If you are reading this article from your computer, smart phone, or tablet, please keep in mind that the technology you hold in your hands was almost branded as “too dangerous” to be used. In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie were the pioneers in wiring the first homes in America with electricity, replacing kerosene lamps as America’s primary light source. While Edison and Carnegie were embarking upon this venture, John D. Rockefeller was deeply troubled. Rockefeller’s company, Standard Oil, sold kerosene to every American home. If electricity caught on, then Rockefeller’s kerosene fortune would disappear. Rockefeller spent millions of dollars trying to convince Americans that electric lighting would electrocute their children. Thankfully, Rockefeller’s efforts were for naught and the new technology was safely adopted. The lesson is simple: people will often oppose the advance of technology when it is more profitable for them to avoid change.
Today, the court reporting industry finds itself at a similar crossroads. The “Edisons” of the industry have developed and implemented digital court reporting equipment. This equipment uses sophisticated multi-channel audio recording equipment (with redundant back-up systems) to capture and annotate the audio from the deposition. Digital reporters also use specialized software that allows them to replay any question or testimony instantly. On the other side of the aisle, the “Rockefellers” of the court reporting industry are the stenographers who refuse to incorporate digital technology into their systems. Rather than capturing the audio, these stenographers attempt to type all of the testimony in short-hand. Some stenographers, on the other hand, are embracing digital advances.
Why the Initial Transition to Digital?
Before I dive into an article about the advantages of digital court reporting, I should make it clear that I am a proud stenographic court reporter. My company employs nearly a dozen stenographic reporters. As I have written in other forums, stenographers can provide certain services that a digital cannot. For example, I can transcribe your deposition in realtime. That is, I can type the words that you speak as you speak them and thereby allow you to read your transcript as it is spoken. This is a premium service that many lawyers do not need in their day-to-day depositions.
Stenography evolved before the digital age in a time when there was no reliable recording equipment, let alone speech-recognition technology. The goal of the stenographer was to type every spoken work in a short-hand code that would allow them to type quickly. Stenographers must go through two to four years of court reporting school in order to build up their speed. In other words, it takes years to develop the muscle memory that will allow you to quickly type in shorthand. Sadly, there are no longer many people who have the patience to learn this second language. As a result, every court reporting school in Kentucky has gone out of business. The next closest court reporting school was located in Cincinnati, Ohio. Its last class was made up of two students (we hired both of them). We then learned that the Cincinnati school was also closing its doors to stenographers. Thus, the first steps toward a digital approach were taken out of necessity as the stenography schools closed.
Google Weighs in on Court Reporting
Last April, a stenographer named Rosalie Kramm had the opportunity to meet with Sergey Brin, the President of Google. Rosalie recalled that Sergey’s first statement was “I have always wondered how you guys do it.” We get that a lot, as we are pretty amazing. His second comment, after watching stenography in action, was “There must be a more efficient way to do this.” Stenography is not easy. It takes years to learn and it is a physically and mentally challenging career.
My contention is that digital court reporting is not superior to stenography, but it is much more efficient. As discussed below, digital reporters can effectively transcribe multiple speakers at the same time. Digital reporters can also annotate the record as it is being taken. In other words, a digital reporter can make notes about what is being said while the deposition proceeds. This allows the reporter to make notes about word spellings to follow up on later without interrupting you. Most importantly, digital reporters rely on a team of support specialists. You may only see the digital reporter during your deposition, but the record can be streamed to transcriptionists and proofreaders who can begin producing your transcript immediately. Each portion of the process becomes specialized, much like the production approaches implemented by Henry Ford (another innovator). This allows a digital transcript to be produced faster and at a lower cost than traditional stenography (without compromising quality).
Who Is in Control of a Deposition?
Seems like a simple question; right? Of course, you, the attorney, should control a deposition! It is your opportunity to discover your opponent’s testimony and to expose weaknesses in their case. An attorney may spend over an hour leading a witness to one critical question or “gotcha” moment. Imagine if your court reporter interrupted you right as you got to that moment. It could ruin your whole deposition. Shockingly, the President of the Kentucky Court Reporters Association recently said that “A court reporter controls the proceedings” during a deposition. Her justification for taking over your deposition was her stated need for stenographers to interrupt attorneys when they are talking over one another or using confusing words. As an example, she said that a stenographer might have difficulty understanding whether a witness said “thecal sac” or “fecal sac.” Any moderately trained court reporter who is actually listening to the context of your deposition will know that a spine surgeon, or anyone discussing a spinal injury, is referencing a “thecal sac.” A “fecal sac,” on the other hand, is something you would only use in the discussion of birds. (You have probably noticed that we humans do not have fecal sacs). If your court reporter is interrupting you with such basic terminology questions, then you have an inexperienced reporter (or one that is not listening), regardless of what type of equipment they are using.
A digital reporter has multiple independent channels of audio recording. This means that a digital court reporter never needs to interrupt the attorneys. After all, it is your deposition! Her audio can be downloaded to the Cloud in realtime (and saved to her laptop). As long as the digital reporter monitors her equipment, the record is guaranteed. Some stenographers claim that they are “typing” the record and creating something more tangible and, therefore, more secure. However, very few stenographers actually type to paper. Instead, the stenographer’s key strokes are saved on a digital computer file. If a stenographer’s digital file is corrupted or lost, then no record of the deposition will exist. In other words, the same risks faced by a digital reporter are inherent in the equipment used by stenographic reporters.
The Education of Digital Reporters
I recently read one stenographer’s claim that digital court reporters have only “a few hours training” and have “little to no experience in producing a written transcript.” That would be news to me and the digital court reporters that I know. Our reporters go through an extensive training process, which involves training on digital equipment, learning deposition practice standards, learning the applicable rules of civil procedure, apprenticing with another reporter, and practicing their skills on previously recorded video depositions. Look, just like every lawyer has to try their first case, every court reporter has to take their first deposition. That said, our digital reporters have been immersed in depositions and practice depositions before they ever set foot in a real deposition. Frankly, we employ the same training for new stenographers. Many stenographers graduate from court reporting school without ever seeing an actual deposition!
A typical digital court reporter is someone a lot like Keira Polywka. Keira is a digital reporter who I enjoy working with at Kentuckiana Reporters. She has a degree in Legal Transcription from the U.S. Career Institute and served as a proofreader for a past President of the National Court Reporters Association (NCRA). Yes, the same person that the President of the NCRA trusted to proofread her transcripts is who we now trust as a reporter. Digital reporters like Keira are well trained, highly educated, and act as professionals. The notion that a digital reporter has “no experience” is simply inaccurate.
It is possible that someone out there is trying to run a business with untrained and/or ill-equipped reporters. If so, they will not last long. Attorneys are intelligent consumers and would quickly stop using any reporter who did a poor job. Questions of training and competency have nothing to do with the type of equipment used by the reporter. Our company, for example, takes nearly 3000 depositions per year. We have found that most attorneys cannot distinguish between the two types of reporter and many favor the digital approach. The point is to offer the consumer as many options as possible.
Please keep in mind that the point of this article is not to undermine the stenography profession. Stenographers are an effective and accurate means of maintaining the record. The point is simply that their equipment and practice is susceptible to the same potential problems of digital reporters. The question for attorneys should not be one of digital versus stenographic but should instead be: do I have a good reporter? Assess your needs and preferences and choose a reporter accordingly.
Kentuckiana Court Reporters employs both stenographers and digital reporters. Both have unique skills and both provide accurate transcripts. Only a stenographer can provide realtime reporting; only a digital can record multiple speakers simultaneously without interruption. The legal community should embrace both forms of reporting without caving into scare tactics about potentially losing a record. People who are disparaging digital reporting are doing so in order to control the market and increase the cost of court reporting.
We are all fortunate that John Rockefeller’s attempt to frighten Americans into using kerosene instead of electricity failed. Likewise, let us hope that a few stenographers will not scare the legal community into creating an artificial divide among court reporters just because they use different equipment. Historically, innovation has been great for America, and I would encourage attorneys to continue to seek innovative solutions to their unique problems.