “I had no idea all the contracts that needed to be read over and analyzed, from renting copy machines to software agreements. At the time I was leasing space for our office, so I had to learn how to deal with the leasing company. All the extra costs of running a business were probably the most surprising, employee taxes, etc.”

Thayer has a similar experience to Kerr in that she’s actively reporting. “That’s where I find the most fulfillment and joy,” she said. She’s been reporting since 1990 and bought the firm in 2005. Also like Kerr, she hadn’t previously anticipated owning a firm. “My current firm I worked for, the owner took me to lunch, told me she was retiring, felt I would be the best fi t to buy her firm,” she explained. “After a week of thinking it out, pros and cons, we went into negotiations.”

Kerr’s desire for a mentor isn’t a new concept in the business world. Sometimes this comes in the form of a peer mentor and sometimes it comes in the form of a mastermind group.

Thayer found a mentor in the previous owner of the firm, who stayed on for another couple years working as a reporter. “The greatest benefit was I was able to call and ask her about the business when something came up, so I had direct access to answers,” said Thayer.

Mentors “can provide guidance, wisdom, and direction so you don’t become mired in self-doubt,” said Sumi Krishnan in a 2015 article entitled “Why Entrepreneurs Need Mentors and How to Find Them” for Entrepreneur. Krishnan is the CEO of K4 Solutions, a technology and staffing service, based in Falls Church, Va. “You may try to use friends, family members, and colleagues as mentors. But that won’t work. Those people can’t empathize with many of your struggles the way a mentor in your industry can.” Krishnan suggests three different types of mentors:

  • The ‘mentor from afar’: “Often a stranger who doesn’t know you but is still someone who can have a great impact on how you run your business.”
  • The industry-specific mentor: “He or she can help you with industry-dependent challenges, like managing finances and choosing suppliers. These individuals rarely mentor full time, but their one-on-one advice can be invaluable, especially in niche fields.”
  • The direct mentor: “Usually professionals whom you may be paying in return for their support.”

Jason Meadors, FAPR, RPR, CRR, CRC, has served as both mentee and mentor based on Krishnan’s categories, although he doesn’t use those terms. “If someone’s talking about how they do a certain thing — as an example, reading/signing — then rather than counter with, ‘Oh, I do it this way,’ I try to think, ‘How would that work for me?’ I’ve gotten a lot of good business tips that way, just from listening,” he said. Meadors, who also responded to Kerr’s inquiry on the listserv, has also acted as an advisor to reporters who are setting up their own business: “I tell them they should have a corporate entity, have their own cards, fi le their quarterlies, contact firms for work other than me, etc.”

Unlike Kerr and Thayer, Meadors set out to start his own firm, Meadors Court Reporting in Fort Collins, Colo. “I started my own shop on a shoestring, and not a nice new shoestring out of the pack, but a frayed and tied-together one that looked like it had belonged to a teenager trying to outrun a pack of dogs,” he said. The appeal of owning a firm, however, was “playing by my own rules.”

Meadors has also tapped into what is essentially an informal mastermind group. “I’m fortunate that in Colorado, we have a pretty collegial bunch to whom I can talk without a lot of worries,” although he admits, “I do have a few colleagues I relate to more often.”

In a 2013 article for Forbes entitled “7 Reasons To Join A Mastermind Group,” Stephanie Burns describes a mastermind group as “a group of smart people [who] meet weekly, monthly, daily even if it makes sense, to tackle challenges and problems together. They lean on each other, give advice, share connections, and do business with each other when appropriate.” Burns is the founder and CEO of Chic CEO based in San Diego, Calif. She lists advisement, collaborating, extending your network, and cross-promotion as some of the reasons to form a mastermind group. “By interacting and sharing your challenges, it’s almost certain that someone in your mastermind will have a solution for you, and you may also be able to offer a solution, connection, or tactic to help another in the group,” Burns said.

“Sometimes you just need some trusted colleagues who are at the same place in their development to hash around ideas with. That, in a nutshell, is the mastermind group,” said Adrienne Montgomerie in a 2015 blog post entitled “How a Mastermind Group Educates Sr Editors” for Copyediting.com. Montgomerie is a certified copyeditor and editorial consultant based in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. “To start your own mastermind group, list the colleagues you turn to regularly for advice (or who you would like to) and who consults you. Pick people who share aspects of your own practice,” Montgomerie said. “One or two points in common is essential, but points of contrast are very important, too. You want to be able to draw on each other’s different strengths.” She also notes: “Your mastermind group doesn’t have to be local. Online chat systems, video conferencing, or even a group email chain can facilitate communications.”

In a 2013 article for Entrepreneur entitled “Look to Peer Mentoring Groups for Ideas, Support, and Tough Love,” Brian Barquilla, who uses the term peer mentoring group, explained, “Peer mentoring groups are usually 10 or 12 owners of similarly sized, non-competing businesses who get together to help each other find faster, easier ways to build a great company.” Barquilla is the president of AdvantageB2B Consulting + Marketing in Jacksonville, Fla. Since Barquilla suggests finding peer mentors outside of your own industry, he points out: “It is likely whatever problems you face, someone in your group has faced it and remedied it, but what worked for one industry may not with another.”

Previous experience with a professional group is what got Kerr started in thinking about finding a mentor. “I became involved a couple of years ago with 4word, a Christian professional women’s organization that promotes mentors in the workplace, and that is when I first became aware that even working women need mentors, and it gave me the idea to reach out to the listserv,” said Kerr.

Kerr admitted that she doesn’t want to feel like she’s bothering a court reporting friend who may be too busy to answer obligatory questions, so having a wide network can help. Meadors explained: “Really, conventions — state, user group, and national — have been huge for me in establishing connections and listening to what others do. I had one firm owner tell me back in the 1980s, ‘I have gotten back every penny I have ever spent on NCRA conventions just for business knowledge and contacts,’ and I find that to be true. And then that leads to friendships and ongoing contacts. There are firm owners coast to coast and in between with whom I chat, all thanks to those connections.”

Perhaps the most challenging step is swallowing that pride and understanding the value of reaching out. “I shrugged off wondering what other reporters and firm owners would negatively think about a 26-yearplus reporter and experienced firm owner asking for help,” said Kerr. “I made myself vulnerable because my thoughts are we reporters need to ask for help from our colleagues, we need to continue learning and growing in our profession, and we need to stop thinking we will look incompetent if we ask for help.”

“No matter how high your position in a court reporting firm,” Kerr concluded, “I believe everyone would benefit with a mentor.”

Megan Rogers is NCRA’s Communications Assurance Specialist. She can be reached at mrogers@ncra.org.

Secrets of success: Positive thinking, Discipline, and People Skills

Positive Thinking, Discipline, People Skills
Diane Hromek, RMR, CMRS, has been in the court reporting field for more than three decades. Born and raised in Illinois, Hromek splits her time between Cape Coral, Fla., and Lake Tomahawk, Wis. After seeing an ad for court reporting school at age 16, she received her parent’s permission and started Bryant-Stratton College in Chicago between her junior and senior years of high school. Hromek went on to graduate with a court reporting degree in 1968. She is the owner and manager of Diane Hromek’s Court Reporters and runs her business with the help of her handy BlackBerry, Verizon Hotspot, laptop, and high-speed printer.

How important are credentials and continued education in becoming successful?

Generally speaking, I have never had an attorney ask me about special credentials I have received. They are interested in what I can do and how fast I can get it done. They assume I can do my job accurately.

However, the more education a reporter has, the better. When a reporter is at a job site, attorneys and witnesses expect court reporters to know the basics about a subject. That is why I have always advocated that a reporter take a course in a certain area they may have an interest in, such as securities, real estate, construction, medicine, etc. Also, reading the paper and keeping up with spellings and world events is mandatory. Even sports.

As an owner of a small business, I have needed support or courses addressing how to run a business and related subjects, such as Quickbooks, marketing, taxes, etc. Getting to go to an owner’s seminar would be great.

What would be your advice on building up business in several locations?

Building a business in new locations was tricky. I remember one court reporter who I trained right out of school. She is a great gal. She came from a small town in Illinois far from Chicago. After I trained her, she went home and started her own business in that same small town where she grew up. I understood that and wished her well. Still, my business suffered a loss.

I thought it would be an interesting idea to start a business of taking students from school and then teaching them the ropes for a fee. It takes lots of time to train a new reporter. In our industry, time means money. Just think of how much time it takes to edit a transcript and how much time it takes to train a new reporter. So, to answer the question, establishing a new business in strange places just takes time.

I am now a business owner, primarily, and a court reporter, secondarily. I have owned my own business since 1974. At the time that I made the decision to have my own business, I did the math, thought about the clients who always liked to work with me, and thought if I opened my own business, I would be better off financially. (That is not necessarily true, because being a business owner is way different than being a court reporter. Both need the proper training.)

What are the challenges and rewards of owning a business?

The challenges: Not enough work; too much work; not enough money to pay the bills; trying to make a profit; making sure to follow the rules and regulations or guides for the court reporters; knowing where I stand with the attorneys so as not to get pushed or pulled in the wrong direction; training court reporters; ensuring quality control; meeting deadlines, especially when typing transcripts, which was how transcripts were made at the time. Being a woman business owner alone and dealing with male attorneys.

The rewards: The pride of saying that I own a business, especially for many years, and of finishing contracts honorably; being able to help other reporters; speaking to schools and encouraging student reporters; working as a reporter on amazing cases and meeting people affiliated with them; being in the heart of Chicago politics and Illinois politics and keeping my mouth shut; traveling around the world to report; and earning the monies to live an enriched lifestyle, including the ability to buy airplanes, fly them, pay mortgages on them, and grow to the next airplane – five of them as of this time, one at a time.

What personal traits have contributed to your success?

First, my parents were always there to support me in every way. My father had a business, a used car lot and auto body shop. Ex-Army, he exhibited some traits that I have inherited without realizing where they came from.

My mother, a homemaker, encouraged me every step of the way in everything my sister and I did. She was always there for us, cooking, cleaning, and loving us. We didn’t have to clean or cook so that we could concentrate on school and piano. The philosophy worked so that we wanted to cook and clean and be like mom as we grew older. We didn’t have to be told.

Also, training and discipline to become a concert pianist. Internal drive. The power of positive thinking and my Christian beliefs. Discipline, from playing the piano, to practice.

How has court reporting changed over the years?

We used to type transcripts. I can remember one time, I had several copies that were ordered. I had to use hectograph paper. When I made a mistake, I would have to stop, separate the sheets in the typewriter, take a razor blade and scratch out the error, and then put the sheets back together, hope they didn’t slip, and hit the right key to correct the transcript.

At that time, we had a note puller with a foot pedal. One would step on the foot pedal, and it would activate the notes to progress upward on a slanted easel, over the top, and, if one was lucky, the notes would fold nicely on the other side. If a breeze blew, the notes would scatter all over. It was a lot easier than flipping the steno notes over as we finished typing from them.

At that time, no self-respecting court reporter ever used a tape recorder as a backup. If you dropped, you interrupted. If you interrupted too much, that was a big problem. The attorney was apt to call for another reporter or even interrupt the proceedings to get a different reporter.

Steno machines used to be really light to carry. I think, perhaps, that is why people thought of us as secretaries versus court reporters. As our equipment became more intriguing and our ability to do amazing things with it grew, we earned the respect of being court reporters and were more respected for charging the rates we do now.

There was no such thing as a “dirty disk.” There was an unproofread transcript. That is what was used when doing daily copies when there was no time to proofread transcripts – such as when we typed transcripts through the night to be in the hands of the attorneys before court began the next morning.

Believe it or not, I remember a time before fax machines and copy machines. What wonderful inventions!

Notices of deposition. I suppose those were always there. But now, when I get a phone call or email requesting a court reporter, before the client has a chance to start dictating the job information, I simply ask him or her to fax or email the notice of deposition and the service list with all the information possible about the attorneys of record. I save all the NODs in my computer and send them as attachments to the court reporters who accept the job. The procedure used to be for the court reporter to arrive at the deposition and, after setting up the steno machine, ask the attorney for the caption. By hand, we used to copy it word for word, thus taking long periods of time while the attorneys made small talk and waited politely for the court reporter to finish. We had to ask each attorney for his or her name and who he or she represented. After we assigned symbols for the attorneys for our steno machines, then, 15 minutes later, we were ready to start. At the end of the deposition, we would ask on the record who was ordering a transcript. Now, many reporters use an order form. At that time, it was easy. “Do you want a transcript?” “Yes.” Now, the choices are so many: “Do you want a mini? A concordance? An ETran? A pdf?”

There was a time when smoking was allowed in the deposition rooms. One time, there were five attorneys, a witness, and me. All but one person smoked in that small, closed-door room. I wondered how I would survive such situations in the future. I was 18 and intimidated by just being among attorneys. How was I going to ask them to not smoke?

Attitudes of attorneys toward reporters have changed with the times. There were times that I would rather burst than ask for a bathroom break. People are more relaxed now, such that asking for a recess should be totally acceptable.

What kind of skills are needed to be successful?

People skills! Also dealing with clients. I always lean their way, if at all possible, even if I take a loss. Also with court reporters. If they charge a little extra, even if it is not what my rates are/were, I don’t quarrel. I am so grateful they are willing to work with me. Most are humble and wonderful to work with and willing to bend.

Other skills: Math. You never know when a customer will call and ask for a bid to do a big job. You have to know how to do fractions, percentages, and know your costs so that you can make a profit. Personal temperature control: Always stay calm about everything. Tongue control: Measure what you are going to say. “Treat wisdom as a sweetheart.” (The Bible.) Acknowledge and praise the reporters. We all work so hard! Advertising: Be smart where to put your money. Savings: This is one of the most important things I learned from my accountant: Save. I started a savings account and try to put aside 10 percent of every deposit, just for a rainy day. (Thank goodness, it doesn’t rain too much.) I also dip into this fund at Christmas. Nice to have. Thank yous: Very important key to running a business. Just a little note, handwritten, is all it takes – usually.

What advice would you give a student who is about to enter the field?

Get with an agency that is very busy, one that takes all different sorts of work. Be willing to go to court, take meetings, do things over your head so as to grow. Read at least 50 transcripts from that agency so that you will know their format and clients. Know software for various computer programs like Microsoft Outlook, Quickbooks, etc. Take computer courses. Have your own technician. Hire your own scopist. Start together and grow together. Two of them are even better. That way, if you have a daily copy or a huge amount of transcript to get out right away, there is no delay, and no one gets tired out. Always remain loyal to the agency and be grateful. Be positive. Dress and act professionally. That is half the fun of this job. Allow clients quiet time when you arrive on the job unless they engage you. You are there to serve them. Be half an hour early. Get transcripts in way before they need them. Read the newspaper. I offer my work to the Lord. I am doing a service to mankind when I do a good job, helping people who are in trouble or quarreling over something. The law keeps peace. There were scribes back in Biblical times, and I think there always will be.

What type of advice would you give to an established court reporter who is considering getting out of the field due to changes in the business?

The right answer is to go where your heart is. Right? Still, if you can help someone, keep on going. Life is short. Do what makes you happy. Help others. Maybe the right answer is to close the business.

See what fits each individual person. It takes money to keep an agency going. There are many things to consider: advertising through NCRA or individual websites, the cost of keeping your license or upgrading your software or servicing your hardware. Illinois requires continuing education points. In Florida, I need to renew my notary license at a cost of about $250. The cost of steno software is $750. Quickbooks costs about $220. The cost of my BlackBerry and Hotspot, $340 monthly. Other advertising. Binders. Office supplies. Business cards. Brochures. Other promotional gifts – under $100 per client yearly. It takes time, too, as you (or someone) must be present to take phone calls and respond to emails in a timely manner.

To answer the question again, I believe digital recording in the courthouse has some merit for smaller cases, especially with budget cutting. I understand when there is a fender-bender case, it may not be appropriate to spend a thousand bucks when the total costs of the accident don’t amount to half that. And I could see how important it is to spend the dollars necessary to hire a court reporter for a high-end medical or product case. As a reporter, one better be ready for exciting reporting on cases of more sophisticated matters, which is not a place for a beginner. Also, this is a situation where experience and knowledge come into play. Reading numerous finished transcripts by experienced reporters would be very helpful for young reporters.

Where do you see the court reporting profession going in the future? And how can reporters to prepare for that?

I thought about 10 years ago that reporting would end. But the technology kept it going. I love all the new things I know about computers and technology. I attend seminars to learn the latest. To respond more directly to the question, I believe reporters who are chosen to work on depositions and trials will have to be the most professional ones available, with good speed, accuracy, dependability, professional conduct and appearance, a proper work ethic, so that they can get the job done on time or ahead of time.

I encourage reporters to work three weeks and take off the fourth week every month or at least a long weekend to rest. Lenore Weiss, an agency owner in Chicago who has passed away, said: Never give up an important event in your personal life for court reporting. In summary, I am grateful for the opportunity to share some of my experiences as a court reporter and an agency owner.