Court Reporter  What They Do

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dotCourt reporters have the important task of recording all spoken testimony in legal proceedings, such as trials or pre-trial hearings. Every word spoken must be registered and recorded.

dotThis can be a very challenging task, especially when you consider that most people speak at a rate of about 250 to 300 words per minute. Since no one could possibly type or take shorthand that quickly, court reporters use a machine that combines the advantages of a typewriter and shorthand -- the stenotype machine.

dotStenotype machines have 24 keys, each of which represents a different sound, word or phrase. After the proceedings, these symbols are interpreted and transcribed (put into words) by the court reporter. Traditionally, this process has been done manually, but technology has lent a helping hand.

Court reporters can now use computers that transcribe the symbols from the stenotype machine into English almost instantaneously or in real time, as it is called. This is known as computer-aided transcription.

Educational programs approved by the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA) require students to capture at least 225 words per minute. Court reporters in the federal government generally must capture at least 205 words a minute.

dotThe records of a legal proceeding, taken by a court reporter, are known as legal transcripts. Attorneys may use legal transcripts in appeals (second trials on the same case), as reference material or to show legal precedent (decisions made in courts, which can affect future decisions on similar cases).

Attention to detail is therefore essential in the court reporter's work. One missed word in a transcript can affect the outcome of a legal case.

dotCourt reporters need to have good grammar and punctuation skills. For obvious reasons, they must also have excellent hearing and concentration ability. "You have to be accurate and alert at all times," says court reporter Lance Beard. "It doesn't matter what kind of day you're having."

dotCourt reporters witness a variety of court proceedings -- from custody hearings to murder trails. Regardless of what's going on in the courtroom, they have to remain detached and focused on the task.

dotAlthough a court reporter is expected to remain detached from cases, a basic knowledge of the law and legal terms is important.

"Knowledge of civil procedures, litigation procedures and laws relating to court reporter conduct are very important," says court reporter Elaine Rock. "If you don't understand the terms, it makes it hard to keep up with the proceedings."

dotCourt reporters are employed in a number of different settings. For example, they could work for local or federal governments, where they focus purely on courtroom transcription.

Or they could be freelancers, accepting assignments ranging from transcribing court proceedings to transcribing proceedings at meetings.

dotThese workers may also provide closed captioning services. "My company does everything from providing closed captioning for [a sports news program] to the...legislature, as well as working one-on-one with deaf students in classroom lectures," says court reporter Valerie Waite.

Waite is an example of a new breed of court reporter. She is embracing work in non-legal settings as a way to offset the decline in the number of court reporters required for courtroom transcription.

dotOutside the halls of justice, more people with court reporting skills are needed to provide closed captioning (text of spoken words that is displayed on a screen) and communication services for people who are deaf.

dotChanges in technology are having a big effect on the job. New transcription and computerized stenotype machines have made the job less labor-intensive, allowing reporters more time to concentrate on the legal proceedings at hand.

dotThe biggest threat to a court reporter's position is voice recognition software. This experimental technology promises immediate translation of spoken testimony via a computer. But the technology is still in its early stages and isn't widely used.

"These systems have a hard time with ungrammatical speech, incomplete sentences and multiple speakers," says Martha Reifschneider of the National Court Reporters Association. "It's hard to say when the technology will be there....Right now, it's not quite ready."

However, Reifschneider does stress that advances in technology don't have to sound the death knell for court reporters.

"Court reporters will be working in partnership with this new technology, because someone will still have to be responsible for what happens to that text after it's taken down by a computer," she says.

dotFull-time court reporters usually work 37 to 40 hours a week, but the hours can be longer if legal proceedings go overtime. Hours for freelance court reporters, who are paid for each page of transcript they produce, depend on the number and the type of work contracts they receive.

Just the Facts

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At a Glance

Record all spoken testimony in legal proceedings

  • Many court reporters work as closed captioners or medical transcriptionists
  • Technology is playing an increasing role in this job
  • A high school diploma and college court reporter training are needed