Student Report: The shock of the real world

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just felt lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student Report: Launching your court reporting career

Looking for a job in today’s competitive market can be difficult. So how do you make yourself stand out among the competition? How do you get a potential employer to take interest in you and want to interview you? According to the pros, the best way is to differentiate ourself. Focus your résumé around your strengths and goals. Let your unique skills and abilities shine, every step of the way — from your résumé to the follow-up after an interview.

Résumé

Positive first impressions can help you stand out among the competition. Your first opportunity to make a good impression is with your résumé. The person reviewing your résumé is generally the one who will decide whether you will get an interview or not. So consider your résumé your first interview, as well as the first opportunity to promote yourself. Pay attention to detail. A résumé should be easy to read, concise, neat, and well organized. Undoubtedly, a future court reporter should use proper grammar and correct spelling. When a résumé is free of errors, it allows the reader to focus on the content.

Michelle Grimes, a recent graduate of the College of Court Reporting, located in Hobart, Ind., feels that proofreading your résumé is of utmost importance because it demonstrates use of correct spelling, grammar skills, attention to detail, thoroughness, and a strong integrity to make your work “sparkle.”

In addition, résumés should be tailored to each specific job or position you are applying for — they are not one size fits all. Read the job description carefully and figure out what qualifications the employer is looking for and what you can offer them. Then tailor your résumé around the skills and experience you have specific to that position.

Be sure to showcase your skills and abilities. List any credentials you have, as well as membership in any court reporting or other professional associations and any relevant experience. It is also important to include the court reporting program you graduated from and your academic achievements. In addition, make note of any efforts you are taking to further your skills, and include activities that reflect good social skills such as groups for which you volunteer or social groups with which you are involved. Along with listing your skills and experience, consider including how those skills can benefit your potential employer.

If you are a young professional just getting started in your career, outside activities can provide you with the experience to show skills you may not have had the opportunity to use in your professional life, such as leadership, organization, and time management.

Finally, always volunteer a difficult transcript for your potential employers to review. “When a reporter volunteers a transcript, I am always impressed, provided it turns out to be excellent, of course,” said Tiffany Alley, RPR, founder of Tiffany Alley Global Reporting & Video in Atlanta, Ga.

Interview

It is better to be 10 minutes early than 10 minutes late. Being prompt for your interview shows you want to be there and you respect the interviewer’s time. When introductions are made at an interview, be sure to make eye contact, give a firm handshake, and address the interviewer by name.

“It goes without saying that there’s never a second chance at first impressions, so appearance and friendliness must always be tops,” said Robert Gramann, RPR, President of Gramann Reporting & Videoconferencing, in Milwaukee, Minn.

During the interview, convey that you are willing to go the extra mile to keep attorneys loyal to the company you represent. Demonstrate flexibility and a cooperative attitude. Be yourself. Try to relax and enjoy learning about the job opportunity, expectations, and the people employed there.

Focus on what the interviewer asks and then be concise but thorough when answering. If it helps to illustrate your skills, provide an example of the work you have done. Be honest. If you don’t have a particular skill, just state that and follow up with your intentions of future plans to gain the necessary skill set. Research the firm before your interview. During the interview, ask great questions to show that you are familiar with the company and the specific position for which you are applying.

Bring a copy of your résumé to an interview along with two or three business references and their contact information, and be prepared to leave this information with the interviewer. Also, be sure to make contact with your references in advance to tell them you are interviewing and with which firms so they are prepared and not caught off guard.

Finally, ask the interviewer for their business card. Their business card will help you remember their name, provide the correct spelling of their name, and list their street and email addresses. This is all crucial information you will need when you send a thank-you note.

Interview follow-up

Follow up any interview with an email or hand-written thank-you note to each person with whom you interviewed. Since many people don’t follow an interview with a thank-you note, doing so makes you stand out from the crowd and can help reinforce that you’re a strong candidate. A thank-you note shows good business etiquette and reinforces your interest in the position.

A thank-you note can also be used to address any issues or concerns that came up during the interview. Briefly thank the interviewer for their time, restate why you want the job, and write something about how you intend to make a contribution to the firm. If you interviewed with several people, add something specific about that interviewer, making each note unique. Keep it short and simple — a couple of paragraphs is adequate — and make sure to proofread the note before sending it out. Try to send your thank-you note that evening so the interviewer will receive it the next day. If that is not possible, make sure to send it within 24 hours of the interview.

Even if you feel a particular job is not for you, follow up with a thank-you note. Potential employers will remember you and may call you back for another position or recommend you to another firm.

Networking

Personal contacts are invaluable when it comes to getting noticed. It is often said it is not what you know, but who you know. It is never too early to begin networking. Networking is all about building relationships. It goes without saying the more time you have to network, the larger your network is going to be and the greater the potential for launching your career. Networking is an investment in your career and your future. Start networking while you are still in school. One of the best places to network is at your state association events and NCRA conventions. What better place to meet prospective employers? “I’ve found lots of work because of contacts I have made there,” said Joshua Foley, a recent graduate of College of Court Reporting, in Hobart, Ind.

Social Media

Social media sites such as LinkedIn are also a great place to network. Join and actively participate in court reporting forums and other career-related sites. Social media can be used as a tool to promote yourself by connecting to sites like a company’s LinkedIn page. “Social media is like many other forms of advertising. If your name keeps popping up in different but related reporting venues, your chances of obtaining a reporting position increase,” said Gramann.

Make sure to recognize, however, that social media has the potential to make or break your career. Social media should focus on activities and endeavors that show good judgment. Many employers check social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to learn more about potential candidates, so consider social media sites as part of your résumé.

Advice from seasoned professionals

Use your spare time to increase your writing speed. “Extra speed is like money in the bank. Become an expert at using your CAT software by signing up for training, attending webinars, viewing tutorials, and reading the manual,” said Gramann.

In addition, be willing to contact all the major firms in your area and ask to be put on their overflow list. “Take whatever job is offered to you and exceed production expectations,” advises Valerie Seaton, RPR, CCR, president of Moburg, Seaton & Watkins, in Seattle, Wash.

Alley has this final piece of advice for getting yourself recognized and remembered,“ You need a twist — something that makes you unique and attractive to your ideal employer. Training new reporters is a lot of work; give the employer a good reason why they should be willing to invest in you. If you want the job, ask for it.”

Student Report: What brand-new court reporters need to know

Looking back 32 years ago when I started, the answer to what basic equipment was necessary for a new reporter was easy: Machine, paper, ink, dictaphone, an IBM electric typewriter equipped with what we called the court reporter ball, more paper, and carbon paper.

We have come a long way in that time period. Now the premise is all CAT, all realtime — or should be with brand-new reporters — and wireless technology. My list is going to be twofold: first the bare necessities, and second, what you need if you want to excel.

The bare necessities

  • The court reporter model writer. A student writer just isn’t going to be able to do the job.
  • The court reporter version of your CAT software. Again, the student version won’t cut the mustard, and most CAT companies won’t let you stay on it the first time you renew after school.
  • A good notebook computer. Notice I didn’t say expensive. You can buy a fullsized, no frills, yet completely acceptable notebook for under $400.
  • A good wheelie carrying case. Save your back from the start.

The above, except for the computer, can be purchased through your CAT vendor for a realistic monthly payment.

What you need to excel

  • More dictation material! You need to pass the RPR, so get the dictation material you need, and get the prep pamphlets for the Written Knowledge Test. Because you can earn the RPR in legs, there is no excuse for not taking and passing it as you are ready.
  • Get Wi-Fi for yourself on your jobs. You can tether your smartphone to your computer using tether.com, or you can often share your Wi-Fi connection with your phone if you have a data plan. I use a Mifi. It’s $50 a month, and I can share 10 connections if I wish. But you need Wi-Fi to quickly look up terms you’re not sure of on your breaks.
  • Searchmaster. You can look up tons and tons of information with cool word searches and also search your past transcripts for names or terms. You can get it from Eclipse, Pengad, or gosearchmaster. com.
  • A scopist. The number one problem most court reporters face when they get out of school is knowing how to put the page together. Unfortunately, the formatting can change from state to state, from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and even from court to court. The better you understand how it’s supposed to look on the page, the easier it will be to write what you need to on the machine to make it look that way. Scopists are an invaluable tool in helping you see the page like it should be, and they can help you build your dictionary. Find a good one and you can develop a partnership that will last for years. Oh, yeah. Pay them right away. Even if it means tightening up on your grocery money. You can find scopists at Scopists.com, in your CAT specific forums, or through NCRA’s Online Sourcebook.
  • Cabling for realtime. You need to learn how to hook up someone else to your computer, whether you’re ready for it or not. You want to know a secret? Nobody feels ready for it the first time. It’s like writing naked in a sandstorm. Raw, gritty, and very exposed. But we all had to do it, we all did it, and we all got past it. As with learning to write, practicing is important. By practicing, you keep getting better. No one wants to pay you for something that they could have understood better and made better notes in longhand.
  • Copies of the notices for the job you’re taking. You can glean items for your job dictionary from there. For example, look for the city, state, and jurisdiction of the case. Get the case name in full, including first and last names of the parties, the attorneys, their law firms, and addresses. Look up the name of the deponent online; e.g., looking up physicians can get you a pretty good idea what kind of medicine they’ll be talking about. Preload your job file with briefs or names. Your depos will be half done before you start.

Dress for success

Guys, wear a suit. The most casual you should let yourself be is a sport coat, tie, and khakis. I know the attorneys are showing up sans tie. You aren’t an attorney. This is your workplace, and you need to dress appropriately. Don’t overdo it, though. What your wife or girlfriend might love to see on a formal date shouldn’t be worn in a deposition suite. You might get a reputation as a dandy. Yes, I know that’s a dated word. It still applies. Look it up.

Ladies, the courtroom is not a place for cleavage. Wear nice suits or pantsuits. The skirts need to be at the knee, not above the rear. You need to have a professional look. I’ve seen what some think passes for a professional look. It does — just not our profession.

CRR, RMR, RSA, LMNOP

After you get your RPR, don’t stop. Test-taking is habit-forming. Not taking tests is an evil addiction. It means you’re stalled and stagnant. So keep up the practice. You never stop learning.

You need to be well-rounded. Read the news daily on an Internet site of your choosing. Television is all well and good, but you’re not going to get the spellings out of the air. I guarantee they will talk about what’s currently in the news in your depositions, even in discussions that are not on the record. If you want to be seen as competent, don’t give the glassy-eyed answer to a question on current events.

To be confident, you have to give the appearance of being competent. Despite all the technology we use, this profession of ours is people-driven. If your clients don’t see you, if they don’t get to know you, if they don’t trust you, your tenure will be short-lived.

Remember, practice, practice, take tests, and become one of the members of the top echelon of court reporters so that you can compete with the big dogs and win.